Anti-coal protesters gather before the latest UN climate talks in Katowice, PolandAnti-coal protests, like this one in Berlin, highlight Poland's dependence on the climate-polluting fuel as it prepares to host the latest UN climate talks. Photo credit: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

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By Isabella Kaminski

Greenpeace has threatened to sue Poland’s biggest energy company if it does not take concrete action to reduce its climate impacts.

Greenpeace Poland sent a letter last week demanding that state-owned Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE) stop investing in new coal plants and develop a plan to completely cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. The campaign group said it would take PGE to court if the company does not respond.

The threat adds more pressure to Poland as it hosts the latest United Nations climate conference, COP24, in Katowice this week. Last month, another Polish energy company, Enea, was sued by environmental law group ClientEarth for green-lighting a new coal power plant.

The Polish government has been unapologetic about its support for coal, which currently supplies around 80 percent of the country’s energy, and the industry is politically influential. It sparked a controversy by naming several state-owned fossil fuel firms as sponsors of the climate talks, including PGE and coal mining company Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa. Katowice itself is a key coal mining centre.

Poland has promised to reduce its coal use by 50 percent by 2040, but this is far behind other European countries that have goals to phase it out completely within the next decade including the UK, France and Italy . The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which issued dire warnings about a climate crisis looming in the next few decades, said that to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, coal use must drop from providing 40 percent of the world’s electricity currently to between 1 and 7 percent by 2050.

Paweł Szypulski, a Greenpeace Poland campaigner, said PGE is being targeted because it is Poland’s largest energy company, is almost completely reliant on coal and is owned by the state.

“It is a political decision to quit coal… and the government we have now is pushing coal even more,” he said. “After the IPCC 1.5 degrees report no one can say they are unaware of the consequences of climate change or how we should act. We want to use all the tools possible to challenge it. Legal action is something that we’ve been using for a long time [but] we haven’t used this kind of angle before.”

PGE did not respond to a request from Climate Liability News for comment.

A recent opinion poll commissioned by Greenpeace Poland found that 69 percent of Polish citizens support a coal phase-out by 2030 and the development of renewable energy technologies.

To draw attention to Poland’s inaction on climate in the run-up to the talks, six Greenpeace activists climbed a 600-foot chimney at the Bełchatów power station. The plant, which is operated by PGE, emits more CO2 than any other in Europe.

Greenpeace is demanding that PGE to abandon any new fossil fuel extraction and combustion projects, particularly plans for two new lignite fields at Złoczew and Gubin and to extend another mine on the Turów deposit. The Złoczew field would extend the life of the Bełchatów plant by around 20 years.

Greenpeace is also giving the company one year to develop a strategy to cut CO2 emissions with the goal of eliminating them completely by 2030. It says PGE can do this by decommissioning plants or installing new technology to capture carbon emissions.

If it does not get what it considers a suitable response, Greenpeace says it will take PGE to court under a Polish law that allows environmental groups to take action against organizations that are harming the “environment as a common good.” Under this law, plaintiffs only have to prove general—not specific—harm has been caused.

Greenpeace officials said this is the first time civil litigation has been used directly on a climate change issue in Poland, making it an interesting test case of what the “environment as a common good” means in practice.

If the case is successful, the courts could not force PGE to pay financial damages but it could force the company to take action to reduce its climate impacts.