Though in October, Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party narrowly won a second term in office, its power was weakened after it lost control of the upper house of Parliament and failed to increase its majority in the more powerful lower chamber. Now one wonders if Poland is finally about to get serious about addressing the climate crisis? Following Mateusz Morawiecki’s first speech to Parliament as prime minister and his initial decisions, is a breakthrough in the nation’s position on the environment coming? Our Polish correspondent, Michal Olszewski, takes a look.
New policies but old habits
Hopes were high. Ecology was to be a core issue for the new-old prime minister, who has just begun his second term. After all, there is no other option – the last few years have been marked by poor or even catastrophic political decisions. Even though Poland’s climate goals are in no way excessively ambitious, blocking the development of wind farms put them at risk. This is especially true regarding the nation’s share of renewables in consumed energy.
Recent energy policy decisions may turn out to have been extremely costly mistake. The last government began construction on another coal-fired power plant unit in Ostrołęka, though even PiS politicians have unofficially admitted that the decision was purely political and made no economic sense. This means increasing dependence on coal over the coming decades, with more increasingly being imported from Russia. And so ends the dream of energy sovereignty.
In order to understand the broader context of the ecological part of Morawiecki’s opening speech, one needs to realise that a constant battle for influence rages within the right-wing government. In terms of attitude to the climate crisis, the dividing line has long been between politicians of the older generation, such as former minister of the environment Henryk Kowalczyk or the last energy minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski, and the new guard comprised of Jarosław Gowin (minister of science and higher education), Jadwiga Emilewicz (minister for development in the new government) and Mateusz Morawiecki himself.
This first group, like the former environment minister Jan Szyszko, who is remembered for his aggressive timber harvesting in the Białowieża Forest, primarily acted to put the brakes on climate and ecological progress. He firmly insisted on coal’s raison d’état and it’s tradition of providing mass energy. Their influence on the government’s economic decisions was also considerable – and they long enjoyed the support of PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.
Meanwhile, Gowin, Emilewicz and Morawiecki have a more nuanced attitude towards ecology. Motivated also by pragmatic reasons, it is among the middle classes, with their keen interest in photovoltaics and micro installations, that Gowin is seeking voters. Morawiecki is also aware that there is no turning away from climate policy.
What about renewables?
Though this new opening up to ecology has not been particularly impressive, it’s good that Poland is finally going to build offshore wind farms and facilitate prosumer energy. Nevertheless, this second proposition is capitalising on an independent, grassroots process initiated by citizens encouraged by cheaper micro-installations, rather than creating new trends.
At the same point, the construction of nuclear power plants remains in the realm of dreams (and nightmares). We should not be fooled by the prime minister’s forceful announcement of investment in nuclear energy, because this is a matter that all governments since 1989 have capitulated on. None so far have been able to make a clear decision to either build a power plant or abandon the project altogether.
A loud silence?
What is important is what the opening speech lacked. The prime minister devoted very little attention to smog, one of the country’s greatest ecological evils. He wasted no breath on emissions reduction or how to achieve a zero-emission economy. However, this topic is crucial for the EU economy. Countries must develop socio-economic models that look crippling at first glance, but that will reduce emissions while maintaining the competitiveness of individual economies.
It is also difficult to treat seriously the request that traditional energy sources (read: coal) be “respected,” nor the sentiment that European institutions that are apparently “not taking into account where we are starting from.” Either the prime minister is not aware that the derogation mechanism has seen Poland receive billions of euros that were to be allocated to decarbonising the economy (but that were mainly used to upgrade coal facilities), or he is telling outright untruths.
But, on the other hand, the word “coal” appeared nowhere in the opening speech – the prime minister spoke only of “conventional energy”. Let us remember that a year ago, during the climate summit in Katowice, President Andrzej Duda boasted that Poland had coal reserves to last another 200 years. Not discussing the sector that was until recently presented as a foundation of Polish economic policy, certainly appears to be saying something. Does it mean that Morawiecki is not willing to die for the mining industry? That is hard to believe, given that the Polish right owes the miners a very large political debt.
Just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
While the announcements made in the opening speech are ambiguous, the prime minister’s first decisions on environmental issues are deeply disappointing and show that climate and environmental issues are just another target for political plunder for Morawiecki. Of course, the prime minister cut the government’s ecological brakes, dropping ministers Henryk Kowalczyk and Krzysztof Tchórzewski. At the same time, however, he split the environment ministry, extracting from it a ministry for climate affairs. Michał Kurtyka, an experienced climate official who is well-known in Europe, was appointed climate minister. This could go either way – Kurtyka could make Polish climate policy more dynamic, but he might just as easily, as a professional in the meanders of negotiations, be effective in delaying emissions agreements. Additionally, by adding a third ministry to deal with energy companies and mining, we will find a landscape with a high risk of chaos, internal disputes, overlapping responsibilities and endless inter-ministerial arrangements.
Until recently, this strategy of delaying the decision-making process worked – it gave Poland a durable EU brake pad, but maintained its quasi-ecological agenda, which can be summarised as “business as usual”. But matters have picked up speed as the rising prices of CO2 emissions are forcing a rethink.
Therefore we risk that Poland will remain on the sidelines, occasionally shouting about energy independence and respect for coal. Making declarations while ignoring uncomfortable topics with silence and the creation of new ministries in no way reduces our danger.