The host city of this December’s UN climate summit is keen to share a story of post-mining transformation, but the coal industry still holds sway
As Poland gears up to host this year’s UN climate summit, the government is on a charm offensive.
During two days in mid-September, brochures, videos, slides and dark-suited representatives succeed one another, portraying Katowice, the site of the talks, as a green success story. Chaperoned by civil servants, journalists are whizzed around the city in electric cars.
At its industrial peak in the 1980s, the capital of Upper Silesia counted 14 active coal mines. That figure has fallen to two, while museums, concert halls and sport facilities have mushroomed on former mining sites – not to mention the spaceship-like conference centre that will welcome up to 30,000 delegates in December.
Yet for all the mine closures, Poland still overwhelmingly relies on coal, the cheapest and dirtiest of fossil fuels, for energy. In 2015, 81% of its electricity came from coal – and the industry has a strong influence on policy. Many environmentalists are gritting their teeth over the choice of a coal heartland to hold key climate talks.
Michał Kurtyka, president of the Cop24 summit, has no time for such criticism. “I suggest they [environmentalists] go to Katowice! It’s a flourishing region in terms of economic activity, in terms of modernity, with digital industry, with auto industry… 42% of the surface of the city is green,” he tells Climate Home News.
Katowice residents say the city has transformed in the past 25 years. Joanna Strekowska, a 61-year old beautician, sits at a bench in the main square under a clear blue sky.
“Let me give you this image,” she says, describing the smog they used to experience. “After three hours of walking on a day like today, my arms and legs would look completely different. We could see the air that we were breathing. There were no stars in the sky.”
It only takes a short walk from the city centre to the headquarters of the Confederation of Mining Trade Unions in Poland (Konfederacja Związków Zawodowych Górnictwa w Polsce) to realise the transformation is far from complete.
“My grandfather came to Silesia with mining roots in the family,” says Piotr Luberta, 51, a trade unionist and mine rescuer. “Back then there was little employment by the seaside. Despite my job, I fell in love with this industry.”
Luberta maintains a grave expression throughout our discussion on climate policy, but lights up when asked about his personal relationship to coal. Above all, he loves working with nature, he says.
“We call it black gold,” says his colleague, Skawomir Kukasiewicz. “This is the breadwinner for thousands of people – not just miners. For one place of work in the mining industry, you should add four people.”
According to Euracoal, the sector employs around 100,000 Poles.