The fight for clean air in Poland requires both knowledge and determination

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Summer in Poland is coming to an end, which means months of cloudy weather and low temperatures ahead. This also means that smog will make its annual appearance—a huge problem the country has grappled with for years. This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that 33 of the most polluted cities in European Union are in Poland. Tens of thousands of people die prematurely every year because of poor air quality. We estimate that the economic costs associated with disease and premature death from exposure to ambient, small particulate matter (PM2.5) could be as high as 40 billion USD a year.

Aware of these problems, as well as of the growing pressure from civil society, the Polish Government has begun taking steps to improve air quality. The big “elephant in the room” remains (and will remain) the fact that the dominant fuel in the Polish power industry is currently coal, which accounts for about 80 percent of energy production.  In contrast to this, analysis from the World Bank shows that increasing the share of renewable energy sources in energy production could act as a ‘triple win’ for the country - boosting the Polish economy, improving the health of people in the country, and reducing serious environmental problems—including air pollution—with limited social costs.

Somg in Poland: a roof chimney
The main source of air pollution are emissions caused by burning coal and other solid fuels in single family buildings.

The problem of smog in Poland is multi-dimensional - requiring a multi-pronged policy approach. In addition to the heavy reliance on coal, vehicle pollution is a serious contributor to this problem, with cars in Poland among the oldest in the European Union – many of which exceed current emission standards. An obvious solution to addressing this problem is a concerted effort to use more electric cars and buses. Although Poland is currently falling behind its western neighbors in terms of electric vehicles in circulation, various measures are already being undertaken to ensure the number of such vehicles on Polish roads will systematically increase. During last year's COP24 meeting in Katowice, the government of Poland, together with the World Bank, announced its intention to establish a dedicated fund to support electromobility, which will facilitate bilateral cooperation and foster an exchange of experiences between different countries and cities.

Based on numerous analyses, however, (including those carried out by the World Bank on behalf of the Polish Government and the European Union) it is now clear that the main source of air pollution are so-called low-stack emissions – those caused by burning coal and other solid fuels in single family buildings. This means that the most effective way of reducing smog (as well as carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere) is to replace older and sub-standard boilers with gas boilers, new-generation solid fuel boilers, or heat pumps. These efforts can also be complemented by simultaneously thermal retrofitting these single-family buildings.

Thus, the Clean Air Program – a system of financial support and incentives designed to reach 4.5 million households around Poland over the next 10 years – was born.

The Clean Air Program is being led and implemented by the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management and its regional branches. Expanding distribution channels to include municipalities and commercial banks will undoubtedly help achieve the assumed outcomes of the program. This clearly represents an opportunity to maximize financing (and reduce public funding) by including private banks in the program, which could also offer their own loan products to those clients interested in modernizing their homes. Only a broad and efficient distribution network for the Program will be capable of reaching nearly half a million homes per year and a noticeable improvement in air quality.

Smog in Poland: Krakow
Air pollution in Krakow. The Clean Air Program is a chance for real improvement in Poland’s air quality. 

Given the complexity and magnitude of this effort, coordination at all levels will be particularly important. The fight against smog should be the responsibility of one, specific institution that would be accountable and that could better coordinate and monitor the activities of subordinates in this area. The multiple government programs with similar goals that currently exist should be consolidated - reducing confusion and enhancing efficiency and efficacy.

The public, in turn, should have access to comprehensive information on the state of the air in their country and in their specific neighborhoods. This should be accompanied by educational and promotional activities to make sure everyone knows that air quality, and consequently health and well-being, depends also on us and our decisions.

The Clean Air Program represents a chance for real improvement in Poland’s air quality. It may also become a driving force for the Polish economy , due to the sheer magnitude of the huge financial resources needed to implement it and the associated creation of jobs related to insulating buildings and replacing heating systems. However, to achieve such an ambitious goal, an unprecedented institutional effort, technical competence, sheer determination and political will at all stages of program implementation will be needed.

Authors

Carlos Piñerúa

Country Manager for Poland and the Baltic States

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