The fight against smog is consistent, but still too slow
Unfortunately, many people considers concern for the natural environment and the fight against smog as someone else's concern. They burn rubbish and heat houses with the worst quality coal furnaces. In addition, they remain deaf to all requests and appeals of those who want to breathe clean air. Fortunately, we can already observe an increasing change of awareness in terms of the dangers of air pollution among the inhabitants of Małopolska. The latest eco-intervention statistics clearly show that the inhabitants of Małopolska are more and more aware of the source of smog. They understand that air pollution is killing them and their loved ones. The most important fact is that they want to do something about it. In order for this fight for clean air to be fully won, close cooperation of local governments is necessary. This is particularly important due to the fact that no town is a lonely island, and the air movements carry smoke and suspended dust from place to place.
Smog, i.e. silent poison, whose fatal impact on health was often underestimated in previous years, still affects hundreds of municipalities in Poland. Unfortunately, not only in the winter season, when the excess concentrations of harmful suspended PM 10, PM 2.5 particles or benzo(a)pyrene exceed the permissible standards by even several hundred percent.
What is their source? Despite the progress in reducing emissions, it is still domestic heating devices and the cheapest, worst-quality fuel (and sometimes waste) that are burned in them, which are the main source of air pollution in Poland.
What is worse, due to the terrible, dilapidated condition of many buildings, large quantities of this fuel needs to be burnt to maintain thermal comfort inside. Due to leaky windows or the lack of thermal insulation of external walls, Polish houses are called "energy vampires" by industry experts. This is confirmed by the research of the Institute of Environmental Economics, which shows that over 70% out of 5.5 million houses in Poland, are not insulated or are poorly insulated (data for 2012), and are heated with the so-called old coal boilers that do not meet any environmental standards.
The revolution is coming...
Fortunately, this situation is slowly improving, which is confirmed by the conclusions of the latest report prepared by the Ministry of Climate and Environment. It states that heating with coal is no longer the most common solution, with as much as 31% of the researched households using a connection to the district heating network. Increasingly, Poles are also switching to gas heating (up to 28% of all households in 2020 compared to 16% in 2018), replacing coal (last year it was the main heating source in 14% of houses, and not 35% like two years earlier).
As a result of the growing awareness of the inhabitants and the involvement of anti-smog activists, the challenge of dealing with smog has become one of the pillars of the ecological policy of the state. In recent years, the government has taken a number of measures to reduce pollution emitted by the municipal and housing sector.
The launch of the Clean Air priority program in September 2018 is the largest of these initiatives. The planned budget of PLN 103 billion is to allow, within a decade, to co-finance the decommissioning of old coal-fired burnaces and thermo-modernization in over 3-4 million single-family houses in Poland. This flagship programme of the Polish government has already been reformed and further developed many times to best meet the needs of the beneficiaries. In recent months, applications for co-financing have been significantly simplified, municipalities have been involved in helping to complete them, and the criteria for supporting the poorest people have also been changed.
At the same time, there is also the “Stop Smog” programme to support the replacement or liquidation of the heating sources and thermo-modernization in single-family residential buildings of energy-poor people. In contrast to the Clean Air program, in this case it is not the inhabitants themselves, but local governments that apply for support (it may amount to 70% of the investment costs of co-financing).
…there is still a long way to achieve the goal
However, as experts argue, the pace of boiler replacement is still insufficient to be fully successful. During the two years of operation of the Clean Air program, only 172,000 applications were submitted for co-financing for a total amount of almost 3.3 billion. These numbers, although not small, should be at least three times higher so that government can achieve its goals and free Poland from smog. Therefore, further changes will be necessary, including the long-announced inclusion of banks in the distribution of aid and more effective than now reaching the poorest who cannot afford to finance their own investment in thermal modernization or boiler replacement.
It is money that most often turns out to be an insurmountable barrier, especially in the least affluent households, which do not have the funds to renovate or replace heating.
Fighting on many fronts
Where should we start to solve the smog problem as soon as possible? There is no happy medium that can replace all the others. Synergy of simultaneous actions in many fields is necessary:
- at the central level (adoption of relevant regulations and management of aid funds),
- provincial (distribution of support, implementation of anti-smog resolutions),
- local (reaching the beneficiary directly, helping the poorest, identifying problems).
Each of these initiatives has one common denominator. In the coming years, it will be necessary to completely abandon the use of coal in individual heating systems (and small boiler houses with a capacity of up to 1MW in fuel) and replace them with other, more environmentally friendly sources of heat and energy. And, in the meantime, as long as there is still a demand for such fuels, gradually tighten the quality requirements for solid fuels used in households. If such a radical postulate is not implemented, all other anti-smog measures will no longer be valid, experts argue.
What can be offered in place of coal-fired boilers, which will sooner or later end up in the dustbin of history? There are a lot of possibilities. Boilers emitting heavy smog can successfully be replaced by gas condensing boilers, heat pumps, electric heaters, hybrid systems with heat pumps and other renewable energy sources (RES). On the other hand, wood boilers should be replaced or adapted to high emission standards (in particular dust and work efficiencies above 88%) and monitoring of the composition of flue gases, which prevents the boiler from reburning expelled waste and emissions.
The future fight against smog will be significantly influenced an EU policy, which sets itself the ambitious goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. Although the problem of smog is sometimes mistakenly equated with counteracting the effects of climate change, it is crucial to try to cure one disease, not to worsen the health conditions in another area. In other words: support should be designed in such a way as to provide as little support as possible to further individual heating sources, which, even if they meet strict standards, will still be sources of emissions that take us away from the goal of climate neutrality. Considering the above, it is crucial to replace as many boilers emitting heavy smog as possible with individual heat pumps, solar collectors, and hybrid systems, and not with natural gas. Increased consumption of natural gas for the needs of individual heating should only be a temporary development, which will allow for a gradual substitution of natural gas by RES after 2035.
Regions are eliminating coal and boilers emitting heavy smog
Local governments also have a significant role to play, both at municipal and provincial levels. Anti-smog resolutions are one of the available tools. They make it possible to define standards that must be met by the types of fuels admitted to trading and heating devices used in houses.
These solutions have been adopted on local grounds, although many local governments are still far from fully implementing their provisions. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that anti-smog resolutions have become the norm signed by most provinces (a total of 17 anti-smog resolutions were adopted, covering the entire province or its separate parts).
However, only the adoption of regulations and the definition of stringent orders to discontinue the use of specific types of coal is not enough. Local governments must be more actively involved in educating the population about the effects of burning the worst-quality fuel, and inform about the available support programs. The role of provinces is also to monitor the progress related to the implementation of the provisions contained in the resolutions, so as to prevent them from becoming dead regulations that look good on paper, but can be regularly corrected and adjusted according to the market situation.
Protective support for energy-poor people
Additional support instruments for the poor, for whom the replacement of the heating sources - even if financed from public funds - can be a big challenge, will also be needed. These are people who deal with so-called energy poverty. How is it defined? They should be understood as encountering difficulties in daily life in meeting their needs (heating, access to hot water and electricity due to low income or poor housing conditions).
Unfortunately, it is quite a large group. In 2016, there were over 4.6 million energy-poor people in Poland (data from the Institute for Structural Research), which is over 12.2% of the entire population. The vast majority of them live in single-family houses - in 2016 it was 75.4% of all the energy-poor people, i.e. 3.47 million people. They must be the target of local government officials who know the local needs of their inhabitants, as well as social welfare workers and those in power who develop new support mechanisms. The first ones should, to a greater extent than today, offer subsidies to the inhabitants whose heating bills have increased after replacing the heating source, inter alia due to the requirements of anti-smog resolutions.
What can such support look like? The municipality of Kraków is the best example of a municipality which introduced a protective program for the inhabitants.
The carrot-and-stick solution is needed
The experience of anti-smog activists, energy advisers and local government officials shows that despite the best educational activities and the most effective communication with the inhabitants, there is still a group of people who are reluctant to make any changes, downplaying the problem, openly protesting against new obligations or more restrictive requirements. They do not want to change their habits (and, for example, give up incineration of waste), or invest in a new heating source.
The problem is that today it is very difficult to punish such inhabitants. In practice, the system of penalties and sanctions exists only on paper, especially in rural areas and smaller municipalities where there is a lack of appropriate services, e.g. municipal or community guards. The lack of appropriate staff means that the inhabitants of most municipalities in Poland (only approximately 20% of municipalities have properly trained employees with the right to inspect) cannot count on someone responding to their report about a neighbour who is burning plastic in a boiler. As a result, they remain unpunished, and all inhabitants in the area lose out.
This needs to be changed. The Polish Smog Alert suggested that the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management should be involved in the creation of municipal grasslands, which would be able to intervene in the control of boilers and issue fines. What could this support look like? - It is not about covering the costs of guards, but helping municipalities in creating guards by launching co-financing for the purchase of equipment, training, ash sample testing, etc. It would be the same support as that provided by the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management together with Provincial Funds to fire-fighters with the purchase of rescue equipment, vehicles or modernization fire stations - argue activists from the PSA.
Author: TOGETAIR Editors