Last year at the UN Climate Conference in Doha, Poland surprised everyone by proposing to host the next Conference of the Parties (COP). As president of COP19 in Warsaw in November of this year, Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec will play a key role in paving the way for a worldwide agreement on climate action. A sharp contrast to the Polish position in Brussels, where the country is often perceived as “sabotaging” EU climate policy. How does he explain this paradox? Hughes Belin spoke with Korolec about the Polish strategy to make possible a global climate deal, EU climate targets for 2030 (“only when we have a global framework can we decide for Europe”), the Polish support for shale gas (“we have to see it in the perspective of the re-industrialisation of the US”) and carbon capture and storage (“it’s not the time for CCS in Europe”).
Photo: Marcin Korolec (Copyright: Polish environment ministry)
One-and-a-half years ago in Durban, Marcin Korolec was thrown into fierce international climate negotiations under Poland’s EU presidency. Side-by-side with driven EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard, the then just-appointed Polish environment minister had to work in tandem with experienced colleagues from France, Germany and the UK to push for a global level playing field on climate action. This November in Warsaw, when Poland hosts the next UN Climate Conference, Korolec will play the leading role in a crucial transition year towards achieving a worldwide agreement on climate action in Paris at the end of 2015. Hughes Belin spoke with Korolec about how he proposes to undertake this feat – and how the Polish fight for a climate treaty relates to the country’s positions on EU energy and climate policies.
Q: What do you want to achieve in COP19 in Warsaw this winter?
A: If we really want to have a legal outcome – or call it whatever – in 2015, we should not wait until 2015. This particular COP in Warsaw is coming at a particular moment. In 2012, we finished the second commitment period of Kyoto. In 2013, the negotiations on a new global agreement are starting. Somewhere in 2014, a text should appear otherwise it will be practically impossible to have an outcome from the Durban platform.
If you look at the calendar, Warsaw is the first COP where a new agreement will start to be drafted. In Warsaw we will lay the foundations to create the structure and functionalities for a new agreement.
Q: How will you make sure negotiations get on track?
A: First, we will invite cities to take part in a dedicated discussion on how they can contribute to fight climate change. A second dedicated discussion will involve business, politicians and NGOs, to make the process more inclusive.
We are also working with the French administration to help the process result in an agreement in 2015. I had a first meeting with French environment and energy minister Delphine Batho in Doha. France has started reflecting on how to pave the way to success at COP21 and cooperation between the different presidencies of the climate convention until then will be decided on the eve of the Warsaw meeting.
Q: In Brussels, Poland always says it doesn’t accept EU climate policy because it is unilateral and that it will agree to it if there is a playing field across the globe. You will chair the next COP in Warsaw. Can we have the assurance from you that you will fight with all your energy – and even with the same passion as Connie Hedegaard! – to pave the way to an agreement in 2015, which would bring about such a level playing field?
A: My first duty as Polish environment minister was to co-chair the EU delegation in Durban. Connie and I have different temperaments. With Connie, we know each other and we fought together – not against one other – in Durban to negotiate the Durban platform. If I got the backing of the Polish government to organise a second COP in Poland in five years [after the one in Poznan in 2008], it means that we really believe a global solution is a sine qua non condition for a true climate policy. The Polish position is obvious: we will fight for this global agreement.
Q: Will the EU speak with one voice at COP19?
The EU is a perfect mechanism to reach a compromise. I’m not worried: we will speak with one voice in Warsaw.
Q: Could the EU go to Warsaw without backloading to support its Emission Trading System (ETS)?
A: Today, one of our problems is the definition and execution of climate policies in the EU because we have two: one is global – where we’re trying to be active and take part but are not leaders – and the other is internal to the EU. Those two elements are not really linked.
We need to prepare for the second commitment period of Kyoto [up to 2020], i.e. implement the [2009 EU] climate-energy package. There is no added value here however, because the only countries with legal obligations are the EU member states. Other countries have no targets for 2020. We are not leaders – the rest of the countries did not follow us.
Q: On backloading specifically, why isn’t this a solution for Poland?
A: The Commission has a tendency to say: “we need an instrument provoking investment”. That’s nonsense! If the legislation says that the Commission may take from the market an unknown number of allowances an unknown number of times, it will create uncertainty for investors, even in renewables, because it will be decided by the administration in Brussels. In nine months we will have a new Commission: it will create even more uncertainty.
Q: Others argue that the ETS is flooded with allowances and needs to be fixed to work properly.
A: The Commission proposed to amend the ETS directive with one sentence in a crucial clause. What is the main purpose of this amendment? The low price of allowances is the best evidence that the market mechanism of the directive is functioning. I’m surprised by the attitude of the Commission because if the decision passed, the price of electricity would go up.
Q: These are “rational” arguments. However, it seems that Poland is opposed to backloading “in principle”: why?
A: Poland is against this concept. You know, Poland made a big political transition from a planned economy to a market economy. And this backloading issue wakes up memories from the past. It is a strange situation. Backloading is similar to what we lived in the past. We were happy to change [from] a system where the administration intervened in the economy.
Q: And if backloading passed anyway?
A: I’m quite surprised by the fact that the European Parliament is supposed to re-vote something it already decided upon. What’s new, now? I wonder if MEPs decide the same, will there be a third vote? How many votes are planned?
First of all, I don’t see any prospect for the adoption of backloading, even if the European Parliament votes for it. According to my personal consultations, the Council is not ready to approve the Commission’s proposal. Second, it cannot enter into force this year because there are serious legal issues, such as the impact assessment which was made for the year 2013 and not for 2014. There is also a lack of clearly defined objectives: what is it for? An answer is required by the EU treaties. Finally, the EU elections will influence the policy-making. It won’t be feasible and it will not happen.
Q: The debate on a 2030 energy and climate framework has just started in Europe. What targets do you favour for 2030?
A: I remember the 20-20-20 [20% greenhouse gas emission reduction, 20% renewables and 20% energy efficiency] for 2020. Other numbers should be discussed once we have a clear picture on where we’re at, i.e. once the global agreement is there. The European Commission has set out targets to reach the 2°C target [in the 2050 low-carbon roadmap]. How can they do that without a global agreement? What about the contribution of others? That kind of planning is a little premature. Only once we have the [global] obligations and framework, can we decide for Europe.
Q: But we should not waste time deciding on the 2030 framework, the Commission says.
A: A global agreement in 2015 is the day after tomorrow. The current climate-energy package was adopted in 2009, i.e. 4 ½ years ago. If we adopt the next climate-energy package in 2015, that will be five years before 2020 [when the current EU climate and energy targets expire]. You also have to take into account that some political realities will change in a few months’ time: we will have a new European Parliament and a new European Commission. The current ones were elected or appointed in a period of prosperity. Now times are challenging, it’s a crisis. We will face a new political situation.
Q: Nevertheless some decisions can be made now. For example, do we need a new target for renewables?
A: We have to be realistic: if the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions and there is no target for renewables, we will face the serious issue of nuclear monoculture. Are we ready for that prospect? It is a political question for the EU that I don’t have to answer. How can we do it differently? How to reduce CO2 emissions without renewables? It is a good time to start the discussion but not to decide today without the outcome of COP21 in Paris – a global target in a global context.
Q: So should there be direct support for renewables?
A: We are in negotiations with the US for a free trade agreement. The US and EU have different policies regarding energy prices. The US is developing a paradigm based on low energy prices to boost industrialisation – investments even return from China! In Europe, we have high energy prices. The free trade agreement will be in force in 3-4 years’ time.
What we have to do today is maintain our environmental goals but make them cheap for consumers and industry. So we have to reflect on subsidies to renewable sources. They are dangerous in a sense that they make business operators relax, because the system will deliver profitability anyhow. We should focus on R&D and support technologies that really need subsidies, but not subsidise mature technologies. We want to be independent from third countries, well, let’s diminish our oil imports.
For 2030, the goal should be: no more energy subsidies, be they for fossil fuels or renewables. Let’s think of combining a climate target – as a priority – with a target on oil imports into the EU.
Q: In Brussels you oppose those in favour of EU legislation on shale gas, why?
A: Shale gas is simply natural gas extracted with new technologies. From the chemical point of view, it is the same gas, thus no specific legislation is needed. At the next informal Environment Council in Vilnius [on 17th of July] we will discuss the subject. I know there is a proposal forthcoming. We see some developments in the EU: Bulgaria is exploring the possibility and so is Lithuania. We are eager to contribute to the discussion with our experience, namely the national legislation we are adopting in Poland. It’s a new topic. But we have to see it in the perspective of re-industrialisation in the US, where the energy point of view takes precedence. That perspective is very interesting for the EU. I saw my colleague from Lithuania two months ago. I feel their attitude towards shale gas is similar to the Polish one: they are enthusiastic and willing to develop it in their country.
Q: They seem however, much more cautious about promoting carbon capture and storage (CCS). Poland was once one of the leaders for a demonstration programme in Europe. But you seem to have stepped back from CCS. Is that true?
A: CCS is a very romantic approach on how you can make dirty things without being punished. The reality shows that it is not that easy. First of all, this technology is not mature enough. Second – and I said it four years ago to Connie Hedegaard – the legislation on financing CCS is not drafted in the proper way. To be eligible for EU funds you have to be prepared to use CCS even if it is not commercially viable.
Imagine that CEOs of power utilities listed on the stock exchange had to sign an agreement taking a risk to operate with losses. Well, they cannot do that: they would be fired! What is missing in legislation is that if it is cheaper for companies to raise emissions, they should pay for that. Otherwise no one will use CCS in the EU. It is not the time today for CCS in Europe, especially because of the financial crisis.
Marcin Korolec, 43, has been Poland’s environment minister since 18 November 2011, just before he flew to South Africa to lead the EU delegation at COP17. His early professional career was devoted to Poland’s accession and membership of the EU. He worked for Chief Negotiator Jan Kułakowski and Minister for European Affairs Danuta Hübner. For the past two governmental terms of office he served as Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Economy, responsible for horizontal European issues such as energy, competitiveness and trade, and climate policy. He draws inspiration for his professional public service from the French model, he says. He graduated from the French Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in 1997, after becoming a lawyer at the University of Warsaw. He claims he “would like to balance the needs of ecology and economics to seamlessly unite environmental protection and economic growth.”