Hiding in the Smoke: Coal at Katowice

December 10, 2018


This month’s climate change summit has begun under an inauspicious cloud. It could well be real – host-country Poland still generates four-fifths of its energy from coal. But there’s another controversy making it hard to see through the smog.


Wipe the soot from your programme (if you’re the lucky one in The People’s Seat), and you’ll see the list of summit sponsors is far from clean.


Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa (JSW), the European Union's largest producer of high-quality coking coal, is a key sponsor of the talks. Other controversial sponsors include coal-based energy companies PGE and Tauron.


Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director at the NGO Corporate Accountability, has said that “such sponsorship raises serious questions about what access and influence sponsorship buys, and could risk calling into question the legitimacy of these talks before they even begin.”


JSW’s defence is that their involvement would grant them “the possibility of promoting pro-ecological changes in the mining sector”. But how much change is possible? Given our deadline of only 12 years to halve global greenhouse gas emissions, do we really have the time to tinker with one of the dirtiest energy sources of all?


Coal can never be clean. We shouldn’t pretend to believe it can be. A coal company claiming they can clean up their act is just them trying to wash their face with a dirty rag. It just pushes the mess around – or under the collar.


Of course, summit representatives have claimed that JSW and other coal-based industry sponsors gain no access to participate in or influence the political negotiations and decision-making. Deputy executive secretary at UN Climate Change, Ovais Sarmad, told DeSmog UK that “the choice of sponsors is a national matter for the host government and does not involve the […] Member states.”


Regardless of whether companies sit on any official panel, we shouldn’t underestimate coal’s powerful imprint on the backdrop to these talks. The Katowice city stall, open for delegates to visit, is a proud shrine to the industry. Locals sell soap, earrings and other jewellery, all made from coal. Tuesday 4th December, the second official day of the talks, was also the day of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of coal miners. A miners’ brass band struck up at 6am, marching through the city. It is clear that in Poland, coal runs deep through the country’s cultural memory. We need to value the history of its people at the same time as providing them with a just transition towards a cleaner energy future.


Allowing coal companies – and their environmental “efforts” – even close to a seat at the table interferes with the integrity of a space meant for real progress. We should be wary of their intentions.  Any summit delegates who still deny being taken for a ride should take note of who’s behind the hydrogen buses shuttling them between events - none other than JSW.


Ovais Sarmad went on to say that “meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement will clearly require an urgent reduction in the use of fossil fuels, with the aim of achieving net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century. Many countries, however, have important investments in fossil fuel production. If we are to achieve progress on global climate action, it is necessary that the concerns of the fossil fuel sector are highlighted in the intergovernmental discussions.”


Whatever the fossil fuel sector’s immediate concerns are, I doubt it’s the growing danger of their own product to global and human health. What’s more, should member states not be free to address any concerns without JSW’s financial involvement clouding up proceedings?


What’s more, what kind of message does this send to the world about the legitimacy of these discussions? For Robert Cyglicki, Greenpeace’s director in Central and Eastern Europe, it “sends the worst possible signal at the worst possible time. It would be like Philip Morris sponsoring a health summit where a cigarette ban is supposed to be agreed.”


Ludicrous indeed. Like Big Tobacco telling smokers to “keep at it, just don’t inhale.” Or to quit by trying their “better alternatives”, like e-cigarettes and heated tobacco.


But wait, tobacco giant Philip Morris actually did try that this year, with their ‘Hold my Light’ campaign. Not that JSW would let any of its employees hold a light anywhere near their coal plants, so workers are safe from that particular lung burden. Maybe they only had space for one carcinogen on the workplace health-risk form.


It seems that whenever scientific evidence finally turns against malignant industry, its answer is the same. “Before you quit...have you tried our Coal/Marlboro/Coke-Zero version?”


But we actually can turn to the tobacco industry for lessons in how to deal with Big Coal pumping money into climate negotiations. In 1998, the vice-chancellors of UK universities decided on guidelines against taking money for cancer research from tobacco firms. It recommended that any potential funding from tobacco firms “which does not accord full respect to academic freedom [and] which does not adhere to normal medical, scientific and ethical practices and principles should normally be rejected”.


What better criteria could there be, in such a similar conflict of interest scenario as COP24? JSW funding is such a clear threat to the freedom of the decision-making process, that we jeopardise the validity of the outcome by accepting it. Just as scientific research needs to be impartial in order to produce clear and credible results, so too should our international negotiations be protected from such interfering agents.


We should preserve the independence of our political projects with as much rigour as our scientific ones. This is too crucial an experiment to ruin. Our chances to repeat it are numbered.


Regardless of how coal funders paint themselves, the money they offer isn’t sponsoring anyone’s future. Even their own.


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© 2016 by Lucy Jonas.