Aim: to disappear from bad air reports in ten years’ time

Henryk Kowalczyk minister ærodowiska

Countries wishing to catch up with the rest of the world need to develop and that means increasing CO2 emissions.

The Polish Ministry of the Environment hosts this year’s UN climate summit. Its main representative will be the plenipotentiary for the COP24 Presidency, Deputy Minister of the Environment, Michał Kurtyka. And what will be the role of the prime minister or president?

Henryk Kowalczyk: Thanks to the fact that Poland is the host of the climate convention in Katowice, there will be many representatives of COP24.

The President certainly has an important role to play during the leaders’ summit scheduled for 3rd December. It is at his invitation that the heads of other countries will attend the event. The Prime Minister, in turn, will represent us in substantive talks with heads of other governments.

What will be considered a success of the Katowice summit?

The signing of the so-called Katowice package will be a success. It will include detailed solutions leading to the achievement of the goal signed by most countries in Paris.

The text of the Katowice agreement negotiated by the parties will cover about 20 topics. Some of them do not arouse controversy. These include, for example, adaptation to climate change, combating drought or flood and hurricane threats. Everyone agrees that such measures must be taken.

And what are the potential flash points?

It will be difficult to reconcile the different interests of different countries. Some have a growing ambition to reduce CO2 emissions, while others adopt a conservative stance.

The challenge will be to meet in the middle. From our perspective, it will be important to create a climate balance, that is, to look at the problem of emissions not only in the context of their reduction, but also in the context of their absorption. In agriculture, for example, absorption is provided by increased plant cultivation, while intensive breeding leads to excessive emissions.

Fair transformation remains an important point. Countries that want to catch up with the rest of the world must develop, and this involves an increase in production and consumption, which also causes greenhouse gas emissions.

For many years, Poland has been involved in efforts to protect the climate. We have something to boast about, because we have exceeded the targets set by the Kyoto Protocol and reduced emissions by more than 30% compared to the required 6%, whilst simultaneously maintaining our country’s economic growth.

However, the IPCC report states that the actions declared under the Paris Agreement are not sufficient to stop the temperature rise at the level of 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to the premeasurement era.

We do not intend to reopen discussions about increasing climate ambitions. Otherwise, we would be setting further targets before we achieve the current ones. Instead of that, we want to consistently implement the agreements reached then.

What tools?

This, too, will be the subject of negotiations on the Katowice package. We must establish a method for measuring and accounting for carbon dioxide emissions. Common rules will encourage countries to make greater efforts in the long term. The aspect of financing pro-climate measures from the so-called green fund will also be important.

For the time being, Poland is not even a shareholder of the fund, so our impact on the distribution of resources is limited. Will this change?

We are and will be involved in the green fund thanks to the money paid into it – some of the PLN 30 million provided for in the so-called COP24 speculative act will go there. In this sense, we are a „shareholder”, although the green fund speaks rather of donors. We influence the spending of these funds through a member of the board, who represents several countries, including Poland.

At the same time, it is important to include both direct contributions to the fund, which should go to developing countries, for example, to implement measures to stop desertification, and funding for climate protection measures in Poland.

Such measures include those undertaken within the framework of the Clean Air programme with a budget of over PLN 100 billion for ten years. It is true that the replacement of coal-fired boilers with gas-fired boilers does not yet mean the implementation of the climate package, as both fuels are emitting. However, the thermal upgrading of buildings is already reducing energy consumption and, consequently, CO2 emissions.

This will be the third climate summit in Poland. After the two previous ones there is still a good impression of an exemplary organizer. But the money spent did not bring any tangible effect, e.g. in the form of creating a UN agency here. Do we now have such goals?

Poland has indeed already established itself as a good host of climate summits – not only in terms of organisation, but also as a country conducting global negotiations. This is the capital that we use both in negotiations around the world and in the European Union.

On the other hand, the creation of international institutions based in Poland has never been our goal, as such decisions are not made at climate summits.

Are you not afraid that the effects of the government’s smog control programme will destroy the transitional periods for boilers and coal quality standards.

The fight against smog and the setting of transition periods do not contradict each other. The government’s programme covers a period of ten years and the quality standards are tightening year by year.

After a few years, we will achieve our goals. On the other hand, however, we would not be able to replace all the boilers or connect people to the system heat at the same time. We must proceed gradually, giving people time to renovate buildings. Otherwise, consumers would pay more for heating in poorly insulated homes.

On the infamous list of the World Health Organization Polish cities dominate among those with the worst quality of air. Where is the „Clean Air” programme to take us in ten years’ time?

Ideally, we should disappear from this list after ten years. If the thermal upgrading together with the replacement of the heating source progresses in parallel with the electrification of transport, it will be within our reach.

While coal-fired heating is the main culprit of smog in small towns, in large agglomerations the problem is car fumes.

Will you decide to lower the levels at which the public is informed about higher standards for particulates and poisonous substances? This could play an educational role and consequently increase public pressure on politicians.

The pressure on politicians is already very high. The focus should be on reducing emissions rather than alert levels. This could be considered in the second place, e.g. in five years’ time.

If, in this perspective, as we envisage, half of the houses benefit from support for thermal upgrading and replacement of the heating system, we will be able to start a discussion about changing the existing standards.

In Poland, the problem with smog is related to energy poverty. People cannot afford to burn high quality fuel in modern boilers, so they heat their homes, burning rubbish in old furnaces”. This is the closed-loop economy in the Polish style.

As far as burning waste is concerned, I am counting on educational activities in this area. They are sometimes more important than the introduction of the most restrictive legal norms. Until now, people have not thought that burning rubbish means poisoning oneself and one’s neighbours.

Municipalities should also focus on education in the field of recycling and selective collection. The most advantageous situation for them is when they have as little waste as possible.

What suggestions were made by the Ministry of the Environment as part of the consultation on the circular economy roadmap that the Minister of Enterprise and Technology is working on?

First of all, we included a proposal to reduce the adverse impact of plastics on the environment and to introduce higher product fees for packaging marketed, taking into account the impact of packaging waste on the environment.

Product fees are symbolic in Poland. Are you planning to increase them to reach the Scandinavian and Western European levels, i.e. up to EUR 600 per tonne of plastic packaging in Austria and Germany, or rather to reach the regional levels, i.e. around EUR 150 or EUR 210 per tonne of plastic in Lithuania and the Czech Republic respectively?

We will certainly not jump immediately to the level of fees in force in Scandinavia. It would be more rational to compare them with the countries of our region. Undoubtedly, however, the level of subsidies for waste treatment by packaging manufacturers or some products should increase.

When will waste-free Poland be possible? Some countries already declare dates of transition to the circular economy model. According to the announcements of the Ministry of the Environment, Poland is to be the leader. Meanwhile, experts claim that we will have problems even with recycling targets.

It will not be possible to re-manage all waste. However, in the perspective of three to four years’ time Poland will make a significant contribution to the implementation of the closed-loop economy model. At the moment, there are already municipalities that are piloting solutions leading to closed loop management, and not only in the field of waste management.

We are also taking action, in particular legislative action, to meet the ambitious recycling targets. Now we are facing the most important prospect of 50% recycling in 2020. At the moment, most of Poland’s municipalities have reached the required level regarding recycling and preparation for re-use (in 2017, 96% of municipalities reached the required level of 20%). This is achievable.

What regulations do you have to implement in order for this to become a reality and, on the other hand, not to repeat the mistakes of the so-called waste revolution?

We have already made some legislative changes. We have sealed the system, reducing the period of storage of waste for recycling from three years to one year. This is a guarantee for companies operating in this market that they will not compete with illegal business.

We still have to deal with an amendment to the Act on Maintaining Order and Cleanliness in Municipalities with regard to waste collection. We are working on it with self-governments and companies from the sector. An analysis of comments received during the public consultation process is underway.

On the other hand, since 2017, the provisions of the Regulation on the detailed method of selective collection of selected fractions of waste, which unify the system of selective collection of municipal waste in municipalities, have already been in force.

So Poles will receive financial incentives for waste segregation?

One of such motivators will be the introduction of a four times lower rate for segregated waste for households. We also plan to support the system from another side. Therefore, waste treatment companies should receive appropriate funds from those placing packaging on the market.

The Ministry of the Environment has always been in favour of excluding funds from CO2 emission allowance trading from the budget. Now there is a chance to do so, because initiatives in this area have been presented by both the Ministry of Enterprise and Technology in the field of energy-intensive industry support, and the Ministry of Energy, which wants to compensate farms. What ideas do you have?

Of course, from the point of view of environmental needs, it would be very beneficial to exclude funds derived from the sale of CO2 emission allowances from the central budget and to allocate them for climate purposes. In this context, they could be pooled in one place, as well as the charges collected for the introduction of waste into the environment and all other environmental charges.

Funds from this budget, which could be managed, for example, by the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management, should support systemic measures to improve the condition of environment. We could focus on electromobility, which the Minister of Energy wants to develop, but also on reducing CO2 emissions by investing in distributed generation sources or thermal upgrading.

I hope that the Clean Air programme will be at the heart of these activities.

When will the budget lose revenue from emissions trading and how would you divide these funds between the various priorities mentioned?

Certainly, in 2019, such a pool will not yet be excluded from the budget, because the financial plan is already in place. The topic is not yet closed and the Ministry of the Environment has set up an inter-ministerial working group whose task will be, among other things, to determine the priorities for which the funds should be spent.

Therefore, I would not like to divide this money too early. It is certainly justified to support the competitiveness of the energy-intensive industry and at least the poorest households. We are talking here about large sums of money, so in addition to the above objectives, the remaining funds could go towards reducing emissions through the development of electromobility, the development of renewable energy sources and the Clean Air programme. It is also important to develop an analytical basis, which is essential for the effective implementation of the reduction targets imposed on Poland, as well as to ensure more effective defence of our interests in the context of European climate policy.

So the Ministry of the Environment would support a change in the law on subsidies for electricians?

For the time being, I would not like to declare it. The budget must be balanced.

At the climate summit, your ministry will certainly receive a wave of criticism. Because, on the one hand, we are talking about compensation and the climate balance, and, on the other hand, we are planning another coal-fired power plant in Ostroleka. This will cause at least an image discord.

In the context of reducing the emissivity of the energy sector, it would be good if we had nuclear power and stable renewable energy. However, I would not like to step within the competence of the Minister for Energy, because Poland must have power sources that provide electricity for the development of the economy.

What does the Minister of the Environment like about the planned energy policy and what is worrying?

The process of drafting this document is not yet complete. The discussion is still underway. I hope that it will be concluded before the climate summit. That is the ambition of Minister Tchórzewski.

However, there are differences of opinion. The greatest concern is the rate of decreasing the share of coal in the energy sector. In my opinion, Ostrołęka should be treated as the last coal source in Poland. Each new power plant should burn a different fuel. In this way, the share of coal will gradually decrease.

Also lignite coal? There will be no new discoveries?

We are not able to give up this fuel overnight. At the moment there is a discussion concerning the use of the Zloczew deposit. Without this discovery, we would not have had a stable energy supply.

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