We can handle the air quality issue only once the local and central government, local residents and local business begin collaborating – such was the conclusion of a seminar with a focus on small and medium-sized cities’ and towns’ development.

The Association of Polish Cities has organised its fifteenth online seminar forming part of the Local Development Forum “Endogenic Potential Activation as a Condition of Small and Medium-sized City/Town Development in Poland” series. On 28 January, meeting participants discussed air quality – actions taken by cities and towns to protect it, forms of assistance they receive from the central government and regional authorities, and potential remedies to let us breathe easier.

The Association of Polish Cities decided to use the meeting as an opportunity to expand the topic previously raised at the Urban Development Forum: the 10th Local Development Forum held on 22 October 2020 focused on urban transformation with a Green Deal course and bearing. This time, experts and local government practitioners invited to attend the meeting debated a comprehensive approach to air protection, low emissions issues in particular.

Ominous Statistics

For many years, air quality in Poland has been ranking among the worst across most European Union member states. Professor Artur Badyda of the Warsaw University of Technology referenced the “Air quality in Europe – 2020 report”, which proved that while Poland ranks eighteenth among EU member states in terms of high NO2 concentration rates, which is not too bad, we are in the lead in terms of suspended particulate concentration rates: second in terms of PM10 and first in terms of PM2.5 concentration rates (the latter fine particulates capable of penetrating deep respiratory system structures), and first in terms of BaP (potent carcinogenic substances with proven adverse effects) concentration rates. “We have ranked first in terms of suspended particulate concentration rates across the entire European Union for a yet another year running,” professor Badyda said.

Household Use of Solid Fuel

Household emissions are currently among the leading sources of such contamination. According to estimates, approximately 4.5 million residential buildings in Poland are heated with solid fuels (coal and wood), the condition exacerbated by the fact that around 40% Polish single-family houses have no thermal insulation. In consequence, energy use by these buildings is enormous, which means that large quantities of fuel (coal) have to be burned to bring the temperature up to reasonable living conditions. Only around 10% Polish single-family houses conform to relatively current thermal insulation standards. Polish cities and towns have been struggling with air quality issues for the past 30 years. As recalled by Executive Director of the Office of the Association of Polish Cities Andrzej Porawski, urban municipalities have been attempting to eliminate solid fuel furnaces since the 1990s, though nobody had been monitoring the issue back then. Furthermore, innumerable investments have been carried out in urban environments over the past decades, heating sources replaced with more ecological solutions in public buildings and thermal insulation projects delivered. The seminar agenda included a debate regarding specific good practices followed across Polish cities, towns and regions with intent to improve air quality.

The Clean Air Programme: It’s Alright, but...

Governmental administration efforts in the field were presented as well. Governmental plenipotentiary for the Clean Air Programme Bartłomiej Orzeł announced that the government would become more open to co-operating with local governments in terms of air quality protection. While he did not reveal what kind of activities have been planned specifically, meeting participants expressed hope that they would involve Programme expansion to include municipalities, as appealed for, as it were, by Leader of the Polish Smog Alarm Project Andrzej Guła. “The ‘Clean Air’ Programme has only yielded 70,000 investments over a two-year period,” he declared. “The Programme’s tempo has to really pick up, the reform needs to be completed.” Andrzej Guła believes that the country needs a dense grant distribution network, so that the average Mr. Smith will not be forced to take a trip to the capital city of the province just to file a grant application. “We have appealed to the government for municipalities to be made part of the system”, he remarked. “We have appealed to the government for ‘Clean Air’ Programme funding for municipalities as administrative units in closest proximity to potential Programme beneficiaries.”

We Will Count “Dirty Smoke” Stoves

Chief Inspector of Construction Oversight Dorota Cabańska submitted an interesting new proposal which may considerably foster urban efforts to achieve better air quality performance. The solution would base on the Central Register of Emissivity of Buildings designed to eliminate the main cause for pollution: emission of substances generating coal-fired furnace smog. The previously mentioned IT system collecting information on buildings and individual premises with regard to heating and fuel incineration sources would be made available to central and local governments in application format as a major low-emission policy implementation tool. Regrettably, its final version will not be available before 2023 (see attached presentation for more information).

Uninformed Residents

Meeting participants were in agreement that the previously mentioned activities will fail to produce desired outcomes if local residents remain uninformed. As proven by Andrzej Guła’s presentation, the level of anti-smog legislation awareness, for example, is poor. “Which brings us to the following question: how can we expect people to replace their heating sources with more ecological solutions if they are unaware of the fact that they are legally obliged to do so?”, asked the presentation author.