The reality of environmental protection in Poland

The political changes in Poland have claimed ecology as another victim. For conservative politicians, ecology is just a dangerous whim and they would very happily spend the money allocated to it elsewhere. Michał Olszewski takes a critical look.

a fallen tree with ferns growing on its roots in a green spring forest

Polish forests – and polish citizens – are in danger from the right’s short-sighted environmental policy (Photo by Jacek Karczmarz, edited, CC BY-SA 2.0)


For the Polish Right (both the politicians and the publicists who support them) environmental protection is the unwanted offspring of the democratic transformation. For as long as I can remember, conservatives have been very energetic in their opposition to decarbonisation, brandishing their tired-out arguments about the national economy, sentimental justifications or references to real improvements in environmental conditions in other areas. They have treated climate change as the invention of western lobbyists. Ultimately, one can even take environmental protection as a sign of madness, as the chairman of the Polish ruling party PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, did in one interview.

Dirty air: Warsaw vs Brussels

After the Right took power, that rhetoric took on material form. The evidence is endless: a month ago the Minister for the Environment Jan Szyszko took the European Parliament to the European Court of Justice. The reason? Pollution emission standards are, according to Szyszko, excessive, and Poland has no intention of adopting them. Poland is a country in which winter brings some of Europe’s highest levels of smog. The country suffocates in a cocktail of particulate matter, carcinogenic benzo[a]pyrene, and nitrogen and sulphur compounds.

The fight for clean air has powerful opponents – mainly the mining lobby, which sells minimum-quality coal to Polish households. Added to that is the reluctance of politicians who believe that it is better to have terrible air and a market for failing mines than clean air and protesting miners. Local solutions do not help because they are not accompanied by systemic activities, which not only the PiS government fears. The Civic Platform (PO) government was also for years in no hurry to adopt any such activities.

As a result, there are winter months in which cities and mountain spa towns experience smog levels on par with those of Beijing. The case in the ECJ means that, instead of working on solving the smog problem, the government wants Brussels to retract its anti-smog policy. It is also doing this at a time when European operations are picking up the pace and there are consequences for those not taking up the fight against smog. Meanwhile, the Polish government is making a clear declaration that it will not be fighting smog. This is an attempt to halt the development, scientific research and local community efforts which were the vanguard of the fight against smog and which had expected the support of the state.

Moreover, Jan Szyszko has perpetuated the view of Poland abroad as a country that prefers to be wreathed in toxic smoke than to try to clear the air. It is a risky business that Poland may now be seen not only as a country detached from the EU politically, but also socially and in terms of health policy.

It is worth noting as an aside that with this decision, the minister has opened up another front in the fight against Brussels. For years Poland has failed to meet EU air quality requirements and ignored calls from Brussels. If Warsaw declares war on Brussels over smog, it will mean that smog has poisoned its ability to think clearly. Thus far, the Union has treated Poland lightly, but now it will try to enforce the meeting of obligations, or impose a gigantic fine on Warsaw.

The thorn in the forester’s side

The Białowieża Forest is another matter. In one of the most valuable lowland forests in Europe, mass fellings are taking place. The environment minister decided that the bark beetle plague supposedly killing the forest requires radical action. He has also banned tourists from entering the forest: it appears that there are so many dead trees that they might fall on hikers’ heads. Ecologists believe that it is a pretext to prevent outsiders from witnessing the effects of the fellings.

This game is nothing more than an attempt to show who is in control in the Białowieża Forest. The State Forests are a huge business, and even if they agreed to provide legal protection to the entire forest, their budget would not suffer. Escalation of the conflict seems unavoidable: as this text was being finalised, environmentalists had started a blockade of one of the fellings. The reasons for this opposition are not material, since the income from the Białowieża Forest is only a fraction of the huge budget of the State Forests. It is all about showing that, in Polish forests, it is the foresters who are in control.

Redistributing funds for coal

An equally current matter is that of the attack on regional environmental funds. They currently fall under the jurisdiction of local authorities, who spend the money on lowering emissions, rational water management and sewage. The Right is preparing an environmental protection bill for a law that would allow the government to take over a sum of €2.5 billion per year. Where will that money go? One can only speculate that they will be used to a lesser degree than they are currently to fund programmes for the elimination of obsolete coal boilers. After all, the present government is doing all it can to protect miners and the mining industry.

One spectacular example of the distrust of any energy other than coal is the stagnation in the Polish renewable energy sector. Despite the fact that installation costs are falling globally, and wind, water and biomass energy are on their way, Poland has decided to go in the opposite direction. PiS deputies have limited the possibilities to build wind turbines, drawing the immediate attention of the sector, which withdrew from plans for major investments. Activity in the solar industry also died: last year saw the installation of barely 28 MW in photovoltaics!

This list is incomplete, but it does emphatically show how quickly things can regress, even in a domain so seemingly obvious as environmental protection. The actions of right-wing politicians are destroying not only the constructs that have been built in Poland over the past 27 years, but they are also having a measurable impact on citizens’ health.

An exaggeration? Ask the Polish environment minister, who thinks the problem of smog is “theoretical.”

by

Michał Olszewski

Michał Olszewski (born 1977) – journalist, reporter, writer. For more than twelve years he worked for Gazeta Wyborcza and Tygodnik Powszechny, where he concentrated mostly on environmental issues. He is engaged in a Krakow-based campaign against air pollution.

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