Coal Interests Set Back Climate Action At E.U. Summit

European leaders failed to take significant action against climate change at a summit meeting last Thursday. A majority of the 28 countries in attendance at Brussels expressed approval of a plan to neutralize Europe’s carbon footprint, but four votes kept the proposal from unanimity. Those four votes, from Poland and three other coal-dependent countries in eastern Europe, have effectively reduced the plan for climate neutrality to a footnote in the European Union’s agenda.

French President Emmanuel Macron, one of many who voted yes on the proposal, reiterated his commitment to a strong plan against global climate change in the wake of the summit. “Our top priority must be climate ambition,” he tweeted on 21 June. “This is the message that our youth is spreading throughout Europe, the message that our fellow citizens have sent us in the European elections, the message of scientists around the world.”

Macron took an optimistic view of the Brussels summit, tweeting, “Our fight for climate is moving forward: 24 member states now share the goal of carbon neutrality for 2050. Only three months ago we were only a few.” However, not everyone is satisfied with this silver lining. A spokesman for environmental group Greenpeace called the summit meeting a “black day” for environmental interests, and claimed the E.U. decision flew in the face of “climate strikes by tens of thousands of students and the election choices of millions of Europeans,” according to the Associated Press.

The continued deferral of action is frustrating, but blaming the E.U. as a whole only serves to obscure the body’s progress. As Macron notes, 24 countries recognize the necessity of fighting global climate change, and that is something to applaud. The issue lies with Poland and its coal-based allies. Why did these four countries vote no? According to Forbes, Poland’s vote was likely driven by two things: pride and fear.

As Anna Mikulska and Eryk Kosinski report, mining is one of the most highly respected professions in Poland. Miners enjoy more respect from the Polish public than medical doctors or teachers – 82% approval, compared to 74% and 71%, respectively – and are highly organized influences on the Polish government. “The government is well aware that any decision that endangers the future of mining will meet with substantial protest,” the two write. They point to widespread protests in 2015, following an attempted restructuring of Poland’s largest mining company, as an example. “Negotiations that ensued resulted in the government’s strong commitment to keeping all mines open, effectively assuring the mining jobs that could otherwise have been eliminated.”

This national pride in coal is buttressed by a lack of other options. Whereas coal in many Western countries is slowly being supplanted by cleaner energy sources, primarily natural gas, these options are less abundant in Poland. “Domestically available coal offers predictability and peace of mind at a time when renewable energy is still at the very beginning of its development … and the majority of natural gas consumed in Poland needs to be imported from abroad, primarily from Russia,” Mikulska and Kosinski write. Until greener alternatives can be reliably, and locally, found, Poland is reluctant to make the switch.

This reluctance has been known to the E.U. since at least the Katowice summit in 2018, yet little outreach has been made. This only reinforces local distrust of the E.U.. If Poland is going to make the switch from coal, it needs a clean alternative it can use with pride, and one it can utilize without incurring debt to others. We can, and should, criticize Poland for its vote, but we can do this while respecting its reasons. Empathizing with and seeking to remedy others’ concerns is how we create an equitable plan for our future. It is only then that we will achieve peace.