A new currency? Transitioning carbon intensive Poland to a greener future

By Marcin Lewenstein, EIT InnoEnergy

36 of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe are located in Poland
36 of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe are located in Poland (photo: InnoEnergy)

For decades “black gold” has been symbiotic with Poland’s national pride and identity, the key to its energy independence and socio-economic progress; its national currency. Yet while neighbouring countries have initiated decarbonisation, Poland met Europe’s climate change efforts with an air of resistance and distrust. As one of the largest coal producers in the world, the idea of decarbonisation was akin to forfeiting its energy independence, rewinding time on its economic progress and the country’s social fabric.

While several pressures such as Poland’s EU membership, the economic crisis, and the Paris agreement have moved the needle, ambient air quality is a key issue that has helped “tackling climate change” rise to the top of the agenda.

According to the World Bank the cost of ambient air pollution in Poland is estimated at around USD 31-40 billion, equivalent to 6.4-8.3% of GDP in 2016, compared to 2.9% across Europe as a whole. Once seen as the mainstay of Poland’s economic progress, coal is now costing the country billions. Yet the impact of air quality on GDP is not the most important number here; 44,500 is.

44,500 – the (estimated) number of premature deaths that occur in Poland every year due to air pollution.

The issue has become tangible, to almost every Pole, on a daily basis. 36 of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe are located in Poland. Asthma, air quality apps, face masks, heart and circulatory issues, and the lingering smell; these are the palpable costs of coal.

Yet through the fog, there is light.

Decarbonisation is no longer seen as endangering the Polish economy, but rather as an opportunity to wean itself off its reliance on fossil fuels. And it’s increasingly an opportunity for the workforce. Political sentiment is slowly shifting, and policies are being put into place, but to accelerate progress the transition needs to be delivered by people who can fully grasp all the factors that create an impact.

One of the key changes we expect to see in the labour market is a move away from a siloed approach. Understandably, an economy largely reliant on a single fuel source tends to silo itself comfortably into one way of thinking. Equally, working in the coal industry was always considered a safe bet; you’d work for the same company for 30-40 years, benefit from above average wages, and wait your turn to be promoted. Your career was locked in place, the steps planned out. Everything fell neatly into place.

But the energy transition needs a radical change. Could entrepreneurs and free thinkers hold the key? The short answer is yes. Bright, curious minds are key to driving change, but until recently there was little in the way of education or support to help inspire students to take the leap.

EIT InnoEnergy’s MSc Energy Transition programme is helping prepare students with the skills they’ll need to help Poland free itself from coal
EIT InnoEnergy’s MSc Energy Transition programme is helping prepare students with the skills they’ll need to help Poland free itself from coal (illustration: InnoEnergy)

Thankfully a new breed of courses, such as EIT InnoEnergy’s MSc Energy Transition programme, is helping prepare students with the skills they’ll need to help Poland free itself from coal. Based in part at the Silesian University of Technology in the heart of the coal mining region, the course breaks from tradition. The focus is to equip students to be continuously open minded, think critically and take a holistic approach to problem solving. Pioneered by Harvard University, the programme builds in experiential learning whereby businesses present students with genuine business dilemmas to explore. Students are tasked with analysing the problem, examining its causes and considering a number of potential solutions, before developing a series of recommendations to present back either to the class, or to the business itself. Of course, students gain a high-level understanding of advanced energy systems and technologies, but they also spend this time with industry to help students develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for business and entrepreneurial skills as well as project management, critical thinking and problem solving.

The new programme comes just in time, as the first cohort of graduates will be met with a “huge construction site for new build capacities in innovative technologies” as Poland’s Energy Policy begins to take shape. (Krzysztof Tchórzewski, Minister of Energy, Towards Poland’s 2040 Energy Mix)

Yet like coal, graduates and entrepreneurs that take Poland through its transition to a low carbon economy could be a major, global export. With an aging, centralised grid, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, with little in the way of renewables, Poland is a sandbox ready for innovation. Fossil fuel heavy countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and closer to home Estonia, Czech Republic, Greece and Bulgaria stand to benefit from the lessons and innovations that can be exported from Poland’s transition. Even developed countries such as Australia may find something they need.

A shift to a holistic approach in tackling the energy transition is upon us. Poland’s new currency is experiential learnings, and the market? The sky’s the limit for the open minded.

Marcin Lewenstein, EIT InnoEnergy Innovation Officer
Marcin Lewenstein, EIT InnoEnergy Innovation Officer (photo: InnoEnergy)

Before joining InnoEnergy, Marcin Lewenstein held a number of managerial positions in the Polish energy and utilities industry, including the role of Director in Strategy Department of PGNiG, Poland’s state-owned oil and gas company. Now, with responsibilities centred around InnoEnergy’s clean coal and clean gas thematic field, he assists new projects aimed at the development of advanced energy technologies enabling optimised and eco-conscious use of available fossil fuel resources, biomass, wastes, and unconventional gases.