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Smog is not as tangible as other problems. We talk about how, to reduce it

16 of November '22

Smog kills - these are the facts. On why it is imperative that we fight it, we talk to Joanna Sawicka and Mateusz Fornowski - experts from Polityka Inisght and authors of the report"How Polish cities fight smog".

See here - a summary of the report "How Polish cities fight smog".

Wiktor Bochenek: It's worth starting with why is air pollution a problem? Why is smog harmful, despite the fact that many people are beginning to deny the problem?

Matthew Fornowski: People deny the harmfulness of smog by the fact that it is not a phenomenon like, for example, a car accident, which causes immediate damage to health. Smog is not so tangible - it can only be seen under the right conditions and from the right perspective - so it's easier to deny it.

Long-term exposure to smog can result in problems with the respiratory, nervous or circulatory systems and increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. In the shorter term, it can cause headaches, coughs or scratchy throats. Inhaling polluted air can also weaken the immune system, making it more likely to catch, for example, a viral infection during the fall and winter seasons.

Joanna Sawicka: According to the WHO, smog kills several million people a year. However, the cause-and-effect sequence is often invisible to the naked eye. As a result, many people do not see air pollution as a big problem.

What is the main cause of smog?

Matthew: Most pollution in cities is caused by so-called low emissions, although this name can be misleading and suggest that this source emits little pollution. Low emissions are air pollutants that originate from chimneys no taller than 40 meters, that is, primarily from residential buildings and domestic stoves. This phenomenon is strongest in municipalities or neighborhoods densely built up with, for example, single-family houses, which are supplied with non-environmental heat sources, including unclassified stoves commonly known as "cinderblocks." Low emissions are the biggest threat during the heating season, especially in windless and cold weather. The composition of typical winter smog includes various types of particulate matter of various diameters (e.g. PM2.5, PM10) - one of which is the carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene, which is emitted when coal and biomass are burned in domestic stoves at too low a combustion temperature. In addition, the air is also polluted by exhaust fumes and other substances from transportation vehicles, such as nitrogen oxides.

: Are we able to point out which PM particles are more harmful? Is there any point in pointing them out at all?

Matthew: One of the most harmful particles is the mentioned carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene. In general, small-diameter dusts are more dangerous, because they penetrate the human body more easily.

Joanna: This means that PM 2.5 is more harmful than PM10, because the particles of the former (maximum 2.5 micrometers in diameter) are smaller than the latter (maximum 10 micrometers in diameter).

Until a few years ago, in discussions about air pollution, factories were the main problem, while, from what you say, the problem is heating or individual transportation.

Matthew: The biggest culprit in cities by far is low emissions. Therefore, it should be combated first. The sources of these emissions are in the immediate area inhabited by people. Industrial pollution, on the other hand, is more of a local problem - heavy industry factories, which can emit sulfur oxides, for example, are not everywhere, although of course this source of pollution should also be fought.

Joanna: Because the main problem is "fossil fuels" in households.

In reports created in cooperation with the Clear Air Fund, you summarized the anti-smog measures of the largest Polish cities, practically metropolises. Which cities are doing the best and which are doing the worst? How do their anti-smog policies differ?

Matthew: There is no clear answer as to which city is doing best, and there is probably no point in looking for one answer. According to the Smog Cities Index we created,Krakow and Wroclaw are doing the best at replacing "fossil fuels" and enforcing anti-smog resolutions. Krakow is the fastest to replace stoves and best supports the poorest households in doing so. Wrocław, on the other hand, is the most careful in controlling potential sources of pollution.

Joanna: In our reports we look at different areas of the city' s operation. We are keen to evaluate primarily the areas that are influenced by the authorities of a given municipality. Although this is not always the case. Because we compare cities, for example, in terms of how they reduce air pollution levels in the long term. Part of this reduction is due to the local government, and part is due to other factors - such as weather.

The second area we evaluate, already strictly dependent on local governments, is the fight against the use of outdated stoves and ensuring compliance with anti-smog resolutions. The third area concerns transportation. From our point of view, the key is to fight against fossil fuels and control the regulations.

Krakow is the only large city where, thanks to the efforts of the local government and local activists, we have managed to replace virtually all the fossil fuel stoves - only a few hundred remain. Those that are very difficult or impossible to remove. Other large cities have several, a dozen or tens of thousands of stoves to replace. Most large cities are replacing a few hundred, sometimes a thousand, cinderblocks a year, which means that the replacement process will continue for a long time.

It is also important to remember that the problem of fossil fuel stoves affects the poorest people the most. That's why it's important for us to know whether the cities we're observing provide any concrete support to people who don't have the money for any investments in changing heat sources and thermo-modernization of buildings.

Kraków jest pionerem jak chodzi o wprowadzenie strefy czystego transportu

Krakow is a pioneer when it comes to introducing a clean transportation zone

Photo Jar.ciurus, © CC BY-SA 3.0

Matthew: It is worth adding that Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow are the best performers in the transportation area. Each of these cities is characterized by something different.

Warsaw has the best-developed public transportation network, which is conducive to leaving the private car in the parking lot, for example, for daily commuting. The city is also investing in the development of bicycle infrastructure and access to city bicycles. Lublin, through its use of trolleybuses, has the most heavily electrified public transportation fleet of the eight cities we studied. Krakow, on the other hand, despite not being a leader in public transportation and not having the highest level of bicycle infrastructure, is doing a great job of moving cars out of the city center by introducing clean transportation zones - in no Polish city is work on a similar solution at such an advanced stage.

Joanna: Krakow is the only city that already has a specific date for the introduction of a clean transport zone (July 2024). Admittedly, it has slipped, but we still know that it is coming into effect. The second most advanced is Warsaw, where we are just beginning to talk about it. However, there are no specific dates.

See here - a summary of the report "How Polish cities are fighting smog."

How to speed up this process of introducing solutions. Here we have the example of Krakow, but how should other cities do it.

Joanna: It depends on the size of the city and the size of the budget. We focused on the largest cities, which have bigger budgets and richer residents. Talking about the smog problem, we haven't yet mentioned the 2018 Clean Air Program. This is a solution for people with lower average incomes. Many people living in big cities don't catch on to the Clean Air program because they don't fall within the income bracket for eligibility. And big cities should support these people. Although, as I mentioned above, the most sensitive group is the poorest, who, after all, also live in large cities. And they need to be given special care, for example, financial support combined with pre-financing and covering a decisive part of the investment of replacing the heat source.

Of course, every city is different in terms of geography, terrain, history, or type of urban planning. Much depends on how developed the district heating network is in a given city, and whether the buildings are old or newer. Because the replacement of the heat source should be linked to the thermal modernization of the building in question, which brings challenges of different scales.

Matthew: I would like to add two things here. First, an important issue is the ownership structure of buildings in the city. If the city can reach out to the property owner, it will be easier to carry out the replacement of "dug-outs." This is the genesis of the problem of replacing leftover "cinderblocks" in Krakow, where the ownership structure of buildings where old stoves remain is unknown.

The second thing, perhaps more preventive, is to respect local spatial development plans (LDPs) and expand cities sensibly. When adding more buildings to the city map, it must be done in such a way as not to "clog" the aeration wedges. This is especially important in cities with terrain and geography that favor the persistence of smog. On the one hand, Gdansk will always have lower pollution rates due to its proximity to the sea, which is an open space where these pollutants can be blown away (which is further helped by the breeze). Krakow, on the other hand, is located in a basin, and despite being a leader in the fight against fossil fuels, the level of air pollution during the heating season there still remains high compared to other Polish cities. Most of this pollution comes from neighboring municipalities, as can be seen in simulations from measuring stations.

How could such a Krakow solve the problem of surrounding municipalities?

Joanna: Krakow has no power over smaller municipalities, but it can encourage, persuade, convince. As far as Małopolska is concerned, quite a few municipalities in the vicinity of Kraków have managed to convince them to speed up the process of replacing fossil fuels. However, the Małopolska Sejmik has recently changed the provisions of the anti-smog resolution in force in the region and moved the deadline for replacing fossil fuels from the end of 2022 to the end of April 2024. And many municipalities may thus slow down the process, which will have a negative impact on air quality throughout the province.

What about traffic pollution?

Matthew: We've talked about fighting low emissions, but practices with leveling traffic pollution are still important. Above all, the key is to promote the availability and development of bicycle infrastructure and to make public transportation more attractive. I think that if local governments were more adventurous in separating bus lanes, communication would be better, more convenient and more competitive, and there would indeed be fewer cars in cities. Although, of course, to achieve this goal, other investments and solutions, introduced in parallel, are also needed.

Jak zanieczyszczone są największe miasta Polski - Benzo(a)piren.

How Poland's largest cities are polluted - Benzo(a)pyrene.

© Policy Insight

: Should we think about promoting public transportation development programs on a province-wide or nationwide scale? Transportation exclusion, according to some calculations, affects up to 1/3 of Poles.

Matthew: We shouldn't even think about it, just develop regional transportation as soon as possible. First of all, it should be based on well-functioning, regular and frequent bus services. Of course, the development and maintenance of the transport offer will require considerable expenses. Such routes should not be expected to be profitable - this is not their primary goal. Their main task is to increase the availability of all public and private services to citizens. Therefore, both local and central authorities should not be afraid of subsidies for this type of activity. In addition to this, it is necessary to expand the railroad network in county Poland.

You mentioned the Clean Air program. How effective is it, how should it be developed, and is it still possible to make up for the temporary loss before the upcoming season?

Joanna: This program has been in place since 2018 and was planned for 11 years. So far, more than half a million applications have been submitted under it for the replacement of outdated stoves, and according to data from the Central Building Emission Register, there are about three million fossils to be replaced. That is, this program is working, but it could work faster and better.

As we look at the program, several problems should be pointed out. It is aimed at all Poles, but many do not fit the income criteria. The subsidies are too low and are rarely adjusted for the rising prices of materials and labor. The third problem currently being addressed is that the program provides subsidies, but many people still have no money, or virtually no money, to contribute out of their own pockets to replace their stoves. Recently, changes went into effect to the program that guarantee pre-funding of investments, which is important for the poorest.

A separate problem is that at present many people do not want to replace stoves. Because it is the case that in the oldest dug-outs, you can burn a variety of materials, including harmful ones. And in the newer stoves it is not possible. In early September, Jaroslaw Kaczynski said in Nowy Targ that what if it's cold, you should burn anything in the stove, except tires. So a lot of people don't want to get rid of their fossil fuel stoves, so that in an emergency they have some room to maneuver and the possibility of burning, for example, garbage. Which is, of course, disastrous for health.

Victor: What should local governments and the government behave in the event of a worsening energy crisis and energy poverty? What should be the actions in the short and long term?

Joanna: The winter will be tough. Governments are mainly worried about keeping people from freezing, and the smog problem has receded into the background. We are unprepared for this winter, despite having had some time to prepare.

In the short term, governments and local governments should report high pollution levels. So that on those worst days, with high levels of pollution, people with poorer health, the elderly and children, don't leave the house if it's not necessary.

The second thing is not to give up on fossil fuel replacement programs and information campaigns on the subject. They will probably be less popular now. The important thing is to continue to implement them, so that this policy does not go backwards, even if it is somewhat hampered.

In the long term, the key challenge is to improve efficiency, i.e. thermo-modernization of buildings. This cannot be done quickly, but after all, Prime Minister Morawiecki himself appealed during the vacations to thermomodernize their homes. This is work that needs to be planned for years, but should be started here and now.

Joanna Sawicka i Mateusz Fornowski są autorami raportu „Jak polskie miasta walczą ze smogiem”.

Joanna Sawicka and Mateusz Fornowski are authors of the report "How Polish cities are fighting smog."

© Policy Insight

Wiktor: It's worth asking at the end, is this winter just the beginning?

Mateusz: It will be the beginning, but in my opinion changes for the better. Poland was not adequately prepared for the start of the energy crisis, so the coming months will still be an attempt to "stay afloat." Gradually, however, the market will adapt to new conditions, such as the limited availability of certain raw materials. The key to this adaptation, in my opinion, will be the acceleration of the green transition - the coming winter may prove to be a catalyst for the changes we have been talking about for many years.

Victor: Thank you for the interview.

See here - a summary of the report "How Polish cities fight smog".

interviewed Wiktor Bochenek

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