Smog-plagued Poland tries to escape tag as ‘Europe’s China’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

People used to think that smog was just a Krakow problem. But Warsaw's skyline is often blighted by pollution too these days. [Shutterstock]

Poland’s government has finally promised action after air pollution provoked the ire of the general public. However, Marek Józefiak wonders if Warsaw will dare to take action that will affect their coal-centred vision of economy.

Marek Józefiak is a lawyer and environmentalist with the Polish Green Network.

You hear about it on TV, in cafes, at parties and on the streets of any Polish city these days. Anti-smog masks and air purifiers have vanished from shops across the country. For most Poles the smog wave which hit Poland early this month and lasted almost uninterruptedly throughout whole January came as a huge surprise.

Until recently, smog was a vague creature which stuck to Krakow, Poland’s second largest city. Air pollution is so huge up there that it was dubbed ‘the smog capital of Poland’.

Although smog’s origin may be complex and differ from place to place (transportation in Los Angeles, overgrown industry in Beijing), in Krakow and in Poland as a whole, the main root of this problem is obvious: it is coal used for heating in the housing sector. Every year Poles burn some 10 million tonnes of coal in inefficient domestic stoves.

Smog is not only Krakow’s concern though. It is actually easier to point out areas in Poland which do not face this problem (e.g. windy cities at the shore of Baltic Sea), rather than to enumerate the ones which do (basically the rest of the country).

To shed more light on the current situation, it is worth mentioning data from the last WHO report on air pollution, released in May 2016. Out of 50 cities with the worst air pollution in European Union, 33 were located in Poland.

What is even worse, among the Top 10 most polluted cities seven were Polish, including the top two: Zywiec and Pszczyna – small towns in the south of Poland.

Quite surprisingly, Krakow did not even make it to the top ten; it was ranked 11th. The findings of the report were shocking. However, not until now has smog made it to the headlines and more importantly, to the public conscience.

It has become inevitable that the Law and Justice government would need to act. Prime minister Beata Szydlo has called for some rapid recommendations from her minister of development and finance, Mateusz Morawiecki.

A list of ideas on how to improve air quality was presented to the governmental Economic Committee on 17 January. Some of them are promising.

Morawiecki has offered to adopt this spring the long-awaited regulations of emission levels of stoves available on Polish market as well as a regulation of quality of coal being sold to housing sector. In both regards, Poland is now Europe’s landfill.

Czechs who have already adopted such measures, sell their low-quality coal here. Morawiecki also suggested introducing way lower electricity prizes in order to enhance the use of electricity for heating purposes.

By doing so, he is trying to kill two birds with one stone, cutting emissions from households, but at the same increasing electricity consumption from coal-fired power plants. Those still produce approximately 85% of electricity in Poland.

Setting standard for quality of coal and stoves is only the first step towards solving the issue. What Poland needs in order to change its status as Europe’s China, is a reliable schedule of exchanging some 3 million inefficient coal stoves and replacing it with clean heating.

As seven out of ten Polish homes are either poorly isolated or not isolated at all, there is a desperate need for a national programme of supporting thermal insulation. This would certainly improve the situation of air quality and public health – each year some 47,000 Poles die prematurely due to the air pollution.

At the same time, widespread energy efficiency improvement of Polish households would be both very costly and would cut coal consumption. This leaves us with a crucial question: Will the government risk criticism from coal miners, one of their most eager supporters?

None of the officials has even vaguely admitted that coal as a heat source is the problem. Quite the reverse, Minister of Environment Jan Szyszko suggested recently in the parliament that our smog might be caused by consumption of non-Polish (and thus) lower quality coal (presumably Russian).

Had Poles used only Polish coal air quality would have been better, the minister misguidedly suggested.

Such statements do not sound too promising for Poles who crave fresh air. In the short term they can always hope for the wind, like they are used to and, in the long run, for the wind of political change.

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