Who is Donald Tusk and what does he think about climate?

Donald Tusk is about to become president of the European Council – but the former Polish PM has a history of backing coal and opposing climate action.

Carbon Brief

Polish prime minister Donald Tusk will be the next president of the European Council where heads of state meet four times a year to set the direction of EU affairs.

Poland has resisted stronger EU climate policy in the past and has built its economy around coal, the most polluting source of electricity. So just who is Donald Tusk, what does he think about climate change – and does it matter?

Taking the reins of the council

The Polish PM will be taking the reins of the European Council on December 1, when existing president Herman van Rompuy of Belgium will step down. The council is the forum where EU heads of state meet to set the bloc's political trajectory. It does not have the power to pass laws, however.

The European Council is easily confused with the Council of the EU. This is where member state ministers meet to discuss laws proposed by the EU civil service, the European Commission. Together with the European Parliament and commission, the Council of the EU does have lawmaking powers.

Mammoth of a man

Tusk was born in the Polish city of Gdańsk to a carpenter and a nurse. He has bonded over his Gdańsk heritage with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has one grandparent from the city. Tusk's grandmother fell in love with a British aristocrat who became the source of Donald's name.

Tusk became prime minister of Poland in 2007, 16 years after first being elected to parliament.

Under his leadership Poland has long resisted climate action, including controversial use of its veto to attempt to block long-term EU policies and targets. He is also an advocate for shale gas.

Graph for Who is Donald Tusk and what does he think about climate?

Credit: AAP One

UK climate secretary Ed Davey has called Poland the main barrier to agreement of targets for 2030. Indeed in March, Tusk said Poland could not agree to any new EU climate targets. But at last year's UN climate talks in Warsaw Tusk said that climate change was a fact that could not be ignored and that it posed a real threat.

He said:

"We may and we should look for such mechanisms which do not pose a threat to economic growth but facilitate emissions reduction and environment protection."

The problem for Tusk is that Poland is heavily reliant on coal, which provides nearly 90 per cent of the country's electricity needs. As such there is a widely held view that any successful EU climate policy for 2030 must give ground to Poland and its eastern European allies.

There are already indications that the EU's 2030 climate and energy package will do just that, with funds potentially being set aside to ease the transition to a low-carbon economy in central and eastern EU states. It is also likely that Poland would have to cut its emissions in 2030 by far less than the UK, France or Germany.

Draft conclusions seen by Reuters suggest Poland might be set a reduction target of just 8 per cent of 2005 levels in sectors outside the EU emissions trading scheme, with the likes of the UK and Germany having to achieve a 40 per cent cut. The draft also indicates concessions on reform of the EU ETS.

Tusk as European Council president

So does it matter that Tusk has been a thorn in the side of those seeking stronger EU climate action? Some are arguing Tusk's past actions and personal views on climate change don't matter that much.

According to this argument the role of European Council president is one of gently steering debate rather than setting the agenda. There would be little space for the personal views of the president, this line of thinking suggests, because his job is to seek consensus among 28 heads of state who have strong personal views of their own.

Van Rompuy succeeded in the role by avoiding a strong personal agenda and a big ego: even now, few outside Belgium have heard of the man. But the same can hardly be said of Tusk.

Van Rompuy was a natural consensus builder, whereas Tusk has frequently ignored EU rules says Nick Mabey of green thinktank E3G. Tusk is also not averse to self-promotion having written for the Financial Times and toured Europe to promote his personal vision of an EU energy union.

Others paint a picture of a man more interested in pragmatism than plans for a major overhaul of the EU. They say his priorities will be the EU's parlous economic state, the Ukraine crisis and preventing a UK exit from the bloc.

The European Council is next scheduled to meet on October  23-24 when the broad parameters of the EU's 2030 climate and energy package are due to be finalised.

That means by the time Tusk assumes his new role on December 1 the room for him to exert special influence on Europe's overall climate trajectory to 2030 could be limited. Expect there to plenty of debate on the fine details, however, where Tusk may have more success in securing concessions for his coal-hungry home nation.

This article was originally published by Carbon Brief. Reproduced with permission.