Picture: REUTERS/DAVID GRAY
Picture: REUTERS/DAVID GRAY

Barcelona — Young climate activists, a grandfather and a farmer have sued the Polish government for failing to deal with climate change.

The Polish citizens argue that extreme weather events worsened by the warming of the planet are threatening their individual rights and their livelihoods, in lawsuits filed at first-instance courts in the East European country this week. Environmental law firm ClientEarth, which is the people, said two more cases will follow. 

“A few years, back climate litigation was a complete fantasy, especially in Poland, and now it’s becoming a reality,” said Janusz Buszkowski, ClientEarth’s lead lawyer on the cases. “Examples of climate litigation with spectacular results outside of Poland were an encouragement for us.” 

The cases are the first to expose the effects of climate change on people living in Poland and to ask courts to find that the country’s inadequate climate policies violate individual rights.

Climate litigation has soared worldwide after governments in most countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, which commits them to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to keep planetary warming below 2ºC or close to 1.5ºC by the end of the century. Using the courts to force states and companies to pursue more ambitious climate goals is gaining momentum after landmark victories in recent weeks. 

Last month, a court in the Netherlands ordered oil giant Royal Dutch Shell to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels. In April, the German supreme court ruled that the government’s 2019 climate law was incompatible with fundamental rights. Claimants in the two cases were young climate activists and environmental organisations who argued that their individual rights were being violated. 

“I’ve been engaged in climate action for several years and I’ve exhausted many paths of action, so I decided to take a step forward,” said Monika Stasiak, one of the five Polish claimants. 

Aleksander Brzozka, spokesperson for Poland’s Climate Ministry, didn’t answer a phone call to his office on Thursday, and ministry didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

Stasiak is a 34-year-old ethnologist from central Poland. Intense drought and dwindling water levels in the nearby Pilica river in recent years have meant local the local ferry was unable to operate, farms have suffered crop failures and Stasiak had to change her plans to start an agro-tourism business.

“During summers it often happens that there’s not enough water for kayaks to get through the river,” she said. “The drought also affects our plans to be self-reliant—we’re afraid of what is going to happen.”

Poland’s current policies are inadequate to slow the pace of climate change and that’s already having an impact on individuals, ClientEarth said. Poland is Europe’s most carbon-intensive nation, with about 70% of the electricity it generates coming from burning coal, the most-polluting fossil fuel. That makes the EU’s largest eastern economy one of the region’s worst when it comes to air quality — it’s home to 36 of the 50 most-polluted cities in the bloc. 

The country has agreed to join EU efforts to cut emissions 55% by 2030, compared with 2019 levels. It wants to reduce coal usage to 11% by 2040 and has agreed with coal unions to close the last mine in 2049. It is also seeking to stop production at the EU’s biggest lignite-fired power plant in Belchatow in 15 years.

“Something is slowly being done, but it’s not adequate to the scale of the crisis or the norms indicated by the scientists,” Stasiak said. “Both the country’s energy policy and the agreement with miners are internally contradictory and are completely against science.”

Poland should cut its emissions 61% by 2030 relative to 1990 and achieve climate neutrality by 2043 to comply with the commitment it took when it signed the Paris Agreement, ClientEarth said in the lawsuits. The cases were filed in five different local courts in the hope that at least one will either rule that claimants have a right to a safe climate, or end up in the country’s Supreme Court.

“We have quite a few Polish examples of climate cases and so far the courts have treated them seriously,” Buszkowski said. “We believe that the time has come to go at a larger scale and to sue the only entity that’s responsible for the emissions from the whole territory of Poland, which is the Polish state.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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