“We cannot avoid our responsibility when it comes to our planet,” says the head of Poland’s new climate ministry, which was created as part of a cabinet shakeup ahead of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s second term.
The new minister, Michał Kurtyka – who last year served as president of the COP24 UN Climate Conference in Katowice at which new global rules for implementing emissions cuts were agreed – told broadcaster RMF FM that he is serious about implementing measures to tackle emissions, air pollution and plastic waste in Poland.
But critics will remain sceptical given that, whatever Kurtyka’s own views, he is part of a government that has pledged to stick with coal as Poland’s primary energy source for decades to come and has been blocking European Union efforts to set targets for reaching carbon neutrality.
The Polish government has said that “significantly larger” funding is required from the European Union budget before it agrees to reduce emissions, because its coal-dependent economy will have far higher transition costs than other countries.
Currently, around 80% of power in Poland is generated from coal, by far the highest level in the EU. The government’s energy strategy, published earlier this year, foresees this figure only falling to 60% by 2030.
Poland is one of three member states (the others being Hungary and the Czech Republic) that are refusing to approve new EU-wide emissions targets. In September, French president Emmanuel Macron accused Poland of “blocking everything” and called on young people “to go demonstrate in Poland”.
EU countries by the sources of their power generation.
Poland is by far the most reliant on coal, which produces around 80% of its power.
— Notes from Poland ?? (@notesfrompoland) May 28, 2019
In the interview with RMF, Kurtyka admitted that part of his “role will be to advocate [Poland’s] challenges in the context of the EU budget and European solidarity”.
The minister did not mention coal at all, but did stress his view that there needs to be “huge civilisational change in terms of our attitude towards the resources of our planet”. He accepted that severe climate change is taking place and that “scientists from around the world show the influence of man” on this process.
This contrasts with his former boss at the environment ministry, Henryk Kowalczyk, who a year ago, while Poland was hosting COP24, questioned the idea of anthropogenic global warming. He suggested instead that “volcanic eruptions” and “rotting trees” were among the causes.
In September this year, the science and higher education minister, Jarosław Gowin, said that “scientists are very divided regarding the role of man” in global warming, and suggested that reducing EU emissions would be pointless if bigger polluters did not do the same.
In the interview with RMF, Kurtyka also acknowledged that Poland still has a lot to do to tackle air pollution, which is among the worst in Europe.
Of the EU’s 50 cities with the worst air quality, 36 are in Poland. Analysis by Deloitte suggests that air pollution causes 46,000 premature deaths annually in Poland and costs the economy 111 billion zloty.
Earlier this year, the government introduced a clear-air programme to tackle the problem by replacing old heating systems and subsidising new insulation for homes. Kurtyka says that the project is “unprecedented in terms of scale”.
However, the programme has been beset by problems. In September, Rzeczpospolita daily reported that “bureaucracy, inaccessibility, lack of communication and the relatively low subsidies” have led to very low uptake. The programme’s EU funding is also in doubt due to concerns over its implementation.
A €25 bn clean air programme in Poland is in danger of losing EU support after poor implementation on the Polish side has seen low uptake of the funding available to improve insulation and heating in homes, which are a big source of Poland's air pollution https://t.co/Es3jTMVUmM
— Notes from Poland ?? (@notesfrompoland) June 20, 2019
Kurtyka also defended the government’s plan, announced in 2016, to have one million electric cars on Polish roads by 2025. So far, there are only around 4,000 to 7,000. Earlier this year, the government’s latest transport strategy quietly altered the plan to say that the number of electric and hybrid cars “could reach” 600,000 by 2030.
However, Kurtyka says Poland can still meet the target, and that growth will be “exponential” once it really gets underway.
Main image credit: Prezydencja COP24/Wikimedia Commons (under CC BY-SA 4.0)
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.