(Bloomberg) -- The owners of Europe’s dirtiest power plant were told to discuss the future of the facility with climate change activists who want it to close earlier than planned, part of a year-long legal dispute in Poland.
A judge at the district court in Lodz said Tuesday that the state-owned utility PGE SA should attempt to reach a settlement with climate activists within three months and, according to the activist group, said climate change is a crisis that requires the company’s attention.
The case highlights increasing pressure on Poland to shift away from its reliance on coal. For ClientEarth, which brought the suit, the ruling is a landmark because it puts environmental experts at the table with energy companies for the first time and sweeps away the utility’s effort to get the case thrown out at an early stage.
“In this type of a lawsuit, with such a magnitude of importance for the society, the court’s decision was an extraordinary thing,”said Boleslaw Matuszewski, a lawyer at BMG Adwokaci in Warsaw, who represented ClientEarth in the proceedings.
The case focuses on the Belchatow generation plant in central Poland, which can burn a ton of coal every second. Its annual emissions are equivalent to the whole of New Zealand, according to ClientEarth, a group of lawyers behind the action intended to force governments and businesses to comply with environment laws.
ClientEarth argues that under Polish civil law, state-owned PGE SA must either stop burning lignite at Belchatow or install filters that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2035. ClientEarth wants PGE to close 11 of Belchatow’s 12 units within a decade and the last by 2035. That’s several years sooner than PGE’s existing schedule to close it around 2040 as coal reserves are depleted.
PGE said Wednesday that the talks will focus on reducing its negative impact on the environment while still producing power as a key part of Poland’s energy mix. It accepts the need to act on climate change and is moving away from coal, but the utility wants more time to complete the transition.
“Belchatow operates in accordance with the provisions of both national and European law, meeting all the permissible standards for emissions,” said Sandra Apanasionek, a spokesperson for PGE’s mining and power generation unit. It has allocated more than 9 billion zloty ($2.3 billion) to make the plant -- which is capable of supplying electricity for 11.5 million households -- less environmentally damaging and plans to spend more on this.
That underscores the difficulty the two sides will have on reaching a deal on what to do with Belchatow.
Coal supplies about 70% of the Poland’s electricity and the industry still employs around 83,000 people. It’s the only country in the European Union that refused to sign up to the bloc’s 2050 climate neutrality goal at a national level.
“It would be very difficult for a court to ignore this impact as a public health issue,” Katherine Poseidon, an analyst for BloombergNEF. “It’s the first time a Polish court has required a coal plant to engage in a dialog with a goal to establish a concrete plan to reduce its emissions.”
Belchatow burns lignite, a soft brown form of coal typically dug from open pit mines. It’s the most polluting form of the flammable rock. Poland’s southern regions have rich deposits of the coal that have been mined for decades, part of the government’s effort to maintain secure supplies of energy and avoid reliance on natural gas from Russia.
“The hiding places for big polluters are falling, as lawyers get more creative,” said Dave Jones, senior electricity analyst for Ember, a climate change research group. “PGE, like most companies in the world right now, will say they are transitioning, but they need a plan to close their existing polluting assets.”
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