This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
There is a ghost hanging over the COP24 climate talks this week in the small town of Katowice, Poland. It is not the report that refers to the target published two months ago by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which states that warming must be limited to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (instead of 3.6 degrees). It is not the conspicuous absence of prominent American politicians – with the exception of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used his parachute to boast about his four low-emission Hummers in a Terminator style. (Wait, what?)
No, the cloud over COP24 is coal dust. Literally. From the naval conference center, chimneys and carbon springs are visible, and the Wujek coal mine is less than five kilometers away. And if you thought that Poland would try to downplay its historical (and up-to-date) confidence in coal, you would be wrong: The stand for the city of Katowice, which sits right next to the official place for all Poland, proudly advertises coal. And not just a bit of coal ̵
This is no coincidence. The host city is located in the heart of the Polish region of Silesia, which is located on a lucrative coal deposit. A Katowice runner explains that everyone has a connection to coal: a family member or a friend who either worked in the mines or supported the industry in other ways. Coal is not just an energy source in Katowice – it's a way of life.
Mikhail Kurtyka, President of COP24, Secretary of State in the Polish Ministry of Energy, argued in his opening remarks that bringing the climate summit to Katowice was a strategic decision: to exhibit a city and a region that needed the transition from their elixir of life. "How can you tell a region of 5 million people – in over 70 cities in the region – that their world is different from the past?" He asked the assembled dignitaries.
It is a rhetorical question known on the Internet The United States, where coal mining has declined relatively steadily since the 1980s. While coal in the US now accounts for 30 percent of power generation, mainly due to falling natural gas prices, coal still accounts for nearly 80 percent of Poland's output. And the government plans to build more facilities.
"Every government in Poland is coal, coal," said Monika Sadkowska, a Warsaw-based climate activist, to Grist. "The only strong union in Poland is mining. And every government is afraid of them.
Even as the IPCC stated in its October report that by the middle of the turn of the century coal must be almost completely stopped so that global average temperatures do not exceed 2.7 degrees Celsius, Polish President Andrzej Duda hesitated to give it up , "According to experts, we have coal deposits with a lifetime of 200 years," he said at a press conference on Monday. "It's hard to expect us to give it all up."
Instead, the Polish government is promoting "carbon-neutral" ways to mine and burn coal. In a brochure distributed at the Polish country estate, the delegation is promoting "charcoal farms" or tree planting projects that will "allow even more CO2 to be absorbed" from the country's massive coal plants.
In a press conference, Robert Cyglicki, the director of Greenpeace for Central and Eastern Europe, voiced the scientific reality of such a project. "A coal-fired power plant, Bełchatów, emits more annually than any Polish forest can absorb," he said of the world's largest lignite-burning plant. Yes, forests are great carbon sinks. But they are not comparable to all Poland's old, dirty coal-fired power plants.
And while Poland has begun to spread the gospel of coal at COP24, the US is ready to join the chorus. At last year's COP23 in Bonn, the Trump government held a coal-related side event interrupted by young demonstrators. There is a similar gathering in the works this year, and it is reported that the US delegation is likely to press for coal to be included in any future global energy mix.
In the midst of the appearance of heavy coal, this year's conference has attracted the attention of the plight of workers whose livelihoods are changing in the wake of an energy transition. Recent protests against the "yellow vest" in France have been the answer to an increased fuel tax, and populism, which is spreading throughout Europe, is ubiquitous at COP24.
In Katowice most delegates demand a "just transition" – a shift of energy sources does not leave the society's most vulnerable society. Just as Trump has promised to save the coal industry, Poland's leaders promise to provide livelihoods for their compatriots currently working in their mines and coal-fired power plants.
Piotr Trzaskowski, the 350.org organizer of Poland, says: Only the transition is a conversation in Poland. Coal is king here, and as President Duda suggested, Polish officials are unlikely to give it up. "Their vision is to make it stay, but it just needs to be adjusted here and there," he told Grist.
Meanwhile, developing country representatives may be less concerned about what happens to fossil fuel workers today than about climate change. The worst effects are still on the horizon.
"Small islands feel like the conversation about a just transition takes place only towards workers who might lose their jobs," said Anpella Rosemberg, International Program Director, Greenpeace. "They say," What about us? Yes, they will lose jobs, but we will decline. "Just transition is 1.5 degrees Celsius for them."
But even dreaming to avert 2.7 degrees Celsius will drain coal – and coal workers' jobs – quickly.
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