Poles vote in local elections on Sunday (21 October), seen as a key test for the country’s nationalist governing party. Until very recently, energy transition was a political no-go in the coal-dependent country but the situation is evolving, a climate activist and Green local politician in the COP24 host city of Katowice told EURACTIV.com.
“There is a huge gap between local and regional authorities on the one side and the national government. Local and regional authorities are definitely more open to renewables and fighting climate change than the government in Warsaw,” Patryk Białas said on the sidelines of a meeting with the press in Katowice.
Białas, a lawyer, works at Katowice’s Euro-Centrum technology park advising local companies on how to invest in energy-efficient and renewable technologies when constructing new buildings. He is also president of civic association BoMiasto that runs educational programmes for local climate leaders and coordinates with Katowice Smog Alert to fight for clean air.
Białas is running in the local elections on a green platform in Katowice, the city that will host the COP24 UN climate conference. The first round of the election is taking place 21 October, the second 4 November.
“Those in power at the national level do not want to acknowledge that coal will end. Fact is that it doesn’t make sense economically as prices for coal are on the rise,” Białas said, adding that he is convinced mining will end, sooner or later.
Figures from the Polish branch of Innogy show that prices on the wholesale electricity market have risen this year from 145 Polish zlotys (33,81 euros) on 1 January to 218 Polish zlotys (50,83 euros) on 8 October.
“Households will soon feel this rise on their electricity bills, and that will have a political impact,” Białas continued.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Monday that ‘according to his knowledge’ the Energy Regulatory Office does not plan to raise energy tariffs for households in 2019.
Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski said two days later that he expects them to grow no more than 5%.
The divide between local and regional authorities on the one side and the national government on the other makes negotiation at EU level difficult, Białas explained.
“This dichotomy is very visible at European level. You see representatives of the Silesian region go to Brussels with green projects while at the same time, the national government is pressing to build new coal plants,” he said.
Also, the European Commission expects NGOs to participate in the current ongoing debate on ‘just transition’ but national politicians are reluctant to let them participate in the discussion, Białas said.
Another sign of the current dichotomy over energy and climate issues in Poland is the internal tensions within the Polish government, he pointed out.
Commenting on Michał Kurtyka, state secretary in Pland’s energy ministry who will act as the president of COP 24, the Green local politician said that he found him “very open,” that he was “a very good expert” on the energy and climate issues but that he stands more or less alone within the government.
“There are some conflicts with the energy minister who is promoting coal,” Patryk Białas said, pointing out that the Polish government has not presented a real energy strategy yet.
The fact that local and regional authorities are more open to the renewable sector has a lot to do with the growing awareness of the population, already confronted with air pollution in Poland, Patryk Białas said.
Indeed, according to figures from the World Health Organisation published in 2016, 33 of Europe’s 50 most-polluted towns are in Poland, among them is Katowice. Coal heating in houses is largely to blame for the situation.
This shift in opinion is especially true with the younger generation, he said.
“There is a mining school in the city of Rybnik, in the Silesian region. But students were not interested in studying mining engineering, so the school opened a renewable study course. Since then, the school has no problem to find students. In fact, there are too many applicants,” Patryk Białas said.
Since the average unemployment rate in Silesia is lower than the national average and declining as well, young people do not feel the urge to work for a declining industry, he added.
Afraid for the COP24
Białas said that the authorities do not acknowledge that the energy transition is getting more and more support in Poland.
“I see in society that people are ready for a change. Three years ago, I was branded as an eco-terrorist, but not anymore. Things are changing quickly in Poland,” he said.
But authorities still pressurize environmental and climate activists, he added.
For instance, when the Unions held their social pre-COP last August, his organisation, BoMiasto, ran an alternative media briefing on the doorstep.
“We were not welcome,” he said, but BoMiasto managed to get their message across to print and radio journalists, although the TV cameras prioritised the official press conference inside.
Because of this situation, Białas said he had concerns about the COP24.
“I am afraid because of the logistics issue. But foremost because Polish politicians have the power to produce many messages on the COP, including to portray the climate crisis as absurd,” he said.
He added that he was afraid that the Polish government will undermine the process by looking for a separate way and that some of the delegations will buy that.