The sky is the limit for Poland's air pollution crisis

28th April 2017, by Adrian Joyce, Renovate Europe Campaign Director

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If a European police force dispatched scent-sensitive drones across the suburbs in a last ditch bid to prevent thousands of deaths, you might think a terror attack was imminent.

But the Polish police officers filmed last month surveilling residents in Zywiec were tailing a crime wave motivated by nothing more sinister than the desire to keep warm.

Its effects though are clear, or rather they are smoggy. For cheap wood, coal and waste burned indoors are contributing to a smog problem in the town that sometimes surpasses even Beijing’s.

In Zakopane, Poland’s top ski resort, fine dust concentrations are measured at densities greater than in New Delhi, creating lung-busting smogs, with all the attendant health hazards.

Across Poland, air pollution kills around 45,000 people every year, the legacy of a coal-dominated energy infrastructure and decades of poorly-built housing stretching back to the Soviet-era and beyond.

 Seventy percent of the country’s five million single-family households do not have adequate insulation, according to Poland’s Institute of Environmental Economics

This single-family demographic represents the poorer half of the population. To heat their buildings, many use the cheapest and least environmentally friendly materials and methods.

Substandard fuels such as brown coal and coal mine waste are incinerated en masse in obsolete solid fuel boilers with low efficiency and high emissions – not just of CO2, but particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and carcinogenic substances such as benzo(a)pyrene.

An estimated 87% of Poland’s benzo(a)pyrene emissions – and 52% of its PM10 releases – come from low stack emissions (sources with a height of less than 40m). Poland is currently facing a European court case over this issue.

In February, the development ministry promised to bring forward a programme for modernising Poland’s single-family houses by the middle of the year.

This is welcome news, with the government due to hand in a national strategy for buildings renovations to the European commission this month.

Taken together, these two developments mark “a turning point,” says Anna Sokulska, a spokesperson for the Institute of Environmental Economics.

“They should be a part of a bigger and wider strategy,” she said, “but some people in government treat this only as something they are being forced to do by the EU. They don’t treat it as something meaningful.”  

This is a tragedy. Experience from the Czech Republic and Germany shows that a well-developed, ambitious program for buildings renovation can bring many new jobs, higher budgetary incomes, better health and a revival of the construction and insulation sectors.

Poland currently spends nothing on improving the energy efficiency of single-family buildings, compared to €1.50 in Germany, €2.50 in the Czech Republic and €5.50 in Slovakia.

It is time that Poland turned the page on antiquated polluting buildings that warm the planet but leave its own citizens huddling in cold and toxic misery. This is a problem that drones cannot solve on their own.

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Learn more about Renovate Europe’s National Partner in Poland and their work on Energy Renovation in Poland: Efficient Poland