Is PLN 103 bln enough to tackle smog in Poland?

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Poland claims the unflattering title of the smoggiest country in Europe. While the Government has pledged serious money to fight it, coal standard regulations seem to be counter-productive. And while Poles wait for the heating system subsidies to roll out, millions of outdated, fuming furnaces will continue to burn this winter

By Anna Rzhevkina

Poland has the most polluted air among all EU countries. Out of 50 European cities with the dirtiest air, 33 are in Poland, according to the World Health Organization report. The problem comes mainly from the use of coal as a key heat source in winter. According to air quality watchdog Polski Alarm Smogowy, coal burning in homes causes 52 percent of PM10 (solid particles and liquid droplets) emissions in the air. Industrial pollution accounts for about three times less, i.e. 17 percent. Other major polluters are transport and the energy sector.

“Out of 50 European cities with the dirtiest air, 33 are in Poland, according to the World Health Organization report.”

In February 2018, the European Commission sued Poland for persistent breach of air quality standards during 2007-2015. Poland has not complied with PM10 (particles that can be harmful to lungs and aggravate asthma) concentration limits in the vast majority of “air quality zones” and has been slow to introduce necessary measures, the Court of Justice stated. Several months later the Polish government introduced some major initiatives to fight smog.

Clean Air costs

In June, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki promised to invest PLN 103 billion in the “Clean Air” program. Under the program, over 3 million households should receive financing for cleaner heating systems. The subsidies will vary from 40 to 90 percent per household, depending on income, the Ministry of Environment stated.

According to the plan, the applications for the program should start being accepted starting in September. However, it is not clear yet whether participants will receive money in 2018. “I think this year the initial funds will be distributed, but it depends on the number of people and how fast the program will progress,” the Ministry’s spokesperson Aleksander Brzózka said. He emphasized that the program is long-term. “In 10 years, the air in Poland should be 80 percent cleaner,” Brzózka added, without specifying the criteria for measuring air quality.

Wait-and-see

A 10-year perspective may sound ambitious and promising; however, the coming winter could well see a slowdown in how quickly Poles’ heating systems are being modernized. Those who had intended to replace their furnaces using their own financing are now more likely to wait for the promised government subsidies.

“Under the ‘Clean Air’ program, over 3 million households should receive financing for cleaner heating systems.”

“We already hear from citizens that they are refraining from changing their heating systems, because they are waiting for the funds to come. There was a promise, but the money is not there yet,” Piotr Siergiej from Polski Alarm Smogowy (Eng. Polish Smog Alert) said. He also expressed concerns that administrative costs would consume a significant part of investments.

Coal standards

In August, President Andrzej Duda signed a bill setting coal quality norms, which had not previously existed in Poland. The new rules forbid the sale of coal waste and impose fines of up to PLN 500,000 or even imprisonment for non-compliance. Individual households will have a two-year transition period to switch to more ecological solutions.

“With such poor coal quality parameters, the air quality may improve only slightly or not improve at all.”

Activists for clean air have generally supported the initiative, but said the norms are too lax. “We are very critical of the norms proposed by the Ministry of Energy, which allow coal with high content of ash (up to 28 percent) and moisture (up to 24 percent),” Siergiej said. According to Polski Alarm Smogowy, the norms were designed in such a manner that almost all the coal produced in Poland remains on the market. With such poor parameters, the air quality may improve only slightly or not improve at all, the activists stated.

Low coal quality standards eventually call into question whether investing billions of złotys in modernizing heating systems is reasonable. This could be compared with buying a modern engine and filling it with the worst quality fuel.

‘Kopciuch’ still in use

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In addition to adjusting coal quality norms, environmentalists call for anti-smog resolutions in each individual region of Poland. Currently, such a resolution was adopted for Małopolska – its capital Kraków has some of the worst air quality in Poland. Under the resolution, the lowest quality furnaces, so-called “kopciuch” (meaning “emitting a lot of smoke”), should be replaced in the next five years.

The sale of “kopciuch” furnaces has recently been forbidden in Poland, but about two million are still in use. In most regions there are no rules on when those furnaces should be replaced. Without the guidelines, about 15 years or even more could pass before they are decommissioned.

It’s unrealistic that pouring even billions of złotys into the smog issue could solve the problem either this or next winter. If the money is spent wisely, Poles may hope for cleaner air in at least the next five years. And if not, anti-pollution masks will become even more commonplace in the coming years. Perhaps at some point, Poland will even become a prospective market for entrepreneurs selling bottled fresh air, like they do in China. At $29 (PLN 110) per canister, who could resist buying a few breaths of clean air?

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