Even though ecology is a key economic and social theme, it was most definitely side-lined during the Polish parliamentary elections of 15 October 2023. The campaign was dominated by other issues: the surveillance of opposition politicians by special services, the role of state-run media, migration policy and the unprecedented enrichment of politicians from the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party through state assets. These subjects stirred a lot more emotion than the future of a coal-based economy or the need to unfreeze the stunted development of wind energy. Michał Olszewski reports.
This doesn’t mean that ecology got completely forgotten. The winning Civic Coalition’s 100 policies for the new term of office include the restoration of beneficial billing of renewable energy for prosumers that was abolished by PiS, a promise to create 700 energy communities that will produce their own power, the unblocking of wind energy on land, the presentation of an energy transformation plan that will allow Poland to reduce CO2 emissions by 75% by 2030 compared to 2022, and, last but not least, an acceleration of the development of renewable energy sources as well as the nuclear energy programme. It’s worth stressing that the last two policies found their way into the election programmes of all the parties that won seats in the Polish parliament. The anti-EU Confederation did not discount the need for urgent changes in Poland’s energy mix, and the New Left expressed its strong support for the construction of a nuclear energy plant.
A very interesting and simultaneously worrying divergence of views was visible in the issue of managing waters. In the face of catastrophic droughts, PiS wanted to invest in the infrastructure and development of waterway transport, believing it possible to maintain water levels and turn rivers into transport waterways at the same time. Luckily, this anachronistic view wasn’t widely implemented over the last eight years of their right-wing government. Confederation focused on the development of water energy, believing that it could aid in the construction of the new energy mix and forgetting about the high environmental costs of such investments. Civic Coalition, on the other hand, called for renaturalisation and a wetland restoration programme, long called-for by experts.
I mention the campaign because it reveals points in common, as well as significant differences in thinking about environmental protection. So far, everything points to the winning democratic coalition focusing on issues related to nuclear energy, which is especially significant, as it was Donald Tusk who appointed a representative for the construction of atomic energy plants back in 2009. However, costs and legal procedures meant that the investment proved too much for Polish civil servants at that time. Now, Tusk will grapple with the atom once more and, once again, the result isn’t yet decided. 15 years later, large nuclear energy is even more expensive and the small modular reactor (SMR) technology is still in its infancy. According to Bloomberg, the new prime minister has already started putting pressure on American companies Westinghouse and Bechtel, who are to build a nuclear power plant in Poland, to change the terms of their contract. We can only assume that these companies aren’t in any rush to make such a commitment.
However, it looks like it will be much easier for the ruling coalition to deal with one of the departing right-wing government’s grave sins. Andrzej Domański, the new finance minister, has announced that the question of the wind turbine act would be addressed. In 2016 the governing United Right under the leadership of PiS introduced restrictive provisions, which have de facto caused the development of the entire sector to slump. The infamous minimum distance rule was initially set at 10 times the height of a wind turbine. In March 2023 the act looked on course to be liberalised when PiS prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government set the minimum distance at 500 metres, but at the parliamentary committee stage, the PiS member of the parliament Marek Suski added amendments that once again made impossible any development to unblock the industry (by setting the minimum distance at 700 metres). The winning democratic coalition is planning to reduce the minimum distance from buildings to 500 metres and has also declared a 170 billion PLN government investment in renewable energy sources.
This is an ambitious objective. The Civic Coalition has declared that by 2030 68% of energy produced in Poland will come from renewable sources. Should this happen, Poland is expected to go through a genuine energy revolution. The past eight years have been marked by regression and stagnation in the state’s official ecological policy. One of the very few areas that has gained ground was prosumer photovoltaics. Even if the revolution is only partially successful, we should still keep our fingers crossed for it.