Poland reflects on its addiction to coal

Almost 90 percent of the country’s electricity comes from the burning of coal, but can it be kinder to the environment?

To get to the coalface of Boleslaw Smialy mine, you take a lift deep beneath the ground, then ride a narrow-gauge train into the heart of the mountian. It get hotter and louder. As you near the coalface, 500 metres beneath the surface, dust fills the air. Coal has been cut from the mine for the last 234 years and it has employed generations of miners.

“Coal is my life,” miner Krzysztof Zurawski tells me. “I came here to mine coal and have worked all my life as a miner. Coal is everything to me.”

As we film, a small section of the roof where the miners are working falls in. They scramble to sure up the shaft. Mining remains a hard and dangerous physical job.

And coal remains at the heart of Poland’s energy needs. Almost 90 percent of its electricty comes from the burning of coal and, with reserves of more than 17 billion tonnes, at current rates it will stay that way for years to come.

But Poland is researching new and cleaner ways of burning coal. We visit a $60 million dollar test centre, funded by the European Union. Glowny Instytut Gornictwa reseracher Jerzy Swiadrowski has spent his life looking for ways of extracting gas from coal without needing to take it out of the ground. He tells me the new technology promises to be much cleaner and more effecient than current techniques.

“Here in Poland we will start piloting this istallation and I believe within five to seven years this technology could play a clear role in our overall coal output,” Swiadrowski says.

But the new technology still relies on the burning of coal, and man-made emissions of carbon dioxide continue to drive climate change. That’s why activists I’ve spoken to have described Poland’s ambitions for COP19 as “embarrassingly low”. They say its climate and energy policy is being driven by the interests of fossil fuel companies, and not by what is good for the planet and good for humanity.

The real test comes in the days ahead, when the results of two weeks of meeting must be brought together and the outcome of another round of UN climate talks becomes known.

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