Poland recently celebrated a victory which has been widely hailed as “a win for democracy and the European Union”. Although the ruling nationalist party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS / Law and Justice) won the most votes (35.4%) in parliamentary elections, it has lost the majority in parliament and will have to step down after 8 years of (mis)leading the country. Instead, opposition parties will now form the government.
This win is celebrated by both human rights and climate justice activists. But how does the climate crisis come into the picture?
Hail to the coal
To this day Poland is known to be one of the largest coal producers in the world, with the country itself being highly dependent on fossil fuels (reportedly more than 70 percent of Poland's energy is coming from coal). The government led by PiS was infamously known as a “climate laggard”, and refused to phase out dependency on coal and cut emissions while continuing business as usual all the way till 2049.
To no surprise, in recent years as with all European countries, Poland also started to see what the climate crisis feels like first-hand. The country suffered from multiple floods and droughts, heat and frost waves, which heavily hit the agriculture sector. That largely contributed to the formation of public opinion with almost 70 percent of the Polish population supporting the introduction of stronger legal climate measures.
Poles were also one of the first nations in the world to take their government to court for the lack of action to protect its people from worsening climate impact. Back in 2021, the claimants demanded the government to reduce greenhouse emissions by 63 percent (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2043. In response to these demands, the PiS-led government stood in opposition to an EU court decision demanding a halt to the operation of the Turów mine and continued to stand against the implementation of the EU’s Green Deal.
A spark of hope for activists
The win of the opposition also marks a potential breaking point for the country in the field of human rights. For several years, the now-stepping-down government was stripping away women's rights, managing to impose a near-total ban on abortion, while not only creating a climate of fear in society but also getting the title of a ‘villain’ on the EU level. The government's unwillingness to recognise and maintain human rights led to drastic actions - judicial reform to take away the independence and neutrality of the country's judicial power that is now declared as violating the EU’s law. With these actions, Poland became the first country to get the activation of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union - suspension of rights of the member country.
It is quite obvious that Poland grew a ‘beast’ that was damaging the country both from the inside and the outside. And the only force that kept the ‘beast’ in power was the conservative voter. That put the national elections of 2023 at the highest-ever importance, with some comparing it with the Polish elections in 1989 when the country decided to abandon communism.
The elections put activism to new levels of importance as well. It became a matter of strategizing and mobilising the electorate that had already given up on the system and a hope for change - women and youth. It was the time when climate, humanitarian and social activists saw the need for intersectional activism and unconventional tactics to catalyse change.
Their hard work paid off. Poland saw a record voter turnout of 74 percent, a historical result that is now hoped to embark on change.
Is it too soon to celebrate?
Quite naturally, the win of the progressive (in comparison to PiS) Civic Coalition seems groundbreaking not only for Poles who, it seems, can finally dare to envision the end of the coal era but also for the EU, which can now see the main break of its green transition plans losing the power (if the duo of Poland and Hungary break up after the change in Polish politics).
But does the future really look that bright?
Indeed, political programs of those opposition parties, which at least bothered to prepare and publish their agenda, promise energy transition. And while some abstractly offer “Poland's energy transformation” and try to sprinkle it with magic words like “wind farms” and “photovoltaics” (Trzecia Droga), others give specific numbers. The most prominent opponent of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość in recent elections, Koalicja Obywatelska (KO or Civic Coalition), promised to present a detailed energy transformation plan that will reduce CO2 emissions by 75% by 2030.
It is also noteworthy that Lewica (The Left) is the only one to mention “supporting the regions most dependent on fossil fuels”, “involving affected communities in decision-making processes” and “guaranteeing workers in the fossil fuel industry retraining and employment in the green industry” in their plans.
What strikes the most though is the presence of nuclear power in most of these plans, including that of Civic Coalition and the Left. In fact, a permit for the first nuclear power plant has been already issued whilst the Polish Nuclear Power Programme laid out plans to build up to six reactors.
Everything seems to point to the fact that nuclear power is likely to be included in the country’s energy mix in the future, even though it has proven to be an inefficient energy source dragging enormous investments that could be otherwise used for the only real solution we have to this day, that is, renewables. As Farhad Manjoo sums it up precisely, ‘responding to such a climate emergency with nuclear power is like calling on a sloth to put out a house fire’.
Diversity of the opposition with winning parties having quite a different take on handling the climate crisis nationally is an aspect that might also influence the ability to reach a consensus inside of the ruling coalition and formulate a solid joint position for policy changes.
What will the future bring us?
The situation is all the more concerning given that the Polish government led by Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Coalition, a former Prime Minister and now a potential candidate for the Prime Minister’s chair again, has a history of resisting climate action.
Donald Tusk has been actively advocating for shale gas in the past. He infamously said that the future of Polish energy lies in both coal and shale gas while the government led by him made shale gas extraction tax-free until 2020 in fear of foreign firms, such as Exxon Mobil, quitting their shale gas operations in the country. And as if that wasn't enough, Poland has been actively using a veto to block climate targets of the European Union during his term of office.
We wish we could breathe a sigh of relief after learning the results of parliamentary elections in Poland. Unfortunately, the political programs of the winning parties and a deeper dig into the past leave us sceptical, to say the least. One thing can be known for certain: climate activists and environmental organisations will make sure to closely observe every step of the newly elected government.
Authors: Beata Ščiuko, Ugnė Budriūnaitė
Editors: Advocacy working group