Fight the power: why climate activists are suing Europe’s biggest coal plant

Future of Poland’s Bełchatów power station under scrutiny as grassroots groups and NGOs take radical action

It is Europe’s biggest coal plant, with annual CO2 emissions roughly equivalent to those of the whole of New Zealand – but the future of the Bełchatów power station in central Poland has been called into question after a global environmental charity announced a legal challenge designed to eliminate the facility’s carbon footprint by 2035.

ClientEarth, an international NGO that seeks to protect the environment through legal action, announced on Thursday that it was taking PGE GiEK, a subsidiary of Polish state-owned power giant Polska Grupa Energetyczna, to court over emissions at the Bełchatów plant, which is notorious for its burning of highly polluting lignite, or brown coal.

The lawsuit, filed at the district court in the central city of Łódź, demands that the plant’s operators stop burning lignite, or take measures to eliminate the plant’s carbon emissions, by 2035 at the latest.

Marcin Stoczkiewicz, the head of central and eastern Europe at ClientEarth, said: “The Bełchatów power plant has provided Poland with vital power for decades, but times have changed. The largest emitters, like Bełchatów, must shoulder their share of responsibility for the climate crisis. Without a rapid coal phase-out, the climate fight will be futile.”

The Bełchatów plant burns approximately 45m tonnes of coal each year, and has emitted approximately 1bn tonnes of CO2 over the course of its lifetime.

Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, says it would be difficult for the country not to use its coal supplies. Photograph: Frank Franklin II/AP

ClientEarth is also challenging the operation of two neighbouring opencast mines, arguing that lignite mining causes significant disturbance to groundwater levels and releases toxic heavy metals into surrounding water and soil.

The charity, which was the beneficiary this year of a $21m (£17m) donation from the Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, has taken successful legal action in Poland before, after the country’s supreme administrative court blocked the construction of a new coal plant in the northern region of Pomerania in June.

The victory was emblematic of how climate activism in Poland is growing and changing, with grassroots local activists teaming up with larger NGOs including ClientEarth to exert pressure on the government and private and state-owned energy companies.

In August, a ruling by the district court in the north-western city of Poznań raised questions about the future of another coal plant, at Ostrołęka in the north-east.

Poland has the highest domestic coal production in Europe, with approximately 80% of its energy derived from the burning of coal. While an increasing proportion of the coal burned in Poland is imported from elsewhere, such as Russia, its rightwing leadership portrays the fossil fuel as a guarantor of the country’s energy security and future economic growth.

“There is no plan today to fully give up on coal,” Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said in the run-up to the UN climate talks in December. The event was held in Katowice, in the south-western region of Silesia, the centre of the Polish coal industry. “Experts point out that our supplies run for another 200 years, and it would be hard not to use them,” he added.

On Wednesday, another state-owned company opened a new coking coalmine in Jastrzębie-Zdrój, near Poland’s border with the Czech Republic, in a ceremony attended by the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. It was the first coalmine to be opened in Poland since 1994.

On the same day, Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice party announced plans to pass legislation allowing the government to build coalmines without the need to secure the approval of local authorities.

Greenpeace protesters on the roof of the economy ministry in Warsaw, Poland.
Greenpeace protesters on the roof of the economy ministry in Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Radek Pietruszka/EPA

The energy minister, Krzysztof Tchórzewski, told reporters at the opening of the mine at Jastrzębie-Zdrój: “This special legislation being prepared by lawmakers is related to the fact that local authorities are not interested in new mines being built in their areas, while we will need new coal deposits to secure supplies for the energy industry.”

Tchorzewski said the legislation would facilitate the development by Polska Grupa Energetyczna of a new lignite open-pit mine at Złoczew, not far from Bełchatów.

The Polish government’s continuing enthusiasm for coal is widely seen as obstacle to EU-wide efforts drastically to drastically reduce the bloc’s carbon emissions.

Duda was embroiled in a diplomatic spat with Emanuel Macron this week, after the French president singled out the Polish government for blocking his attempts to make the EU commit to carbon neutrality by 2050.

“Marching every Friday to say that the planet is burning, that’s nice, but that is not the problem,” Macron said before the recent UN climate talks in New York. “Go protest in Poland! Help me move those I cannot push forward.”

Macron’s remarks prompted Duda to describe his French counterpart as “dishonest and impudent”.


Christian Davies in Warsaw

The GuardianTramp

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