By Wojciech Kość

When Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced after the European Council summit last week that Poland was the only country not to have signed up to the EU’s goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050, it triggered a wave of praise from supporters and criticism from opponents.

Among supporters, there was a sense that Poland had managed to free itself completely from committing to the EU goal, a claim tweeted out by, among others, the head of the prime minister’s chancellery, Michał Dworczyk. Opponents offered the same interpretation, but saw it as a cause of regret, generating a news cycle along the lines of “PiS is dooming Poland to burning coal forever.”

In actual fact, both sides are wrong – or at least extremely premature in their conclusions.

Their interpretation would only be accurate if EU summits – on any policy, not just climate – were one-off affairs, with their conclusions either becoming enshrined in EU law or falling through altogether. But that is not the case. They are rather the EU’s exemplary policy-making events: incremental, with a long-term effect as the ultimate goal.

The European Green Deal currently being spearheaded by the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has climate policy as one of its fundamentals. But it is work in very early stages of progress – von der Leyen only took over this month – and will necessarily go through a number of iterations before its framework ideas become actual laws.

Given that the climate neutrality goal is three decades away, a single sentence in the EU summit’s conclusions saying that “one Member State, at this stage, cannot commit to implement this objective” cannot be interpreted as Poland going it alone against the EU’s climate ambitions, not even with the contrarian reputation that the bloc’s coal-defender-in-chief Warsaw has earned.

More likely, the government’s decision is a way of buying time in order to win more concessions. Again, the objective being the year 2050 makes a delay of a few months until the next EU summit rather insignificant in the scheme of things.

It is worth bearing in mind that, if one reads last week’s conclusions closely, Poland in fact did not oppose anything else and the matter of Warsaw signing up to the climate neutrality target will be discussed again in June, as Emmanuel Macron made clear afterwards.

By that time, Morawiecki seems to hope, Poland might be able to secure a greater slice of the money pie that the European Green Deal must come with to be effective. From the beginning of negotiations, Poland has made clear that its agreement is contingent upon receiving “significantly larger” funding from the EU budget to help with the costs of transition.

For example, Poland is on board for the so-called Just Transition Mechanism, a pool of up to €100 billion that the EU has pledged to ease coal regions’ transition to emissions-free economy. During its time at the helm of global climate negotiations in 2018 as president of the COP24 UN climate conference, Poland made just transition a top priority. Climate also features high on the agenda of negotiating the next EU budget for the years 2021-2027.

Importantly, June comes after the likely date of next year’s presidential election in Poland, where the incumbent, PiS’s candidate Andrzej Duda, is seeking a second term. Afterwards, Morawiecki will be free of the constraints of the election campaign, giving him more leeway to sell the acceptance of climate neutrality.

In any case, Poland is simply too engaged with the EU in terms of climate and related policies – which these days means pretty much all policies – to be able to pick and choose. Warsaw might say it is opposed to climate neutrality now. It also used to say “no” to a number of climate policy initiatives in the past, yet it typically adopted them anyway in the incremental process of decision making in Brussels.

That will also be the likely scenario with the climate neutrality objective and European Green Deal in general, says veteran climate policy negotiator and expert Lidia Wojtal.

“Poland simply cannot miss partaking in the core EU policy that climate protection has become because it is already too engaged with it, regardless of what one might think about the quality of that engagement,” said Wojtal.

“Poland still has to deliver its National Climate and Energy Action Plan and the national long-term 2050 strategy to the European Commission by the end of the year. Those two strategic documents will be reviewed in the context of climate neutrality and will influence how money under the next EUs long-term budget will be allocated,” she added.

The problem with that strategy, of course, has long been that the Polish authorities reduced themselves to followers rather than trendsetters in climate policy. But that is by no means an invention of the incumbent Law and Justice party. It is a strategy pursued nearly invariably by all of its predecessors.

Unusual as it may sound, PiS still stands a chance of doing more on climate policy than previous governments did. If – admittedly that is a very big if – there is a palpable progress on nuclear power and offshore wind by the end of the current administration’s term in late 2023, Poland would embark on the path of real – even if late, enforced, and possibly too slow – decarbonisation of its energy sector.

In fact, given that Poland is among the group of countries that consider nuclear power an effective means of reducing carbon emissions in the EU, it could end up being more pro-climate than Germany, which is set to decommission its emissions-free nuclear power capacity as soon as by the end of 2022.

Wojciech Kość is a journalist covering Poland and the Baltic states for bne IntelliNews. He also reports for Politico Europe and, with a particular focus on energy and climate issues.

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