Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s sacking of the country’s environment minister Marcin Korolec yesterday (20 November) has been greeted with dismay and suspicion among EU policymakers.

Korolec will continue chairing the COP19 climate summit of over 150 countries that Warsaw is hosting before being replaced by the current deputy finance minister, Maciej Grabowski. After that, he will act as a climate envoy and proxy at the prime minster’s office until the COP20 summit in Lima in 2014.

In a statement Tusk said that his minister’s dismissal was “about radical acceleration of shale gas operations”. The country currently generates more than 90% of its electricity from coal.

But several Brussels sources linked the ministerial sacking to Polish intent to boondoggle – or deniably stall – the summit and prevent decisions being taken that Warsaw, which opposes further climate action, would have to veto at a March 2014 European Council.

“It is pretty clear that the Poles have an interest in slowing things down,” one EU source told EurActiv. “They’ve even said so to us quite bluntly. It shows that their motives for hosting this conference were not to save the climate but rather to slow down the process of doing so.”

The Green MEP Bas Eickhout agreed, pointing to a general feeling that as chair of the COP19, Poland was steering the climate summit off the rails, with help from countries such as Australia, which have blocked discussions on loss and damage.

“What’s going on is ridiculous,” Eickhout said over a line from Warsaw. “On Monday, Poland hosted a coal summit. On Tuesday, Tusk opened a plenary promoting shale gas, a fossil fuel, and on Wednesday, he fires the COP president, who is also climate minister.”

The most generous perspective was that Poland was not taking the international process seriously, Eickhout told EurActiv. “But you could also say that Poland was deliberately creating confusion and annoyance to help them in the EU debate for March 2014,” he added.

Between June 2011 and June 2012, Poland wielded a veto against EU climate policies three times – and threatened to do so on several other occasions.  And of 11 EU climate laws analysed by the green legal group Client Earth, Poland had complied with just one. 

Emissions reduction pledge

Polish officials in Brussels contacted by EurActiv were unable to comment on rumours that the country was currently blocking attempts by an EU coordination committee in Warsaw to agree a deadline for emissions reductions pledges next year ahead of the COP20 summit.

Environmentalists view such pledges as the last best chance of ensuring success at the Paris COP21 summit in 2015 which should agree a Kyoto treaty successor, to come into effect in 2020. 

In an interview with EurActiv Poland published the day before his dismissal, Korolec said that “with such a distant deadline [until COP21], the negotiators are not under strong pressure which would allow, in my opinion, for a reasonable and honest debate” on a future agreement’s shape.

While this might suggest that Korolec was sympathetic to stringent deadlines, the former minister added that “prolonging the Kyoto Protocol would be bonding only for the EU, the Switzerland and, perhaps, Iceland” because states such as the US, Canada and Russia were not bound by it.

“If the Kyoto negotiations had ended in failure, the resulting outrage could have resulted in a more effective mechanism of cooperation, a new way to fight the global warming and emission reduction,” he said.

Polish environmentalists such as Climate Action Network’s Julia Michalak view his sacking primarily as a reaction to falling public support for the government. 

“The Polish prime minister does not see the climate process as a priority, and doesn’t realise how important it is to provide true leadership in the crucial days ahead of the summit’s conclusion when the final decisions are made,” she told EurActiv.

'It is politics'

But officials in Warsaw suggest that the timing of Tusk’s announcement was not coincidental. “It is politics,” one well-placed government source told EurActiv.

“These kinds of decisions are rarely simple and always taken after considering all the implications," he said. "It is not like a decision to buy brown shoes or black shoes. I can only say that this COP is not going to be affected by it.”

Many of Korolec’s detractors accuse him of a lack of charisma and of moving too slowly on shale gas, which is still the subject of legal wrangles with Brussels and a reported exodus of US energy giants.

Poland currently only has one shale gas drill up and running with a daily output of 8,000 cubic metres, substantially below the 500,000 cubic metres threshold mooted for a planned EU directive on shale gas. 

Talking to EurActiv.pl, Korolec chomped at the bit to attack “irrational” attempts to regulate shale gas in Brussels, and block the “energy revolution” that he said it had brought to the US.