49 recommendations that sparked the green transformation

This story starts in 2019. A specialist in sustainable development called Marcin Gerwin gave a lecture about the environment at a coffee shop in Warsaw.

People from different climate associations and organisations attended the speech, and the gathering ended up with an idea shaped: the first-ever civic panel in Warsaw – the Warsaw Climate Panel.

Two months later, the mayor of the capital of Poland, Rafal Trzaskowski, received an application that read, “Due to its size and population, Warsaw has the potential for a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Mazovia and Poland, and will also serve as an inspiration and an example for other cities to follow this direction and through it is to contribute to changes on a global scale that are needed for climate protection.”

“The panel is a democratic form of involving citizens in the policy-making process,” explains Jacek Kisiel, Deputy Director of the Air Protection and Climate Policy Department at the City of Warsaw, responsible for organising the panel on the part of the city.

49 green recommendations

The mayor got on board and committed to implementing recommendations surpassing 80% of the panellists’ support. He received 49 requests.

“One recommendation is that the approximately 3,000 city buildings (schools, social housing, buildings, libraries and so on) should have photovoltaic installations on the roof,” explains Kisiel. Due to heritage conservation, some public buildings do not allow this type of installation, but Kisiel and his team calculated that 80% of them do. “Every municipal building where it’s technically possible and economically reasonable to have a photovoltaic installation will have one by 2030,” he declares.

Jacek Kisiel (left) and Jarosław Holwek (right) in front of the panel debate’s poster

The positive impact of the panel is undeniable. 200 photovoltaic installations have already been done in municipal buildings, mainly schools. But this initiative has done more than that. It has had the power to push green standards forward. Kisiel explains that the current building standards may indicate certain environmental restrictions but do not force concrete measures such as photovoltaic installations, greenery around or safe rainwater, for example. “This shows that a climate panel can be helpful for cities to foster and speed up climate actions and make goals more ambitious and generate good arguments to implement a climate policy, as we have social legitimacy,” he proudly says.

Jarosław Holwek, responsible for coordinating the implementation of Warsaw climate panel recommendations, adds that the panel can foster Warsaw’s green buildings standards that construction works must follow. It’ll also guide investors to build energy-efficient and sustainable buildings in the city. Holwek is involved in the creation of the standards. In 2024, he hopes to have them ready and be able to move on to the renovation of old buildings.

There is another positive consequence of the panel: funding. Despite some difficulty in convincing the city council or the city treasury to dedicate money to the green transformation, after the panellists gave their recommendations, the Warsaw city council committed some budget to implementing photovoltaic panels on municipal buildings.

“The climate panel greatly supported our department as we are convinced that we must act quickly because of the climate crisis,” concludes Kisiel.

Who was there?

The panellists were tasked with deciding on the direction of the capital city’s developments in the area of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. Residents had to answer, “How can we increase the energy efficiency of Warsaw and the share of renewable energy sources in the energy balance of the city?”

Later on, that question broke down into more detailed requests. More concretely, the approved recommendations are related to energy management in buildings, better school ventilation, efficient use of hot water, implementation of energy standards for installing photovoltaic solar panels on city buildings as an obligation, and the development of clean energy, energy cooperatives or climate education.

Holwek explains that the panel members were selected as the broadest representation of Warsaw’s residents possible. They sent many invitations to different addresses in the city, and those who wanted to participate filled out a document with information that an algorithm used to select the most suitable people per category. The tool randomly picked 90 panellists from a wide range of socio-demographic criteria, such as age, gender, place of residence and level of education.

“We had people well educated, low educated, young people under 17 years old and older people. Local society’s representation on the citizen panel is essential,” adds Holwek. During the deliberation process, panellists, with the educational support of environmental experts and relevant NGOs in the field, voted on a total of 93 recommendations. 49 were approved among citizens’ brainstorming or voting on what experts suggested. The city has announced a competition for NGOs to conduct a panel. A consortium of three organisations won. NGOs conducted educational meetings and debates to show panellists different perspectives on energy transformation and efficiency before making decisions.

“Your recommendations are binding, and you have time to consider. You have been asked to decide our future,” said Marcin Popkiewicz, panel advisor. “Do it wisely, read the material, think about it, participate actively. Because what you vote for is binding. And we do not need minor tuning. We really need a revolution in this area. Our future is now in your hands. Make decisions as if your future depended on it. Because it does.”

But what if the recommendations are not feasible by law, economically or are out of the competence of the local government? Kisiel explains that a monitoring body that integrates city officials and people from non-governmental organisations intervenes.

They quickly checked the recommendation before the voting “because, for example, one recommendation was building a biogas power plant in Warsaw. And we said no, you can’t vote for such a recommendation because we need at least a few months of analysis to know if it’s possible.”

An ambitious tool to fight climate change

So, what’s next? “Once this is done, we can go to our mayor and say, ‘We had our first climate panel and implemented the majority of recommendations; now we’re ready for another step’,” say Kisiel. “I dream that the second panel will be on mobility.”

However, he admits mobility may be a more controversial topic since it involves decisions on which residents’ opinions may be very divided, such as banning the most polluting cars in the city centre. But panels can cover various issues and be a fantastic citizens science tool.

Three civic panels have already been held in Krakow, Poznan, Gdansk, Lublin, Wroclaw and Lodz. Gdansk discussed air quality and climate resilience. Lublin took up the issue of smog, Wrocław transport solutions, and Lodz covered the topic of greenery in the city. Outside Poland, local and national panels are organised, among others, in France, the United Kindom, Ireland and Australia. The latter hosted the first bottom-up global climate panel ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow 2022.

Holwek is optimistic about the results of these debates. This initiative “also shows that if you gather people, give them expertise, their decisions tend to be more ambitious, and there is more courage and rationality than decision-makers.”

“The climate crisis is one of the most significant challenges facing us,” said  Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw, at the inaugural meeting. “We should do everything we can to deal with this challenge. We want to fight for our planet and leave it to our descendants in good condition.”

Now he has but this imperative in the hands of his people.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer