ClientEarth challenges Europe’s biggest coal complex over climate harm

Media release

26 September 2019

Europe’s biggest coal power plant and two of its mines are facing an unprecedented legal challenge by environmental lawyers ClientEarth.

Climate behemoth Belchatow, in central Poland, burns lignite, the dirtiest form of coal. With 5GW capacity, the plant has emitted approximately 1 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over its lifetime – and is the largest single greenhouse gas emitter in Europe. Its annual emissions, roughly equivalent to the sum total of New Zealand’s, are rising year on year.

The plant is a major climate culprit but its owner, PGE GiEK, has not presented any official plan to reduce its climate impacts.

ClientEarth is demanding that the plant operators stop burning lignite in the plant – or take measures to eliminate its CO2 emissions – by 2035 at the latest.

ClientEarth Head of Central and Eastern Europe Marcin Stoczkiewicz said: “Belchatow Power Plant has provided Poland with vital power for decades but times have changed. The largest emitters, like Belchatow, must shoulder their share of responsibility for the climate crisis. Without a rapid coal phase-out, the climate fight will be futile.”

The lawsuit leverages Polish civil law in a completely new way, focusing on the environment as a common good, which NGOs can go to court to protect. This includes demanding installations and their owners cease activities which are causing harm to the environment.

The coal mines that neighbour the plant are also subject to the challenge over other environmental impacts. Lignite mining causes major disturbance to groundwater levels, which means instability and threats to the water supply. Mining also releases significant amounts of toxic heavy metals into the water and soil, posing major threats.

Stoczkiewicz said: “This is a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, seeking to hold coal plant operators to account for the direct impact their operations have on the planet and the surrounding environment. To protect the planet we rely on, we need to see a drastic reduction in carbon emissions and we are using litigation to accelerate the process.”

While leaders continue to back fossil fuels, people in Poland are deeply concerned about climate change, with over 80% considering it a direct threat. Over 10,000 people signed a petition calling for PGE GiEK, the owner of Belchatow, to put in place a plan to reduce CO2 emissions from the plant. This petition was submitted by members of grassroots movement ‘Parents for Future’.

According to a new report, an earlier coal phase-out at Belchatow would not only bring major social and environmental benefits, but could save Poland €4 billion.

ENDS

Notes to editors

Belchatow is the world’s largest lignite plant, burning 45 million tonnes of coal each year and matching countries like New Zealand with its annual carbon emissions.

The case is against the plant operator and is based on the extensive negative climate and environmental impacts of the plant and mines. It is lodged in the District Court of Łódź.

This case is based on the Act on the Protection of the Environment, a Polish law that says that an environmental organisation can take a case if they believe a specific activity is harming the environment, which is a ‘common good’ that everyone enjoys. Nobody has used this approach before.

The charity is demanding that the owner of the plant (Polska Grupa Energetyczna Górnictwo i Energetyka Konwencjonalna S.A (PGE GiEK)) ceases activities posing a threat to the environment – namely the burning of lignite.

Brown coal – or ‘lignite’ – plants are fed by nearby mines because transporting the heavy, wet coal is so difficult. So Belchatow is surrounded by huge opencast mines. As the first ones are exhausted, the operators are trying to dig another, the Zloczew mine, which would displace 3,000 people – and release tonnes of toxic heavy metals into the soil and water. This would not only be environmentally devastating, but hugely expensive, and is being met with fierce opposition. This includes a separate legal case by ClientEarth.

ClientEarth recently won its case to stop large new coal plant Polnoc being built, working with many local residents and farmers.

The Polish government previously tried to sue the European Commission to overturn new pollution laws designed to protect people and the environment.

Read Enervis’ report: “Assessment of options for the replacement of the Belchatow lignite power plant”.

The 1 billion tonnes of CO2 figure was calculated based on the following data – https://pgegiek.pl/aktualnosci/Belchatowska-12-produkuje-energie-elektryczna-od-30-lat; https://elbelchatow.pgegiek.pl/Ochrona-srodowiska/Wskazniki-emisji

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