Krakow. A beautiful Polish city, boasting a UNESCO world heritage old town, enriched with historic memories at every corner and where you can enjoy the picturesque landscape from the tower of Wawel castle. Unless you visit Krakow during the winter months, when it is impossible to see through the smog caused by coal-based heating, which is still used in more than 16,000 households in the city. Smog does not merely prevent tourists from taking panorama photos; it is directly responsible for the death of 400 people every year in Poland’s second biggest city. For years, civil society has struggled to improve the air quality, and it seems that soon they will win their fight.
Krakow is one of the most polluted cities in the EU, with over 100 days a year when the pollution level is above the EU’s target. The majority of these days are during the winter, when the heating is turned on. According to the latest report by WHO, 33 of the 50 most polluted cities of the EU are located in Poland, and the reason for this comes down to one thing: coal.
One of the toughest problems is the lack of knowledge. People are not aware of the causes nor the consequences of smog.
There are several ways to measure air quality. Dust is one of the most harmful contaminants. The size of dust is categorized as PM2.5 and PM 10 (i.e. if the dust particles are smaller than 2.5 micro millimetre or smaller than 10 micro millimetre). PM 2.5 is estimated to be responsible for over 44,000 premature deaths in Poland alone, and over 400,000 in forty European countries. The other chemical which causes serious harm for Cracovians as well as Poles in other cities is benzo[a]pyrene, which also comes from burning coal and wood. Other harmful chemicals, such as Nitrogen-dioxide, are less of a problem in Krakow than in other cities, as they are a bi-product of transport and are therefore a bigger threat to cities with a higher density of cars. Additionally, the old Polish capital is situated in a basin, decreasing wind, which would otherwise also reduce the concentration of contamination.
Extensive research has proved that households that are heated with coal and wood cause the majority of the pollution, as well as those that burn household waste, such as plastic, which contains many other harmful chemicals. The question is obvious, why would anyone still use fossil fuels for heating, if its consequences are so obvious? The answer lies in the economy and history of Poland. Poland has enormous coal reserves and a high mining capacity. The country is the biggest producer of coal in the EU and ninth biggest in the entire world. Furthermore, most of the mines are located in Silesia, which is not far away from Krakow. After the heyday of the coal industry in the 1970s, production has decreased, and now the country even has to import coal. However, most power stations use coal or lignite, and therefore coal remains as the main energy supply of the country. The current PiS government already highlighted the strategic importance of the mining industry, which is understandable given that the section has over 110,000 employees. The alternative to coal would be Russian gas, and Poland has seen the vulnerability of neighbouring Ukraine, where gas supplies are linked to political deals with the Kremlin.
As the cheapest and most easily accessible heating material, coal has discouraged enthusiasm among the Polish government about renewable energy. Nevertheless, there remains practically no valid argument to support maintaining the old stoves that lower income households use to burn bad-quality coal and household waste, putting themselves and their whole environment in extreme danger. In Krakow, the town council only owns seventy-nine buildings which use coal for heating. There has been awareness of the problem for decades, but a solution was not offered for a long time as no one cared enough to make it the top of their agenda.
It is hard to ignore the rallying cry “We are a group of Cracovians who want our city to be safe and clean!”
Polish civil society, and especially the activists of Krakow Smog Alarm (Krakowski Alarm Smogowy) are great examples of how individuals can put pressure on the local municipality and government. They are active on various levels, including working with experts and staging well-organized and well-mobilized protests. By sending letters, petitions and creating billboards, the activists will not stop until they are listened to. A handful of very active people could mobilize the masses so that they are impossible to neglect. It is hard to ignore the rallying cry “We are a group of Cracovians who want our city to be safe and clean!” By demanding various hearings they have succeeded in meeting with the mayor of Krakow the city council. Many of their demands (such as a stricter ban on using cars) have been refused, but they have put effort into providing reliable information both online and offline.
One of the toughest problems is the lack of knowledge. People are not aware of the causes nor the consequences of smog. In the whole of the Małopolska region (Lesser Poland), almost half of the inhabitants are exposed to high levels of air pollution. Additionally, in smaller towns and rural areas, the lack of monitoring stations means that people cannot be warned of the high level of air pollution, even though for the elderly, people with asthma or other diseases, outdoor exposure to a high concentration of pollutants can cause serious problems. In the neighbouring Silesia region, the situation is not much better, but there are at least reasons to be optimistic.
This long struggle has recently brought real changes; on days when air quality reaches a critical level, public transport can be used free of charge in the city of Krakow. Yet, cars are just one component of contamination, and many have claimed that the mayor of Krakow, Jacek Majchrowski, does not do enough to change the situation, with his act of taking the tram to work on a polluted day nothing more than a publicity stunt. Air quality is a result of structural problems, of how the buildings were built, and so changing the way in which they are heated requires investment.
This long struggle has recently brought real changes; on days when air quality reaches a critical level, public transport can be used free of charge in the city of Krakow.
A ban on coal heating starting tomorrow would not solve the problem, and it would hit the poorest people of the city the hardest, as they live in old houses and struggle to pay for any kind of heating material. In January 2016, the regional council decided to ban coal heating; a move which is to be phased in by 2019. Burning household waste is already strictly forbidden and authorities will give fines if these rules are broken. To support this transition, the local government have vowed to reimburse property owners for changing their central heating systems; in some cases this year, they even granted a refund of up to 100%.
As a result, the effect of the ban will not be immediate. During campaigns run by local governments, all household using fossil fuel heating received information about the new rules and possibilities of change, yet only a few hundred of them officially applied. It thus appears that people living in Krakow will still be exposed to contamination next winter and feasible solutions for other areas in Poland are still far away. That is why civil society must continue to act, because with long and persistent work even complex structural problems can be solved.