This Briefing Paper presents an assessment of the political economy of Poland with regards to the low-carbon transition. This paper is part of a series of briefings on the four Central European states forming the Visegrád Group.
Poland is the most hardline climate policy opponent in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The main reason for this stance is the historically important role of the coal industry, which still provides close to 100,000 jobs and is seen as the answer to energy security problems resulting from dependence on Russian gas and oil imports. As the major coal companies are all partially or fully state-owned, the government also has a direct financial stake in the success of the coal industry.
The newly elected conservative ‘Law and Justice’ (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) government has taken steps to funnel new subsidies to coal power stations and won the election on the back of promises to revive the coal industry. The development of renewable energy, except for biomass, is being actively discouraged by the government. Climate change is generally not regarded as an important topic when compared to social issues. Due to the low innovation capacity of the Polish economy, there is a pervasive perception that Poland has nothing to gain and a lot to lose from promoting low-carbon development.
At the EU level, Poland has repeatedly worked to block, delay and water down legislation to promote climate ambition and low-carbon development. The only area in energy and climate policy where they have engaged constructively has been energy security. Poland’s influence is amplified by its traditional role as the leader of the Visegrád Group, where it has often been able to secure support for its climate and energy policy preferences. However, growing differences are beginning to show between Poland and Hungary on the one hand and the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the other. The latter two social democrat-led countries feel increasingly uneasy about being associated with the authoritarian course of the others and are actively looking for new alliances.
Overall, there are only limited opportunities for engagement on low-carbon development in Poland. In general, climate or low-carbon initiatives have a much greater success if they are framed in terms of energy security and economic opportunity. Some municipalities and the agricultural community have become increasingly interested in developing renewable energy, despite the unsupportive stance of the government. Agriculture, which employs almost 12% of the Polish workforce, also stands to be heavily affected by climate impacts. Concerns over air pollution are another potential driver for action against coal heating and power generation, as evidenced by the successful Kraków Smog Alert protests that led to a ban on coal heating from 2019 onwards.
Finally, the Polish coal sector is increasingly being recognised as unsustainable. Coal mining productivity is exceptionally low and the sector is deeply in debt. Production is projected to fall in any case as hard coal subsidies are phased out and lignite mines will be depleted. Mainstream voices like the employers’ association Lewiatan are now increasingly making the argument for developing economic alternatives before it is too late.