In Poland, local movements are challenging the nation’s addiction to coal

In Poland, local movements are challenging the nation's addiction to coal

A climate activist wears a mask with the word “Coal” struck-through in Polish as hundreds of environmentalists march to campaign against global warming, in Warsaw, Poland, on 16 November 2013.

(AP/Alik Keplicz)

“In 2016, we had a very unusual flood in Gdansk. The local municipality did not expect it. According to their calculations the rainfall would never be this high. But new climate models show central and eastern Europe will see more extreme rain,” Marcin Gerwin, who coordinates the city’s new citizen assembly initiative, tells Equal Times.

After the floods – in which an astonishing 150.8 millimetres of rain fell within 24 hours on 14 July 2016, killing two people and causing millions of euros of damage – Gerwin went to the Mayor of Gdansk, Paweł Adamowicz, and proposed the creation of a citizens’ assembly. Comprising 63 citizens selected to represent the various demographics of the city, the assembly would listen to testimonies from experts and affected stakeholders (in this case on flood mitigation strategies, but later, also on other topics such as LGBTI rights, civic engagement and air pollution) and design a solution in order to prevent such massive damage from happening again in the future. The mayor agreed. As a result, any proposals that gain more than 80 per cent support amongst the assembly are now taken as a binding decision that the city will implement.

In 2017, Gdansk once again faced extreme rainfall but it experienced less flooding, in no small part due to the implementation of recommendations from the assembly, one of which was the creation of artificial lakes to capture excess rainfall.

Now it is 2018 and in less than two weeks, the southern Polish city of Katowice will host the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or COP for short), the annual international negotiations about the world’s intensifying climate crisis.

But Poland is also a world leader in mining and burning coal: it is the second largest coal mining country in Europe after Germany, and approximately 80 per cent of Poland’s power production comes from coal-fired plant generation. In addition, the coal industry is a significant provider of jobs in the country.

Ending Poland’s dependency on this climate-disastrous industry will not be easy. The ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) government, which has been in power since 2015, almost considers coal-mining a patriotic duty that promotes sovereignty from Russian energy sources, and it has resisted EU-wide anti-coal climate legislation. Similarly, Poland has faced disiplinary measures from the EU about its anti-democratic judicial reforms. This makes the citizens’ assembly in Gdansk all the more remarkable in the way that it deals with climate change through a democratic innovation.

Global warming and air pollution

Extreme floods are just one sign of our deepening climate crisis. In September 2018, the IPCC released a special report on the effects of global warming above 1.5 degrees. As Equal Times reported last year, staying below 1.5 degrees is imperative for the planet to remain habitable to the world’s most vulnerable people. At a launch of the report, Debra Roberts, co-chair of the report’s working group, told reporters: “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

But since the first COP took place in Berlin in 1995, governments have not only failed to stop climate change, global warming is in fact accelerating. World temperatures are predicted to rise by 3 degrees or more under the climate agreements negotiated to date. This means Poland is far from the exception in supporting fossil fuels even though there are viable alternatives.

Air pollution is also a pressing problem, particularly in Poland. According to 2018 data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), 36 of Europe’s 50 most smog-ridden cities are in Poland. The WHO also estimates that around 50,000 people die in Poland every year from illnesses caused by air pollution.

Borys Lewandowski is an architect based in the Polish capital of Warsaw. The city has a major problem with smog and he tells Equal Times: “The main sources of Warsaw’s smog are transport and heating. Too many buildings are poorly insulated, and then heated by coal often mixed with garbage,” he says. Lewandowski is involved with Miasto jest Nasze, a municipalist movement that translates ‘The City is Ours’. The collective, which combines activist tactics with a platform to run in local elections, aims to tackle issues including Warsaw’s smog crisis. In March 2017, members ran a fake pop-up stall pretending to give cigarettes to children to draw attention to the problem.

“It was intentionally controversial, saying that by breathing dirty air, all Warsaw residents effectively smoke a pack of cigarettes each month. Inside there was information about air pollution,” says Lewandowski.

This stunt gained media attention. Activism, alongside the worsening smog, has created pressure on Warsaw’s city council: “The first stage of tackling smog was demanding the city measures air quality,” says Lewandowski. “Now we have many traffic monitoring stations in the city centre. People are more conscious and measuring air pollution means we can demand improvements from city hall.”

Gerwin, who is also the co-founder of the democracy organisation Sopot Development Initiative, is employed by the city council to coordinate citizens’ assemblies on air pollution in Gdansk and the central city of Lublin. More are planned in other cities across Poland.

“Both [citizen assemblies] created precise recommendations that all coal burning home fires need to be phased out in five years. Domestically only wood and liquid fuels were allowed. Before, the Gdansk council was removing 100-200 coal furnaces per year; now they need to remove 10,000 in five years,” Gerwin says.

In an attempt to deal with smog in the capital, Warsaw city council also gives out grants for 40 per cent of the cost of solar panels and heat pumps, and 100 per cent grants to convert heating systems from oil to gas or to connect to municipal central heating systems.

“But this scheme is not popular. Gas is more expensive than coal,” explains Lewandowski, who stood as Miasto jest Nasze’s candidate in this year’s municipal elections. “And from a climate perspective, gas still creates greenhouse gases. The city should flip around the grants: 100 per cent for renewables and heat pumps. I think their current strategy is pushed by the energy companies. [The use of] gas and central heating means that people still rely on a monopoly.”

The power of fossil fuel companies is often seen as a factor when action on climate is slow. Gerwin explains how citizen assemblies prevent corporate influence: “The citizens are randomly selected to solve one issue. Any stakeholders are invited openly in a transparent manner. So, there is no political leader, and no-one sponsors this politics – so no-one can expect favours in return.”

In Poland, municipalities have strong remits, and the nationalists poll weakly in cities. These are just two of the reasons why cities could drive climate action in Poland, even without national leadership. This is already happening internationally: 10 per cent of the world’s population, and growing, are signed up to climate targets through cities and regions in places like New York and California, even when the country’s president denies climate change. In Poland, like the US, the municipal level is far more progressive on climate, as the citizen assembly initiatives show.

Poland’s budding climate and energy democracy movements

From his perspective as an architect, Lewandowski suggests Warsaw should focus on energy efficiency: “Insulating houses, changing windows, changing ventilation systems – these are the first steps. We must connect the problems of energy poverty, smog and climate change.”

Moving forward, he sees Miasto jest Nasze as both being a watchdog, pressuring the city for action, and a think-tank promoting ideas. Last July, the movement hosted an international convergence of municipalist movements called Fearless Cities. One of the weekend’s workshops focused on energy democracy showcasing another city-led Polish initiative.

Delivering the workshop, Dariusz Szwed, advisor to the former mayor of the northern city of Słupsk, explained how the municipality gave out thousands of energy-saving lightbulbs in support of renewable energy and to help residents save money on their energy bills. Other similar schemes taken place across Poland, including in the city of Ostrołęka, as part of a campaign against a coal station there.

In the workshop, Szwed explained: “Poland has an opportunity; its coal power stations built between the 1950s and 1970s will soon be decommissioned. The big four power companies want new relatively more efficient plants, but these are still centralised and unecological. We have better models: energy efficiency is a kind of production called ‘Nega-watts’ [which refers to the amount of energy that has been saved due to lower demand].”

Energy efficiency is not the only means of Polish resistance against new power stations: there are also a number of legal cases against a proposed power plant in Ostrołęka. One of them is by Pracownia na rzecz Wszystkich Istot, a Polish environmental NGO which translates as ‘Workshop for all beings’, against the construction of the plant. Another is by ClientEarth, the international environmental law firm, which bought shares in the two energy companies behind the coal plant, Energa and Enea, and is now suing both companies over the financial risk of building this plant.

Unlike Germany, Europe’s other coal capital, Poland does not have a long green movement tradition. Monika Sadkowska, one of the co-organisers of Poland’s first “climate camp”, a converence of activists working on different climate-related issues held in summer 2018, tells Equal Times:

“The climate crisis is very dire, and the Polish movement is emerging late so we must grow quickly. To do that, we cooperated with the German and Czech movements, but we have also cut our own path. We made the camp in cooperation with local communities and the camp had 70 speakers. This made the programme very rich, and told anyone somehow connected with climate or ecology, food or water: ‘You just need to be here’. We expected 150 people, and 400 attended.”

According to Sadkowska the ‘coal is patriotic’ argument is easy to undermine: “This year we [imported] nearly twice as much Russian coal [as the previous year], so their narrative is a lie. The price of energy is rising in Poland, and money talks for regular people.”

Sadkowska says it is not the upcoming COP but other factors that has put climate firmly on the agenda of ordinary Polish people: “There is quite a lot of confusion over what the COP actually means. But there was much more attention on the 1.5 report, and another recent report [The Polish government’s State Environmental Policy 2030] about how drastically climate change will impact Poland. This was shocking, because before Poles felt climate change was someone else’s problem. But now the reality is hitting home.”