Polish first-time voters voted on the top issues they care about the most. So is air quality their priority? The most accurate answer is: It’s complicated. While air quality itself might not be the type of issue that would immediately send young Polish people to the polls, a healthy environment is a crucial element in how the younger generation envisions a good life. This is one of the key takeaways from the recent Debutants ‘23 report, which analyses the attitudes of 1.5 million first-time voters. Let’s delve into it.
There are two prevailing myths when it comes to young adults (also known as Gen Z) and their stance on the environment. The first myth portrays them as the climate disaster generation, frequently seen protesting all around the globe for a better, greener future. However, the second myth is quite the opposite: beyond a few teen activists, most of their peers just want to have fun and may begin to care about climate and pollution only when they become parents and start thinking about their children’s future.
Both of them are wrong. At least in Poland. We know that because we took a deep dive into the attitudes of almost 1.5 million Polish people aged 18 to 21. We chose this specific age range because these individuals will have the opportunity to vote for the very first time in the upcoming parliamentary elections this October. They may not be as invested in politics to the extent of having a favourite party or leader they support, unlike older generations. However they are still in the process of figuring out how to translate their social views into the language of politics.
The Perfect Party is green. Well, sort of
This was one of the main points of the research. Each respondent was tasked with creating a hypothetical programme for their ‘Perfect Party’. Young people listed three demands in their top ten priorities that are related to the environment and air quality:
- the development of low-cost, widely accessible public transportation (35%)
- the preservation of forests (28%)
- accelerating Poland’s transition to green energy (24%)
Additionally, several other demands, such as addressing the mental health crisis and advocating for a shorter workweek are somewhat environment-related. Among the twenty most frequently mentioned demands, seven are focused on ecological and green concerns.
Yet in the very same research, only 7% of young people identified ecology as one of their key values. The top four values, each receiving more than half of the mentions were “soft”: love, health, family and friendship.
So how does this all fit together?
Firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns became a defining event for this generation. And it’s the very reason why values such as health and close relations with loved ones matter more than anything else to young adults.
Secondly, if you belong to Generation Z, you’ve grown up hearing about nature, climate change and air pollution your whole life. These issues have become so ingrained in your consciousness that addressing environmental concerns seems like a task for experts rather than young people themselves.
Even so, when asked specifically about environmental topics, first-time voters reveal a lot of support for green political action:
- 63% stated they would like to have clean air policies included in the political parties’ manifestos for the upcoming elections.
- 55% said the same about the environment.
- 47% support the concept of a 15-minute city.
Building a dream neighbourhood instead of saving the planet
The latter finding leads us to one of the most valuable insights from the entire report: it‘s at the small, neighbourhood scale where all the issues related to a clean environment suddenly become very important for the younger generation.
Electoral debutants – when asked about their ideal neighbourhood – first point out green spaces (54%) and efficient public transportation (37%). These aspects hold more significance for them than well-equipped stores in the area (30%). Moreover, good bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure (22%) are more important than restaurants and cafes (20%), or parking spaces (19%).
The responses to questions about dream neighbourhoods indicate that young adults aspire to live in a sustainable ecosystem. They expect decision makers to narrate a straightforward and positive story about what needs to be done to make their lives better.
While reluctant to take part in discussions about the risks and sacrifices associated with climate change and air quality, 20-year-olds support sustainable and clean air measures, such as developing public transportation and preserving green spaces in public areas. These topics are closely tied to their quality of life.
Interestingly, the green elements of a neighbourhood hold the highest importance for women, as well as those concerned about the state of the air and the environment. Young women show more progressive tendencies and display stronger pro-environmental attitudes compared to young men. Women express greater concern about air pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity, and are more likely than men to emphasise the importance of green spaces and good public transportation in their neighbourhoods.
Implications for clean air campaigners
- Focus on communicating urban greenery, access to modern and eco-friendly public transportation, and maintaining a clean environment, as these issues are visible and directly impact the quality of life for younger people, rather than delving into distant, vague words like “climate and ecology”.
- Although the green agenda itself may not work as a game changer for younger generations, introducing concrete solutions that are problem-solving, smart, inexpensive, user friendly and – on top of that – sustainable, could get you the support of young adults.
- The best example of such a policy is advocating for reliable public transport, coupled with cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. This approach addresses the issue of adequate mobility, with clean air policy seamlessly integrated into it. For young voters, this is far more important than having a fleet of low or zero-emission cars.
- The concept of clean air resonates better among the young when it’s part of a broader “clean local environment” idea/programme, which also involves nature-based infrastructure that allows people to spend quality time outside.
- The new generation of voters no longer wishes to make a choice between personal comfort and environmental concerns; they anticipate policies that harmonise both aspects into one solution.