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WARSAW, Poland – With coal-reliant Poland hosting U.N. climate talks, the fossil fuel industry will get a rare chance to play a more visible role in the global warming debate.
But in a move that has infuriated climate activists, the Polish government will also preside over a high-level coal industry event on the sidelines of the two-week climate conference, which starts Monday.
"It's been seen as a real provocation and a statement from the Polish government that they have no intention to move away from coal," said Wendel Trio, director of the Climate Action Network in Europe.
Coal, oil and gas companies normally keep a low profile during the annual U.N. climate talks, which are aimed at reining in the carbon emissions that scientists say are a major driver of global warming.
But Polish officials say that coal, which accounts for more than 80 percent of Poland's electricity generation, won't go away anytime soon and needs to be a key part of the climate debate.
So on Nov. 18-19, as the U.N. conference enters its final week in Warsaw, the World Coal Association and Poland's Economy Ministry are organizing a conference billed as "the coal industry's most important event of the year."
Organizers say the International Coal and Climate Summit will bring together coal industry executives, policy-makers and others to "discuss the role of coal in the global economy, in the context of the climate change agenda."
In a statement Thursday to The Associated Press, the World Coal Association said the coal summit is meant as a contribution, not an alternative, to the U.N. talks. It noted that U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres will be a keynote speaker at the event.
Given the irritation the coal summit has stirred in the climate community, attending it may have been an awkward decision for Figueres, who regularly promotes efforts to boost renewable energy and cut funding for fossil fuels.
"She could either completely ignore that it's happening or go there and make a point, and I think she's chosen the latter one," said Liz Gallagher, of European environmental think tank E3G.
The U.N. climate change secretariat declined to comment and Figueres did not respond to a Twitter query about the issue.
Gallagher said she believes the coal event is more about domestic Polish politics than increasing the coal industry's presence in the international climate discussions.
"They want to show domestic audiences that they haven't forgotten that Poland is heavily reliant on coal," she said.
Though Poland has started restructuring its energy mix to boost renewables, officials say coal will remain the staple source of energy. The coal industry and affiliated sectors provide almost 600,000 jobs in Poland and traditionally enjoy government protection, especially now, when the jobless rate hovers around 13 percent.
That's reflected in Poland's position in climate policy discussions within the European Union, where the government has opposed deepening the bloc's emissions cuts from the current target of 20 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels. Poland joined the EU in 2004.
On Sunday Polish labor unions and nationalists are planning a panel discussion against climate actions they say could harm Poland's economy. The nationalists will also march the next day, the conference's opening day, which coincides with Poland's independence day. Their marches sometimes turn violent.
"Rich European nations are imposing short-term goals on us which they took some 50 years to achieve," said Krzysztof Bosak, a prominent member of the right-wing National Movement.
Associated Press writer Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.