Recently the EU planned to commit to new greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals – 20% (compared with 1990) in 2020, 30% in 2030, 60% in 2040, 80-95% in 2050. Out of the 27 member states, only one refused to support this initiative – it was Poland. Its government argued that the goals cannot be possibly reached in a country where 95% of power generation comes from coal power stations. Furthermore, another argument was that EU-wide commitments are futile as long as the big polluters – United States, China, India etc. – don’t make binding commitments as well. However, in both cases the Polish government seems to have overlooked important issues.
With reagard to the first argument, i.e. Poland’s dependence on coal – it is true that by now almost all electricity in the country is generated by burning coal. However, this need not remain so. Polish coal power stations are terribly old (so is its power grid, too). Whatever the particular strategy, Poland has to fundamentally restructure its whole power generation system – otherwise it will break down sooner or later. So, whereas there are hardly any renewables in the electricity mix now – if not now, then when should the country make the switch? It will have to replace most of its power stations, along with large parts of the grid, either. This means that Poland has a unique opportunity to consciously transform its power generation system from fossil fuels to emission-less technologies. Committing to do so within an EU-wide plan would be an additional incentive to do it right.
What about the big polluters not taking part in any meaningful commitment effort? This is a tragedy, certainly. But in such lock-in situations more often than not there is a need for somebody to go ahead. China, the US, India and others have been complaining that internationally binding commitments would harm their (short-term) economic competitiveness. By going ahead, the EU would both have the possibility to show its good will as a major economic player and to provide examples of how the transition to a low-carbon economy can proceed without too much harm to the economy.
In the end, every government in the world must realize that while protecting the climate may bring some trouble in the short term, their refusal to do anything meaningful puts the whole globe (including themselves) at danger of an environmental and economic disaster. This is equally true for Poland, Germany, China and any other country in this world. The longer we wait and hide behind the short-sighted shield of “competitiveness”, the smaller are our chances to keep the climate system within a trajectory we can deal with.