Polish punishment over coal illustrates the idealistic flaw in EU policymaking

The European Commission recently warned Poland that its continued reliance on coal power may lead to its exclusion from the EU’s green transition fund. In particular, Warsaw’s desire to extend the life of a Turow mine until 2044 has drawn the European Commission’s ire and jeopardised the region’s access to the Just Transition Fund, created to help European economies recover sustainably from Covid-19.

Warsaw’s move to extend mining operations clearly runs counter to Brussels’s ambitious environmental objectives: coal, due to its adverse climate effects, was excluded from the recently published “climate taxonomy”, making it ineligible for future EU funding. What’s more, the Turow mine has already stirred up ample controversy, with the nearby Czech Republic even filing suit against Poland at the CJEU over erosion and noise complaints.

The EU’s kneejerk reaction to these concerns, however--threatening to pull access to the very funding which Poland needs to start replacing the coal industry’s contribution to its economy and jobs market, rather than working with Warsaw to develop a customized plan to reduce emissions--speaks to a broader problem with prescriptive policy-making: Brussels’ idealism will often not survive first contact with the realities on the ground.

This holds true for another long-running policy debate: how to address the deadly epidemic of tobacco smoking. Yet again, there are technologies available to reduce the risk incurred by Europeans unable or unwilling to give up nicotine use entirely--e-cigarettes have been found to be around 95% safer than smoking combustible tobacco--that the EU has so far failed to integrate into its public health initiatives. This, despite the fact that evidence has routinely shown that taking a legislative approach based on harm reduction– reducing impact rather than trying to eliminate it completely – offers a much more tangible avenue towards a given goal.

Coal emissions: a middle ground?

The EU’s green demands were a difficult proposition for Poland even before the pandemic, nearly impossible to balance with its economic and energy security imperatives, and a swift ban on the fuel is both politically and economically unfeasible. Indeed, Poland’s coal industry has long been a matter of national pride, employing 80,000 people. Even so, Poland has shown willingness to work towards EU climate goals--under intense pressure from Brussels, the country pledged to cut out coal by 2049, the year before the bloc must be carbon neutral.

Nevertheless, Poland, which produces 80% of its electricity from coal, will continue to mine and burn the fuel for the foreseeable future. Instead of attempting to exact a punitive financial toll on a country with one of Europe’s lowest GDPs, European policymakers would be better served by working with Poland to ensure that the environmental impact of its coal use is as low as possible until Poland is able and willing to wean itself off the fuel entirely.

Indeed, innovations such as carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS) can be deployed to reduce coal’s considerable carbon footprint, allowing its use as a bridge

until Poland has adapted its energy infrastructure to Brussels’ low-carbon requirements. CCS, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts will account for 15% of cumulative carbon reductions until 2070 in a net-zero scenario, slashes emissions by trapping CO2 underground, while coal washing reduces impurities and makes combustion more efficient.

Given the unlikelihood of Poland making a complete pivot to other energy sources by 2030, earmarking funds to minimise coal emissions this way while Poland works on reducing coal dependence would go a long way in curbing carbon emissions. Instead, the green taxonomy has sealed off this middle path. The policy package set a 100gCO2/kWh threshold for a technology to be labelled “sustainable”--meaning that even coal plants employing state of the art CCS are rendered unviable.

Vaping’s potential to improve public health sidelined.

Polish coal is always a hot-button issue, but European policymakers have displayed a similarly short-sighted perspective on a variety of issues. Just take the EU’s attempts to address the tobacco habit which costs the bloc over €500 billion and 700,000 lives annually. Despite the continent’s grave tobacco problem, the weapons at the EU’s disposal to tackle it –such as the Tobacco Products Directive and the Beating Cancer Plan – routinely overlook harm reduction possibilities offered by existing technologies like e-cigarettes, while the European Commission’s recent SCHEER report on the science behind vaping downplayed the substantial evidence that e-cigarettes are one of the most effective tools to help smokers quit.

Brussels’ myopic attitude-- unsurprising given recent findings that “a high proportion” of MEPs have no knowledge about alternative nicotine products--is already raising eyebrows in the medical community, considering the well-documented benefits of switching to vaping from combustible tobacco. Public Health England, for example, has found that vaping is not only 95% less harmful than smoking, but that vaping facilitates quitting tobacco far more effectively than nicotine patches or gum.

By continuing to rely on the same idealistic policy measures to whittle away at the quarter of the population which smokes and aiming to eliminate nicotine use outright rather than addressing the substantial portion of smokers who are unwilling or unable to give up their habit entirely, the EU is setting itself up to fail, just as in its efforts to reduce Polish emissions.

This is particularly unfortunate in vital sectors like energy and public health, where even small reductions in risk can lead to substantially improved outcomes in the long run. Rather than clinging to an overly idealistic worldview and an unrealistic dream of bringing environmental and public health risks down to zero, harm reduction strategies could yield immediate improvements.

By encouraging smokers to take any possible measures to curb their combustible tobacco use, and by working with heavy polluters to use every available technique to curb their emissions, European policymakers could notch up important public health and environmental victories, and save thousands of euros and lives.

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