The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coal is still king in Poland, where world leaders gather to confront ‘climate catastrophe’

A coal miner monitors a juncture between conveyor belts moving coal approximately 1,000 meters below the surface at the KWK Pniowek coal mine on Nov. 30 in Pawlowice. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

PAWLOWICE, Poland — A half-mile underground, in a claustrophobe’s bad dream of dark, gassy tunnels choked with black dust, Piotr Grabon grinned as he watched the conveyor belts loaded with glistening coal hurtle toward the Earth’s surface.

“Black gold!” he shouted above the clanking machinery, as work crews, covered in gray sweat, clawed away at the rich seams.

For centuries, from the start of Europe’s industrial revolution, through war and peace, and the long years of communist rule, coal was king in Poland. It was the land’s precious and bountiful gift — and Polish miners were the nation’s working-class heroes.

But the world now looks askance at coal. It is as ubiquitous as it is dirty, and burning it for power releases — more than any other fuel source — the miasma of the greenhouse gases warming the planet.

Encircled by coal mines, representatives from around the world are gathered now in nearby Katowice, Poland, for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where countries will argue over the ambitious goals required to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

As scientists warn of the catastrophe of ongoing temperature rise, experts are beginning to acknowledge a “dark realism” that, try as the world might — and there have been remarkable advances in the deployment of green technologies — the unprecedented scale of the transformation needed is proving too great. 

The same experts warn this is especially true in a world where leaders such as President Trump, a coal booster, continue to doubt the science behind climate change and where countries resist moving away from coal because of potential costs to jobs and economies.

On the sidelines of United Nations climate talks in Poland, British naturalist David Attenborough said he hopes to see changes in U.S. policy on climate change. (Video: Reuters)

In the United States, coal use has been steadily shrinking, reaching its lowest level in almost 40 years. But coal has no better friend than Trump, who sees it as a vital domestic fuel source and a job provider. His administration has pushed to reverse Obama-era pollution standards for coal-fired power plants, as well as to ease caps on carbon, mercury and ash emissions generated by coal. 

Critics of Trump’s stance on climate change and coal say it gives cover to other nations to continue to exploit the fuel source. That is certainly so in Poland, where Trump is popular in coal country.

“There is no strategy to fully phase out coal in Poland today,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said at the climate conference Monday. “We have supplies for 200 years, and it would be difficult for us to give up coal — thanks to which we have energy sovereignty.”

Poland’s coal industry is on full display at the climate conference, with exhibitors showing off lumps of coal and miners greeting attendees, alongside promises of “clean coal” technologies.

The Polish government recently announced a 2040 energy plan that calls for continued use of coal, augmented by the introduction of nuclear power, to limit its greenhouse gas emissions.

This stubborn — and understandable — reliance on cheap, indigenous, plentiful coal shows how hard transforming national energy policies can be, even in relatively rich, socially conscious Europe, where state-supported industries and already high taxes make new choices politically costly.

In the powerhouse of Germany, efforts to meet its ambitious 2020 goals for carbon emissions have stalled, in part because of resistance from automakers. 

While Germany is investing billions of dollars in renewable energy, especially wind and solar, it remains wedded to coal to generate electricity at periods of peak demand, especially now, as the country moves to decommission its 17 nuclear power plants in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in Japan.

Meanwhile, climate negotiators heading to the U.N. meeting watched with growing anxiety as riots erupted in the heart of Paris in recent weeks, sparked by citizens opposed to higher greenhouse-gas taxes on their diesel.

Pollsters found that 70 to 80 percent of the French sympathize with the statement that environmentalist president Emmanuel Macron “talks about the end of the world while we are talking about the end of the month.” Macron reversed himself Tuesday and delayed his carbon tax.

Here in southern Poland, coal is a part of daily life. The Silesian region is basically Europe’s West Virginia, sitting atop the largest coal deposits in the European Union. This bounty fueled the steel, heavy machinery and shipbuilding industries. During the communist era, coal was Poland’s leading export. It kept food on the table.

Some people still burn coal to heat their homes here — and it shows. The air above Katowice is the smoggiest in Poland. The haze stings your eyes. There are smoke stacks and towering hills built with a century of coal waste. It is so unhealthy in some towns that locals have begun to sue the government, a once inconceivable confrontation.

More than 80 percent of Poland’s electricity is generated by burning coal, the highest percentage in Europe.

Moving away from coal and closing mines means finding new work for miners, whose unions still hold outsize political power, even as the number of miners has steadily declined.

Since the fall of communism, employment in the Polish coal mining industry has decreased from 400,000 to around 100,000.

Poland’s coal industry has been plagued by a history of state ownership, crony capitalism, unions owning subsidiaries and political decision-making.

The Pniowek Mine here employs 3,900 miners to work underground in a 24-hour day, digging for what they boast is some of the best coke coal in the world, used not for electricity or heat, but to manufacture steel. Other mines nearby owned by the same company, JSW, extract thermal coal to burn as fuel.

As the workers descend into the depths, a honeycomb of 60 miles of tunnel, they cross themselves before shrines dedicated to the patron of miners, Saint Barbara. When they pass one another in the tunnels, they never say “good morning,” which is bad luck, but “God bless.” 

“Miners are tough guys. The people who work underground are like the military: You must have discipline and order; there is no mercy if you make a mistake,” said Grabon, 47, a safety engineer at the Pniowek Mine and a member of the company’s rescue team.

Like many miners here, Grabon’s father and grandfather worked underground, as does his son now. It is a job that demands respect. In Poland, miners still swagger.

“If you’re conservative, like tradition, it is the most prestigious work,” said Marcin Kaczmarczyk, 33, who was working “the wall,” where a drill the size of a dining room table saws off slices of coal. It is the dirtiest, most dangerous and best-paying job in the mine.

Miners are celebrated on a special holiday, when they dress in uniforms bedecked with medals and plumes, and feast on pig’s knuckles and beer. They are well remunerated and can retire after 25 years underground, still in their 40s with secure pensions.

The miners say they are worth it. The work is dangerous. Methane levels must be constantly monitored. The miners don special garb to avoid the slightest chance of a spark of static electricity. In the tunnels, the earth above is constantly shifting and buckling. In May, five people died in a neighboring mine after a tremor: two were drowned, two were crushed by timbers, and one was cut in half. Grabon was part of the rescue effort. 

“As individuals, miners know they can’t change the world,” he said. Climate change is for the rich countries to sort out, he said. Coal should stay king. “What bothers us is closing the mines.” 

Michal Wilczynski is a geologist, energy analyst and former government adviser. He says coal’s days are numbered in Poland — not just because of Europe’s drive to reduce carbon emissions, but because the industry is old-fashioned and barely profitable. The government needs to live in the future, he said, not the past. 

Despite the Polish president’s boast of there being enough coal for another 200 years of mining, government estimates suggest 50 years of reserves are available. “In my studies, optimistically, it’s 30 years, maybe even 25 years,” said Wilczynski, before supplies are exhausted. He points out the average coal-fired electricity plant in Poland is 40 years old.

Each year, Poland imports more coal to run its power plants, in part because the prices of imports — from Russia, China, India — can be lower than the costs of producing domestic coal.

“The government is afraid of miners,” Wilczynski said. Meaning it is afraid to close unproductive mines and start the wholesale transition to renewable energy that Germany, Britain and other E.U. countries have begun.

Rafal Zasun is the founder and editor in chief of High Voltage, a news site dedicated to tracking Poland’s energy sector. He remembers when he was a boy, his teachers on Saint Barbara’s Day, Dec. 4, would ask the children to recite the reasons coal was so important to Poland.

“Miners were gods,” he said.

And he respects the tradition, too. “People who say we can just quit coal overnight are not realists. It took 30 years to transition in Britain. It will take the same in Germany. In Poland, this should be done gradually, with support from the European Union.”

He said Poland is an industrial nation that should be at the cutting edge of technology. “We have skilled and dynamic engineers, managers, technologists, a young generation who has no emotion about coal. They see a smoke stack; they don’t see power. They see asthma. They see greenhouse gases.”

He said, “There’s an awareness of climate change, yes. But Poles don’t want to pay for it yet.”

Russia’s Suez Canal? Ships start plying a less icy Arctic, thanks to climate change

‘We are in trouble.’ Global carbon emissions reached a record high in 2018.

Why the climate change problem is starting to look too big to solve

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news