The appointment of the new Polish government in December raised hopes across the European Union that Poland would once again be a progressive partner in energy and climate policy. During last year’s general election campaign, the parties that now comprise the government made various pronouncements to justify this optimism. Civic Coalition, the main governing party, pledged to raise the share of renewable energy in electricity production to 68 per cent by 2030, from 27 per cent now. It also promised to expand the grid to create a more decentralised energy system. And, like its larger coalition partner, the Left party backed a more active approach to energy and climate issues within the EU.
Since arriving in office, the government has intensified the dialogue with the European Commission on Poland’s National Energy and Climate Plan, a significant part of which is to be dedicated to the energy transition. Before even taking up her post, the new minister for climate and environment, Paulina Hennig-Kloska, framed the energy transition as firmly in the national interest. The new government has shared plans to improve the country’s clean air programme, which in recent years has contributed to the growth of renewable energy potential in Poland. It has also announced personnel changes and an audit of the operation of the main state-controlled energy companies.
The climate ministry now contains figures who are unequivocally in favour of pursuing the energy transition, such as deputy minister Urszula Zielińska, who is also co-chair of the Green party. Alongside her, Krzysztof Bolesta – a non-partisan energy transition expert with experience at NGOs and the European Commission – is set to be appointed deputy minister. Hennig-Kloska herself has some experience to draw on, such as past involvement in ecosystem restoration in former mining areas. That being said, she is still to become a prominent politician, which may limit any early efforts to push through important decisions on energy and climate.
Alongside these positives, the government’s first weeks have also brought some disappointments. Firstly, the governing parties’ coalition agreement contains only rather general wording on accelerating the energy transition. Similarly, addressing parliament, new prime minister Donald Tusk made only very limited references to energy and climate issues.
Secondly, the government seems not to have given this policy area the organisational prominence it requires. Before the new government was formed, one of its governing parties – Poland 2050, to which Hennig-Kloska belongs – hinted at creating a separate ministry to deal with the energy transition, with its head given the rank of deputy prime minister. But the government has largely retained the organisational set-up of the previous administration. This comprises the Ministry of Climate and Environment, the Ministry of State Assets (which oversees state-controlled companies, including energy companies), and the office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Strategic Energy Infrastructure. A novelty is the Ministry of Industry. This is a new department, and is located in Katowice, the capital of the traditional coal-mining region of Silesia – a symbolic move. It is the only ministry headquartered outside Warsaw, and its remit is broad, including responsibilities for coal mining, nuclear, hydrogen, and gas and oil policy.
Thirdly, although it is difficult to criticise a government for failing to present a complete energy and climate strategy only a month after taking power, a major weakness of its first weeks has been a certain communication chaos regarding some strategic spheres of energy policy. A case in point was a statement by Zielińska, who, prior to an informal meeting of the environment council in Brussels, announced Poland’s backing for a carbon dioxide emissions reduction target of 90 per cent by 2040. Yet this was overruled just two hours later by Hennig-Kloska.
In a similar fashion, Poland’s nuclear ambitions became the subject of contradictory statements issued by government representatives. The new governing coalition in principle supports nuclear energy. But after taking power, Tusk expressed his support for an audit of the nuclear programme, which generated uncertainty around the programme. About the same time, a government representative in the region of Pomerania publicly floated the idea of changing the location of the programme’s planned first new nuclear power plant. Speculation was quickly killed once Hennig-Kloska announced the location would not alter, but a cloud of confusion lingered.
The government also got bogged down in delivering what should have been a good new story. It proposed a law on liberalising onshore wind energy projects. But the bill’s specific contents were potentially excessive and could have introduced environmental threats. The government also alighted on a wheeze to get the legislation passed – attaching an energy price freeze to the bill to make it hard for the Law and Justice president to veto – which provoked noisy criticism. The liberalisation plan fell after the governing parties withdrew their support from that package approach.
A declaration of intent
The government’s wider political challenges are an immense draw on its attention and energy. It is deeply focused on restoring the rule of law in many areas of the Polish state and associated policy and practice. At the same time, Poland is already entering a new electoral cycle: local government elections are due in April with the European Parliament vote following in June. The presidential election then takes place next year.
Hennig-Kloska has recently made some positive moves to get the crucial energy and environment policy area back on track. She has announced the acceleration of work on updating the Polish Energy Policy 2040, which is the main document setting out the objectives and directions of Poland’s energy policy. She has also announced plans to speed up the process of updating the National Energy and Climate Plan. This is good news: it is line with public opinion, which is already generally positive towards the idea of the energy transition, including the development of nuclear projects, which 90 per cent of Poles support.
However, to address any sense of delay – and to position itself to deliver on last year’s campaign pledges – the government should move quickly to publish a comprehensive energy and climate strategy. As part of this, it should issue a clear declaration of its goals on where it plans to source Poland’s energy from and how it intends to decarbonise the economy. Alongside this, the government should share a realistic calculation of the outlays necessary for this transformation, together with a credible timetable for individual components of the new strategy.
Finally, it will be important to develop a positive and constructive response to the European Commission’s planned announcement of climate policy targets for 2040. Warsaw should aim to play an active role in negotiating the new targets, and it should do so in a way that takes account of the EU’s ambitions. At the same time, it should make realistic assessments of the potential for these targets’ implementation, bearing in mind the specific circumstances in Poland, including its relatively high dependency on coal. The government should formulate its response by undertaking a broad public consultation within Poland, both with representatives of key sectors of the economy and with expert circles. It should also prepare a well thought-out and coherent communications strategy to accompany this, in order to clearly establish Poland’s position on the EU energy and climate agenda.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.