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The liberal, pro-European opposition in Poland won the vote on 15 October, following a record turnout (74.4%), and formed a multi-party majority in parliament. While PiS gained the largest share of the vote of any part, with 35.4 percent, after 8 years in power it now lacked the necessary votes to form a majority government with other parties. The new coalition is made up of former European Council president Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition (30.7 %), the Third Way (14.4 %) and the Left (8.6 %). News media called the results a "political earthquake" which "delights Brussels,” as the possible incoming coalition is much more pro-European than the current government has been. In the coalition agreement, the parties promise to fight climate change and speed up the energy transition.
Poland was responsible for about 12% of total EU GHG emissions in 2021. Carbon emissions have fallen over 30% since peaking in the 1980s. Most of the reductions took place in the 1990s along with the fall of communism and a shift away from an industrial, planned economy. Emissions levels have not changed significantly since 2001. Poland's current greenhouse gas emission reduction target in the EU for 2030 (for domestic transport, buildings, agriculture, small industry and waste) is 17,7 % compared to 2005. It's far less than countries like Germany or Denmark (50%), but Poland's total emission in 2021 were actually slightly higher compared to 2005.
With electricity generation strongly reliant on coal, Poland’s power sector has the highest carbon intensity of any in the European Union, making the coal phase-out a key challenge. Poland’s energy sector is dominated by big, state-owned or partially state-owned companies, like oil corporation Orlen or Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE), an energy company which owns coal plants and mines.
Poland managed to diversify its supply of gas, oil, and coal, from being heavily reliant on imports from Russia. Yet, subsidies to keep gas and electricity prices down will cost the state tens of billion of euros. Electricity costs are likely to rise, not just with fuel prices but also as part of the EU ETS being an increasing burden for the coal-reliant energy system.
Air pollution is a major public health concern, fuelled not just by cars, but also furnaces, as no other EU country uses nearly as much coal for heating.
Major transition stories
The burden of coal – coal power is the biggest question mark hanging over Poland’s transition. According to plans from the previous government, Poland would be the last EU country using coal for power generation well into the 2040s. With ageing plants and an end to public subsidies looming, many coal plants will face closure earlier than planned, possibly threatening Poland with a power generation gap. The new ruling coalition has plans to accelerate deployment of renewables that, if realised, would make the need for coal marginal around the late 2030s. Just transition plans have been drawn for coal regions, but not all will receive EU funding – the lignite mine in the region of Turów was not approved for support as coal extraction is planned until 2044; unlike Bełchatów, home of the largest lignite plant in Europe, that is to close in the 2030s and will receive funding. With a rising price of CO2 in EU ETS, coal is driving up electricity prices.
Battery power-house — Poland is not among leading car producers in the EU, but there is a sector that stands to gain from the transition to electric vehicles: battery production. In April 2023 Poland overtook the U.S. as the country with second largest lithium-ion battery production capacity in the world. The sector sees the rise of EV’s and energy storage as a huge opportunity.
Going nuclear – Poland has not been able to successfully build a nuclear power plant despite ongoing efforts since the 1970s. The first initiative from 1971 made it to the construction phase, but collapsed with the fall of communism and protests. A newer project, which began in 2009, became stuck in an early phase. Now is the furthest any nuclear project has come since the fall of communism, with the U.S. firm Westinghouse as technological partner and 2033 as the planned open date. Another public-private project being considered is a partnership with the Korean firm KHNP. State oil company Orlen is planning to build a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) unit by 2030, and envisions more than 70 others across Poland in the coming decades.
Solar boom — While wind power capacity has stalled with the passing of unfavourable legislation, solar PV has exploded from a marginal capacity in 2018 to over 14 GW in 2023, having supplied 10% of electricity in the first eight months of 2023 (up from 5,7 in 2022) with both rooftop solar and utility-scale projects. However, this has pushed the outdated electricity grid to its limits, leading to thousands of projects being denied grid connection, due to outdated regulation or just too much electricity for the grid to cope with. A new update in legislation (introducing solutions like cable pooling) is meant to aid the situation.
Conflicts with the EU – The two terms of the PiS/United Right rule were marked by many conflicts with the EU and its institutions. These conflicts centred around the rule of law and environmental concerns in Poland's opposition to parts of the Green Deal. In summer 2023, Poland announced that it will challenge elements of the ‘Fit for 55’ package (like the combustion engine ban) in the EU’s top court, a move described by Euractiv as a “political bluff.” The conflict concerning rule of law has also stalled the payment of billions in EU pandemic recovery funds, blocking money for green investments. With the new coalition being far more pro-EU, the relations with Brussels are likely to improve significantly.
Heating in peril – 16 million Poles are keeping their homes warm in winter with district heating, the largest number of district heating customers among all EU countries. A vast majority of district heating systems use coal and are considered inefficient. Experts say the sector is “underinvested, outdated and unprofitable,” with customers bearing the brunt of rising cost.
Costly heat pumps – In 2022 heat pump installations increased, as many saw them as a solution to rising prices of coal and heating in general. However, now some are starting to regret their decision with energy costs rising. The Polish government agreed to freeze electricity prices, but only up to a certain level of energy consumption.Industry organisations have urged the government to make an exception, but no decision has been made so far. Media reports that demand for heat pumps is decreasing.
- Plant-based changes – It’s not a vegan revolution yet, but despite its meaty cuisine, Poland is a fast-growing market for plant-based animal product alternatives, with the market value reaching 1.5 billion PLN (336 million Euro) in 2021, almost doubling in a year. Just over eight percent of Poles are vegan or vegetarian, but 38% claim they try to reduce meat consumption. Even established meat brands are stocking plant based kabanosy (popular dry sausage).
- Responsible for 47.8% of total GHG emissions in 2021
- In 2022, coal was the main source of electricity, producing 69% (largest proportion by far in the EU), with wind and solar generating 15.5%. The lignite plant PGE Bełchatów is the EU's highest emitting power plant. In the period from June to August 2023, wind and solar generation rose to 23-26%, mainly due to newly installed PV capacity.
- Poland plans a gradual phase-out of coal, replacing it with a mix of renewables and nuclear generation. New fossil gas plants are also to be built, but some plans have been revised after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- In 2021, Poland adopted the Energy policy of Poland until 2040 (PEP2040) programme. The main targets are; 32% of renewables in electricity generation and no more than 56% of power from coal by 2030; the first nuclear power plant starting operation in 2033. The plan has been criticized by NGOs and parliamentary opposition as “unrealistic,” for example the PV target for 2030 is 7 GW, but already in 2023 Poland produced over 14 GW.
This year, the climate ministry proposed an update to EPP2040, with increased renewable targets and low- and zero-emissions sources covering 73 percent of demand by 2040. However, the new document was not adopted by the government due to internal disputes. The new ruling majority will put forward new plans, but for now there is no timeline for when to expect them.
- Responsible for 14% of total GHG emissions in 2021.
- It covers about 5% of Poland’s GDP and 400 thousand jobs.
- Energy intensity of industry (per GDP unit) is above the EU average, but companies are increasingly looking to improve efficiency and use zero-carbon energy, both in form of renewables and small nuclear reactors.
- CO2-intensive industries in Poland are comprised of both private domestic and international companies (like ArcelorMittal) and partially state-owned companies (like Orlen and Grupa Azoty).
- In 2022, energy-intensive industries struggled with big increases in electricity and gas prices. The high carbon intensity of the power sector is not only driving up prices, but also increasingly threatening their business as more and more clients are looking not just at price, but also at the carbon footprint.
- Responsible for 11% of total GHG emissions.
- Solid fuels (coal, wood) and district heating (mainly coal plants) dominate in the heating sector, but gas boiler use has increased in recent years and can now be found in a quarter of all buildings (according to incomplete government data).
- The energy crisis has led to a boom in heat-pump sales, but they remain a small percentage of all installed heating systems.
- Until recently, Poles burned as much as 87% of the coal burned by all EU households in their homes and almost two-thirds of buildings in Poland are characterized by low energy efficiency. In 2022 the government suspended quality requirements for coal sold to households due to energy crisis (and extended that in May 2023).
- The current government targets are: coal phase-out in city households by 2030 and outside cities by 2040, with all heating covered by “low emission sources” or district heating by 2040 (experts point out that this could be achieved much sooner). The building renovation strategy sets a target of renovating and insulating 236 thousand buildings per year between 2020-2030, with numbers increasing in the next decades.
- Polish cities have some of the worst air quality levels in Europe with buildings being (mainly solid fuels furnaces) the biggest contributor to fine particulate pollution.
- Almost 16 billion PLN (3,6 billion euro) contracted for household heat source replacement in the “Clean Air” governmental programme; but until 2022 it was possible to get a subsidy for a more efficient coal furnace.
- Domestic transport is responsible for 17.8% of total GHG emissions and is the only sector that had its emissions increase between 1990 and 2021.
- In 2019 the government adopted the Sustainable Transport Development Strategy until 2030. It assumes an 8% rise in CO2 emissions from transport by 2030 (compared to 2017); it has no specific target for the number of EVs.
The PiS government, in its official plans, was aiming for zero-emissions public transport in the biggest cities by 2030, as stated in Energy policy of Poland (EPP2040). In 2016, then-prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced that there will be one million electric cars in Poland by 2025, but so far there are fewer than 50 thousand EVs on Polish roads. The new coalition agreement contains a point on improving public transportation system, but nothing on EVs.
Transport is the area of the transition which the United Right government was most squarely behind, at least rhetorically, promoting electromobility and even initiating a state-led project of Polish EV brand “Izera.” Now the project’s future is in question as the new coalition will be reviewing controversial initiatives from PiS era and “Izera,” which the then-opposition politicians have been criticising for a long time.
- Poland is the EU’s leader in road freight, but the industry could be left out from the European market without a transition to zero emission trucks.
- Poland is Europe's biggest producer of lithium-ion batteries, and second-largest in the world (after China).
- Responsible for 8.9% of total GHG emissions in 2021, mostly in the form of nitrous oxide and methane (caused in around equal 40% parts by soil related emissions and direct livestock emissions).
- There is no governmental CO2 reduction target; the government only points to EU-wide targets for 2030 and 2050.
- The government sees biogas as an important project in developing circular economy in rural areas and providing low carbon energy.
- The effects of climate change, especially drought, are already impacting polish agriculture.
Land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF)
- Forests and other areas remain a carbon sink and removed 21 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2021. Around 30% of Poland is covered by forest (a number similar to countries like France or Germany) and around 80% of them is state owned and managed by a special public company, State Forests National Forest Holding. In 2022 State Forest had a record income of 13,5 billion PLN from selling wood. In recent years, the company has come under criticism from NGOs and private citizens for a number of issues, from lack of transparency to logging in old-growth forests.
- The level of CO2 removal by forests has been decreasing over the last decade, with a sharp fall in recent years (from over 40 million tons to just over 20 million tons). According to Poland's emissions report, the main reasons are due to the long-term effects of disasters like permanent drought and storms with strong wind causing trees to fall. Timber harvesting is also on the rise.
- The United Right government has been pointing to forest sequestration as a climate solution, including during COP24 in Poland; but sequestration levels have been falling and in 2021 it amounted to only 52% of Poland’s target for 2030. A solution proposed by the State Forestry organisation to counter this problem has had a marginal effect.
The government and the State Forests have criticised the EU Nature Restoration Law and other EU projects aimed to improve forest protection. Józef Kubica, the director of State Forest (and a candidate of ZP/PiS in 2023 election), stated in 2021 that EU targets for protecting forests would "drastically reduce" forest management in the current form "especially [the levels of] timber harvesting.” In 2022, State Forest had a record annual revenue of 13.5 billion PLN (3 billion euro) from the sale of timber. The new coalition has promised changes in how State Forests are run.
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