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Berenika Balcer, University of Amsterdam

Poland has the worst air quality in the European Union. It’s a record-holder for the emission of carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene and among the leaders in particular matters emission, despite the Polish norms being already way higher than those recommended by the World Health Organization. Moreover, among the 50 most polluted European cities, 36 are in Poland. Thousands of Poles die yearly due to air pollution, constituting the issue as the biggest civilization problem in Poland, the fight with which must be the ‘absolute priority.’

There are 7 million untimely deaths a year as a result of air pollution. Effects of those being cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as cancer, according to the European Environment Agency and IQAir. It also interacts negatively with the water and soil quality, causing ecosystems degradation, influencing then farming sector as well as the forests and buildings. Furthermore, air pollution also has a negative impact on people’s brain and cognition abilities. According to research undertaken by the Chinese scientists, the action of toxic substances in the air can be more harmful to our mental abilities than the physical health and can be compared to the regress in couple years of education. The longer a person stayed in a highly polluted place, the more severe the intelligence loss. The research was conducted using the data from China, nevertheless, the results can be easily adopted globally.


At its own pace

The pollution is mainly caused by industrial activity, transport, energy production and farming. The EEA data show that the legislative regulations along with the application, the solutions at the local level can have a crucial role in the improvement of air quality and, hence, in the positive health consequences. Hence, European Union leaders have vowed to come up with a major economic plan to face the climate emergency, despite Poland’s opt-out from a net-zero emissions target by 2050. By explaining that Poland relies on coal for 80% of its electricity, Prime Minister Morawiecki hopes for more precise and generous commitments of EU funds to move away from fossil fuels before Polish government agrees to implement the target. “Poland will be reaching climate neutrality at its own pace,” he said and added that Poland should be able to meet the target in 2070.

Yet, the European Council president, Charles Michel, declared victory on the target which features Europe becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. ‘Climate neutrality is our common goal,’ he said. ‘But at the same time, it is correct that for one member state, at this stage, it is not possible to commit to implementing this objective.’ Still, leaders expect Poland to sign up to implement the target in June. However, Leon Bershidsky argues that Poland is right to fear the Deal as the post-communist countries have, to some extent, sacrificed environmental protections in the race to catch up to western living standards, while still having a long way to go. Hence, almost all Eastern European countries will need more green investments than their wealthier neighbours.


Black gold

Nevertheless, despite the government allegedly fighting with the issue of pollution for two years now, the Polish cities such as Kraków, Jaworzno and Katowice, are said to present the pollution levels even four times higher than the WHO standards. Marek Józefiak from Greenpeace highlights how the issues of air pollution and global warming are closely related as both smog and climate change show the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. In the case of Poland, the high level of pollution can be primarily linked to the high usage of coal and wood. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Morawiecki declared the huge success, convincing that Poland as the only EU country doesn’t have to reach the climate neutrality by 2050, while President Duda stated in 2018 that coal is Poland’s strategic fossil fuel and there’s enough of it for the next 200 years. 

About 78% of the energy produced in Poland comes from coal, featuring the biggest use of such fuels among all EU countries, and establishing Poland’s position as the second biggest hard coal producer in Europe (right after Russia). For years, hard and brown coal were the cheapest fuels used for energy production. However, there’s EU ETS (Emissions Trading System) now. The free entitlements that Poland received around a decade ago are now just the “blast from the past”; there’ll be less of them, hence, the fossil fuels will be more expensive. It’s not true that Poland cannot resign from coal. In fact, the chivalrously protected coal, upon which Poland has been building its alleged power for years, has been more imported since 2008 rather than exported. In 2018, almost 20 mln tons of coal arrived in Poland, including about 70% of it coming from Russia. In such a situation, it’s rather difficult to talk about energy security on the basis of one’s own resources.


The issue of energy poverty

From September 2019, based on the Lesser Poland resolution, anyone who burns even a piece of coal can be punished with a ticket. But for millions of Poles, it still sounds like a fantasy novel. There are about 5,5 mln houses among which about 80% is heated with the use of furnaces that don’t meet emission norms. There are way less best class furnaces as they cost way more. The Environmental and Energy Engineering Department of Silesian University advises that firstly, heating with the use of the heating network (gas) should be encouraged, as well as the use of renewable energy sources. There are many alternatives, but coal still remains the cheapest fuel, hence its popularity with about 10 mln tons of coal being burned in Polish households a year.  

A lot of people simply cannot afford better furnaces or fuel then. Not to mention the lack of appropriate education about ecology with some people still burning trash such as plastic. Kwiatkowski, the previous National Audit Office president who co-organised the Climate Summit in 2018 that was, ironically, held in Katowice, stated that the institutions should work more smoothly with the jurisdictions being organised and, most importantly, financial aids and clear goals in mind.  

The low coal prices are mostly the effect of the government’s policies that have been subsidising the coal industry and promising the miners pie in the sky, while the air quality is getting worse each year. It can turn out that persisting with coal will cost us more than energetic transformation. What Poland should do is admit that the coal era has finished. It doesn’t mean to leave the mines stranded. We should come up with a solution, so the mines’ employees could find a job somewhere else (without losing the region’s unique identity), and the companies could develop renewable energy sources whilst still earning money. The government must help. Although counting on a substantive discussion about energy is rather pointless in Poland, where the issue is treated as sensitive by all political forces. But inaction doesn’t help either, for sure, with the effects being experienced by all of us – not in 2050, not in 2070, but now. 

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