17 Apr 2024, 13:30
Patryk Strzałkowski

Fear of ousted populists could be enough to stall climate policy in Poland

Donald Tusk visits Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels. Photo: European Union, 2023

The election victory of the pro-EU coalition led by former European Council president Donald Tusk in late 2023 stirred high hopes for the start of serious climate policies in Poland after an eight-year lull during the rule of the right-wing populist Law and Justice party. But disenchantment has already started to spread, as researchers see the government shying away from ambitious action due to fear of a backlash driving voters back into the arms of the populist party. Experts argue the government can still make rapid progress if it manages to repackage climate policies to showcase the benefits for people feeling left behind.

***Please note: This article is part of a dossier on the impact of rising populism on climate efforts in Europe. For more details on the transition in Poland, check out our Guide to Poland ***

In short

Populist parties in Poland

Populists' impact on climate efforts

  • During its eight years in power, PiS - and especially its minor, extreme-right coalition partners - opposed many of the EU’s climate policies. At home, it pursued unambitious climate plans that included the use of coal well into the 2040s, and new restrictions on the construction of wind farms. However, it launched a popular subsidy programme for improving air quality by replacing old furnaces and installing solar panels, which triggered a solar boom in recent years. Experts say the new pro-EU government led by former European Council president Donald Tusk has so far shied away from ambitious action due to fear of a backlash driving voters back into the arms of the populist party.

Key climate issues in the 2024 EU election in Poland

  • The EU elections drew very little attention before local elections in Poland in early April 2024. This is set to change now, as high energy prices and new regulations associated with the implementation of the EU’s Green Deal are concerns for voters, in addition to security issues related to the war in Ukraine.

A “victory over populism” – this is how Poland’s election results were celebrated in Brussels and beyond at the end of last year. The parties in the government coalition formed by former European Council president Donald Tusk shared a pro-Europe stance and were heavily critical of the populist, right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) that had ruled Poland since 2015. Many voters, experts and civil society also took the arrival of ambitious climate action and environmental protection as a given, following neglect or even obstruction by PiS.

But the new government’s first few months in office have already dashed many of these hopes. Tusk shocked many activists by not only opposing the EU Nature Restoration Law, but also dithering over ambitious EU emission-cutting targets, and even rolling back the previous government’s plans for a tax on polluting cars. How could it have come to this?

It’s looking increasingly likely that the fear of right-wing populism - in parliament and in the streets – could be enough to stall ambitious climate policy. The populists might have left the government but their influence continues to be felt. 

“The new government decided to step back out of fear of social anger and discontent over the EU Green Deal policies," says Michał Hetmański, CEO of Instrat Foundation, a think tank dealing with strategic policy, including on climate.

Right-wing populist parties have scored significant electoral successes in Europe in recent years, and populist parties opposing strong climate action are expected to score well in two-thirds of EU member states at the European Parliament elections in June this year. The case of Poland holds interesting lessons for other countries, because it was ruled for eight years by the populist party PiS.

Fixing the damage done by PiS

Tusk’s government had promised to do more than just “fix” the damage done by PiS to Poland’s democracy, courts, and economy. It also pledged a reboot of climate and environmental policy. First in their election programmes and later in the coalition agreement, the parties forming the government promised to “speed up the energy transition”, accelerate the rollout of renewables, and improve environmental protection – all with more transparency and more expertise, including from NGOs. In short: A sharp departure from the policies of the previous populist government.

PiS had focused its rhetoric more on immigration and LGBTQ issues. But climate policies were also a target, especially for its extreme right. Party officials had promised “200 years of coal” during the UN climate change conference COP24 in Poland, and also lured coal miners with promises of investment in “clean coal technologies”. The PiS government regularly clashed with the EU over climate policy and brought investments in new onshore wind to a halt with a new law. It also increased logging of a Unesco-protected primeval forest, which was stopped only by an order from the EU's top court.

During the election campaign in 2023, PiS pulled every move in the populist playbook, according to the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). It used its dominance of public media to cast Tusk, who has German ancestry, as a “German agent”, deliberately invoking images of the Nazi occupation of Poland during the Second World War, and portrayed him and his party as “aloof” liberal elites with little concern for “real Poles”. These attacks are continuing after the election. “Opposition is, in some respects, the ‘natural habitat’ of populists claiming to represent ‘the people’ since lobbing grenades at ‘ruling elites’ is much more straightforward from outside the corridors of power,” wrote ECPS researcher Simon Watmough.

Not climate champions after all?

Perhaps the first indication that Tusk’s government could bow to the pressure of populism, and might not become a climate champion after all, was the commotion over the first visit of Urszula Zielińska, vice-minister for climate and the environment, in Brussels. Zielińska, a politician from the Green Party, which forms part of Tusk’s Civic Coalition (KO), appeared to support a new EU target of reducing emissions by 90 percent by 2040 in the bloc, which was immediately hailed as a “U-turn” by some European media. But the Warsaw government quickly backtracked. Zielińska’s boss, environment minister Paulina Hennig-Kloska from the Poland 2050 party (whose name is a nod to the EU’s climate neutrality target year), said that this “was not the government’s official position” and Zielińska had to clarify her own words. In the meantime, politicians from the populist right were quick to criticise her and the government for “climate fanaticism”.

This was followed by a discussion about the transformation of the mobility sector - a hot topic in Poland. The new government says - in a draft update to Poland’s National Energy and Climate Plan - that it is “impossible” for the country to meet the EU’s renewable energy target in the transport sector. But despite the shortfall, the new coalition wants to scrap plans for a tax on combustion engine car owners, which was proposed by the PiS in Poland’s National Recovery Plan.

The shift of the Poland 2050 party, which started off with a progressive climate strategy and is part of Tusk’s broad coalition ranging from centre right to centre left, is particularly remarkable. Just a few years ago, the party wrote in its climate strategy that taxes and bans are at least worth considering to accelerate the transition in mobility. Now officials say that there would be a public backlash if they favour a new levy on car owners (even though Poland is one of few EU countries without such a tax).

The rhetoric of the party’s leader Szymon Hołownia is striking in this regard, as it is highly reminiscent of far-right populists: “It boggles the mind that PiS put a tax on ownership of combustion engine cars into the EU National Recovery Plan. This tax will not be introduced (...). Green deal? Yes, but made for the people and by incentives, not orders and bans,” Hołownia recently tweeted.

The strongest sign yet that Poland’s new government might not entirely abandon PiS’ opposition to EU climate and environmental policy was its pushback against the EU Nature Restoration Law. Tusk followed in the populists’ footsteps by saying that his government will not support it by abstaining from the vote, adding the legislation “will probably be blocked” by this move. A final vote on the law was postponed - partly because of Poland’s decision - and the bill’s future remains uncertain. Farmers protests are a key reason for the government’s decision. Much like other parts of Europe, Poland faced huge protests by farmers in early 2024, and the climate ministry directly cited “concerns related to farming” as one of the reasons for not supporting the bill.

These controversies might turn out to be a mere foretaste of what’s in store for Polish energy and climate policy, as far bigger issues could be ahead. The government will have to deal with miners facing the closure of coal pits; new burdens on consumers with the next phase of European emissions trading for buildings and transport (EU ETS 2); new EU emission reduction targets for cars; as well as building renovations including targets from the EU’s Energy Performance and Buildings Directive (EPBD), which introduces sweeping changes aimed at cutting emissions, and is already being used by the populist far-right to stir anger against the EU and climate policy.

Farmers protests in Warsaw, March 2024. Photo: Patryk Strzałkowski

Going slow or not at all?

The government’s climate policy actions so far, as well as the rhetoric of its members, suggest that it believes it needs to proceed slowly in order to avoid growing protests, and avoid the risk of losing out at the ballot to far-right populists who could try to scrap the Green Deal altogether, or even attempt to leave the EU. Some parties to the right of PiS demand just that: Suwerenna Polska, which was part of the PiS government, wanted to get rid of the EU ETS, while at least some parts of the extreme right Konfederacja supported leaving the EU.

Is having a slow, unambitious climate policy - or none at all - the only choices that Poland (and perhaps the rest of Europe) has? Not necessarily, but good communication is key, says researcher Hetmański of Instrat Foundation.

Public concerns regarding the EU Green Deal policies "could have been addressed through ongoing communication and dialogue,” says Hetmański. While it's clear that the previous conservative government had no aspirations to become a green policy leader, the new one, which claims to be Brussels-oriented “allows itself to be pressured by short-term gains”. Instead of bowing to populist pressure, ministers dealing with climate policy “should do their homework and prepare a well-communicated offer for groups potentially disadvantaged by the transition,” said Hetmański, adding that the EU's Just Transition Fund and its Platform designed for contacting and supporting coal mines should be a benchmark.

Przemysław Sadura, a sociologist who studies populism and climate denialism, also sees miscommunication as one of the main factors contributing to the “green backlash”. “So much has been said about fossil fuels and their effect on the climate that there is little to be gained by opposing the energy transition,” he said. “But in agriculture and other elements of the Green Deal there is far less awareness. It will take much more work to build a foundation for accepting such policies.” 

Besides dialogue and communication, a focus on the benefits of well-designed climate policies may help overcome political divisions, suggests a 2022 report by More in Common, a non-profit attempting to decrease polarisation in politics. The findings are backed up by their surveys: When asked about climate policy in general, people showed a strong polarisation, with 78 percent of Civic Coalition (Donald Tusk’s alliance) supporters and 86 percent of The Left supporters agreeing with the need to “speed up the transition to green energy”, compared to only 48 percent of PiS voters.

But support for deploying more solar and wind in order to lower energy bills in the future was far less controversial across party lines, with as much as 90 percent support among Civic Coalition voters, and 65 percent of PiS supporters. Adam Traczyk, director of More in Common Poland, drew two main conclusions from these results. Firstly, putting people at the centre of climate policy because “reducing emissions is for the climate, but cleaner, cheaper electricity is for the people”. Secondly, he stressed the importance of communicating benefits, not burdens.

The new government is already trying to use a language of benefits. “No more talk about shutting down and transitioning away. Time has come to speak of building, investing, creating a development plan for the country,” said climate and environment vice minister Urszula Zielinska when she presented proposals for an update of Poland’s climate plan.

But the question remains whether a new language will be enough to persuade many people, given that ambitious climate policy will most likely include taxes and bans - the least popular policies, as recent polling has shown.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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