An environmental group is suing the Belchatow coal plant, demanding reduced emissionsPoland's Belchatow coal plant is the single largest emitter of carbon pollution in Europe. Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

A groundbreaking new lawsuit challenging a Polish coal plant—the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide in Europe—was launched Thursday by the environmental law organization ClientEarth. 

The suit is the first seeking to hold a coal plant operator liable for environmental and climate harm under a Polish law that designates the environment as a “common good.” The law allows organizations to challenge activities in court that they believe threaten the environment. 

Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE), owns and operates the Belchatow coal plant in central Poland. The plant burns lignite—the dirtiest form of coal—and is the biggest lignite coal plant in the world. Belchatow has emitted nearly 1 billion tons of carbon pollution over its lifetime, including 38.3 million tons last year alone. The emissions from the 45 million tons of coal it burns annually emits as much carbon as  entire countries such as New Zealand, according to ClientEarth

ClientEarth is suing PGE, demanding the company stop burning lignite at the plant or completely eliminate the plant’s CO2 emissions by 2035 at the latest. 

“This is a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, seeking to hold coal plant operators to account for the direct impact their operations have on the planet and the surrounding environment. To protect the planet we rely on, we need to see a drastic reduction in carbon emissions and we are using litigation to accelerate the process,” said Marcin Stoczkiewicz, ClientEarth’s head of central and eastern Europe. 

While hard coal emissions have decreased, lignite coal emissions “remain stubbornly high,” accounting for 18 percent of all emissions in Europe in 2018, according to data compiled for the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme. PGE, which is state-owned and Poland’s largest power producer, has not presented plans to reduce emissions from the Belchatow plant or to phase out lignite. Lignite constituted nearly 60 percent of PGE’s fuel mix in 2018, while renewables made up only 3 percent.

A PGE spokesperson said the company was reviewing the lawsuit and said the power plant was making progress in cutting emissions.

“PGE … undertakes many operations aimed at climate protection and environmental care is one of the priorities of Bełchatów power plant,” the company said in a statement. “We also more than meet the national and EU norms pertaining to emissions of substances into the atmosphere and are ready for the new, more strict regulations that are to come into effect in 2021.”

The new lawsuit against the Belchatow plant is based on its environmental and climate impacts as well as those of its associated mines. The legal claim is grounded in Poland’s Act on the Protection of the Environment, a law that says the environment is a common good and permits organizations to sue to challenge specific activities. ClientEarth is also challenging the Zloczew lignite mine, a new coal mine that has been approved to supply Belchatow, in a separate lawsuit filed earlier this year. 

ClientEarth has succeeded  fighting other coal projects in Poland. The Supreme Administrative Court struck down a proposed 1.6 GW coal plant in June after a multi-year court battle. A Polish district court ruled against the planned Ostrołęka C coal plant in August, finding that the plant’s approval was an illegal instruction to the board of the energy company Enea. 

According to ClientEarth, citizens in Poland are increasingly concerned about climate change and 10,000 people have signed a petition demanding PGE reduce CO2 emissions from the Belchatow plant. 

“Belchatow Power Plant has provided Poland with vital power for decades but times have changed,” Stoczkiewicz said. “The largest emitters, like Belchatow, must shoulder their share of responsibility for the climate crisis. Without a rapid coal phase-out, the climate fight will be futile.”  

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