Two authors of a recent report discuss policies that have facilitated an energy transition in Poland, along with historical context of the region’s transition away from coal. The insights can help design policy solutions elsewhere for a just transition.
As part of an extensive series led by Resources for the Future and Environmental Defense Fund, a team of scholars from the United States and Poland has recently explored the lessons that US policymakers could learn from Poland’s decades-long transition away from coal. Two of the authors of the team’s report—Wesley Look, a senior research associate at Resources for the Future, and Aleksander Śniegocki, formerly of WiseEuropa—sit down with Resources to discuss the implications of their findings.
Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Can you give us a quick summary of the new report?
Wesley Look: This is a report about the process of transitioning away from fossil fuels, and particularly away from coal production in Poland’s Silesia region—specifically, Upper Silesia. The report looks at the public policy interventions made by the Polish government; the European Union; and, in some cases, the regional government.
We’ve looked at the public policies that have facilitated Poland’s energy transition, along with the historical context of the region’s transition away from coal. Our report focuses on a time that has a really important historical feature: Poland had been transitioning from a centrally controlled economy to a free-market economy, so we’ve looked at those broader economic forces, as well.
What relevance does this work have for the climate and economic policy path that we’re on, both in the United States and in Poland?
Aleksander Śniegocki: I think the key issue here is that this case study is covering a lot of time—several decades. It shows, really, the importance of a long-term approach to the energy transition and adjusting development policies as time passes. We have less than 30 years to achieve climate neutrality, and even less time for our energy system to decarbonize. Socioeconomic systems, too, transition over a long period. So, we need to manage this urgent need by starting to transition early and approaching the process wisely, which will involve not only a transition within the energy sector but also investment in the development of the region itself.
We need to manage this urgent need by starting to transition early and approaching the process wisely, which will involve not only a transition within the energy sector but also investment in the development of the region itself.Aleksander Śniegocki
Other countries like the United States can learn from the experiences of Poland, as Poland has more than three decades of experience managing the decline of the coal industry. In the new report, we review different approaches that Poland has undertaken and provide some thoughts based on the country’s experiences.
This report is the latest in a series that has been going on since summer 2020, which involves case studies from the United States and abroad. Many of the conclusions are similar (e.g., set aside funding, involve the community, plan early), but what stands out about Upper Silesia and its transition away from coal?
WL: Within a similar timeframe as its coal transition, Poland has had to go through a much broader economic transition and structural change upon joining the European Union. While these broader economic changes could be seen as posing more difficult prospects for transformation, my takeaway is that Poland’s economic transition actually may have facilitated a just transition by inducing more substantial interventions (including sizable infusions of capital from the European Union) to diversify the economy and establish real economic and employment alternatives to coal.
What this phenomenon in Poland underscores is that you can’t go in and just do some surface-level treatment to really address the transition in a coal region. You can’t just have workforce training programs; you can’t just have little grants that support a few start-up businesses. You really do need to be thinking about building a new economic backbone. I think that the story of Upper Silesia in particular is a success story, given the extent to which its economy has diversified. We don’t have many examples of such successes.
AS: Poland is part of the European Union, and that dynamic between the European Union and its member countries’ policies may be interesting from the American point of view when thinking about how the federal level can support states in transition. And here, I think the Polish example may be useful, given that Poland itself is not particularly ambitious compared to the rest of European Union when it comes to pace of energy transition and climate targets. The EU-wide framework provides a significant push, along with additional resources to support the coal phaseout.
Who is affected most by your research? Who stands to benefit from your findings?
WL: We’re trying to most directly help policymakers design good, well-informed just transition policy that will benefit the workers and communities that are most impacted by this transition. We’re mainly thinking of coal workers and communities right now, but as the energy transition continues, we anticipate impacts in the oil and gas sectors, as well.
Also, I think that in the United States, political will to pursue deep decarbonization policy is contingent upon the ability of public policymakers to address the just transition in a responsible way. So, from this perspective, those who stand to benefit are any living beings that are impacted by climate change.
AS: The report was prepared with policymakers and other decisionmakers in mind, to help support them in designing policies and setting priorities. It is useful to learn from a broad set of national and regional experiences when designing your own policy solutions. In Europe in recent years, the exchange of knowledge among countries and regions related to just transition has been strengthened. It seems that, across the pond, there’s a bit less systematic dialogue that focuses on examples from different countries and states.
Can you elaborate on the cross-country work that Europe is doing?
AS: The European Union has launched dedicated platforms and research projects which focus on the just transition. And at the policy level, ensuring that no person and no place is left behind is one of the key stated priorities of the European Green Deal. So, research and networking efforts are ongoing to learn from past and contemporary transitions across Europe. This kind of coordination could be an interesting point for Americans to consider, as you could cooperate across states and regions to find out what works, and what doesn’t, in real time.
What would you say if you were in a room with Polish and US government officials? What advice would you give them regarding the energy transition?
AS: My key advice would be to embrace change, but at the same time, understand that this is a long process which will cover the whole economy. It’s not just a small-scale project, but rather a broader development initiative. And it’s important that we try to make the process inclusive, so that communities are not left out of the dialogue. It takes time to build a new economic base, and related efforts can have mixed success. I think it’s important to show communities affected by change that they have support, and also to be open about the transition and how much of a challenge it is.
WL: I would convey something that we talk about in our synthesis report: It’s important to have a multi-pronged policy response. An example of multi-pronged policy that we see in this new report is the importance of pursuing direct worker policies such as workforce training, subsidized income, and pensions in tandem with large-scale economic adjustment policies. One without the other is not enough.
I think that in the United States, political will to pursue deep decarbonization policy is contingent upon the ability of public policymakers to address the just transition in a responsible way.Wesley Look
One of the key points from this report is that, during some phases in the Polish transition history, it seemed like the policy community, the coal mine operators, and the workers were all resisting what was happening. Phases of propping up coal would then just fail again. An energy transition doesn’t mean cutting the cord on day one, but rather creating a plan for gradual phaseout.
Anything else worth noting?
WL: The undercurrent to a number of these questions is that we can continue to learn from each other as an international community. For me, personally, the opportunity to work with you, Aleksander, and to learn with you and from you, has been very enriching. We’re all in this together, across national borders and around the world. Having this dialogue about policy and about what works in this challenging transition is powerful, and I hope it continues.