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Poland has the dirtiest air in the European Union; this problem is particularly prominent in Warsaw ...
2020-01-14 09:00:00
Mind the climate

2020: A Smog Odyssey
A Foreigner’s Perspective on Polish Smog

Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan L. Ramsey
2020: A Smog Odyssey
2020: A Smog Odyssey

Before I start, let me say that I am not an expert in air pollution so if you, dear reader, decide that this disqualifies what I’m about to say, then I will understand. I speak Polish, I have a permanent residency, I am a taxpayer, and I feel that I have a right to speak about this issue. But on the other hand, you could say I am just a strange 32-year-old guy from America, which is by far the largest per-capita emitter of C02 in the world, the most wasteful society in Earth’s history, and as it happens, the country that Poland is trying to imitate more and more with each passing year.

Read in 12 minutes

I moved to Poland in 2010 at age 23, and during my first six years here I never heard a word about the smog and never considered the effect that it would have on my health or anyone around me. It simply was not an issue that anyone I knew discussed. But I became interested in the issue, like many people, during January 2017, when a huge wave of smog hit Warsaw and shrouded the city in pollution for 10 days.

This awakening came at an emotional time in my life. My daughter had just been born six weeks premature, with some health complications that required two invasive surgeries. We spent three stressful weeks living at the Children’s Health Centre (Centrum Zdrowia Dziecka; CZD) in Warsaw’s Wawer district, and even after my daughter was released we had to return to the centre for regular check-ups. During my time in Wawer, I noticed a lot of extremely hard-working doctors, nurses and support staff, who were working tirelessly for very little money and for very long hours. I was emotionally touched by the work they did to save my daughter’s life, and in the following months I searched for some small way to show my gratitude.

So it was quite a powerful moment in January 2017 when Warsaw had that 10-day stretch of heavy smog, during which the international media, including the New York Times, said that Warsaw had the worst air in the world. I thought it was fascinating that I had been living in a city for six years without ever considering this problem, but now suddenly the whole world was writing about how we had such a pollution crisis. It was shocking. I worried about how it would affect my daughter, and I observed that many other people suddenly felt the same way. This group included Michał Konopa, one of my colleagues at work who has a son with asthma.   

I make low-budget documentary films as a hobby, which I am trying to parlay into a career – I have no formal training in the arts, but I simply enjoy the creative process. One day at the office, Michał, who is a boating enthusiast, asked me if I would consider making a film about pollution in the Vistula river. I said I didn’t think anyone would want to watch it, but then I suddenly thought, If I made an environmental movie, then it would have to be about the smog, because that’s what everyone is talking about now.

Michał, whose son had been having breathing problems, latched onto the idea. And within a matter of days, we embarked on a journey that would take a year of our lives – making an independent documentary about the smog problem in Warsaw. The movie is quite depressing, so we decided to call it Smog Wars because we thought it might remind people of Star Wars – maybe then they would want to watch it?   

We met with all the major smog activists in Warsaw and paid close attention to what was happening from a pollution perspective for a six-month stretch during the following winter. I became obsessed with smog, reading everything I could, constantly checking the apps and the weather conditions; trying to foresee when the next big smog episode would hit. It caused me to see Warsaw in a completely different way, and little by little it has changed my whole worldview. I used to never think about environmental issues, but now it’s hard for me to think about anything else. 

Since I had to regularly go back to CZD for check-ups with my daughter, I quickly learned that the Wawer district is known to be the most polluted area in all of Warsaw due to the huge number of single-family houses heated by coal and wood furnaces. It hit me what a shame it is that the most important children’s hospital in Poland is located in the dirtiest area of Warsaw. The medical staff, the hospital administration, and the child patients suffering unimaginable pain while undergoing treatment – all of these people were breathing the worst air in Warsaw while trying to save lives. I wondered why such a state of affairs is acceptable?

During the filming process, we met with medical professionals dealing with children who have extreme forms of asthma, and it occurred to me that it’s possible many of the illnesses children were suffering from could potentially be prevented if there was less pollution. The Polish people are perfectly capable of solving the problem, but the most obvious reason it persists is that the smog issue is mainly seasonal, and politicians count on the fact that most people think only about themselves and their immediate needs. We have relatively clean air for around seven to eight months in the year, if you do not include the constant emissions of harmful particles coming out of the ever-increasing number of diesel engines (many of which are not properly maintained).  

The Polish obsession with automobiles can be likened to that of Americans, but Polish cities were obviously not designed for so many vehicles to be on the roads, and I would argue that Polish drivers are much worse than their American counterparts. The situation has reached a tipping point. The number of problems on Polish roads is frightening – the speeding, the drunk drivers, the overly-aggressive drivers, the people who talk on their phones while driving, and last but certainly not least, the police who seemingly do nothing about people who cut off their diesel particulate filters (DPF), spraying harmful particles all over town without any consequence. 

If Warsaw is unwilling to tackle these issues in a serious way, it will only get worse. The situation now is that there are plenty of valid regulations that are simply not being enforced. Imagine what a rich city Warsaw would be if they would make more effort to enforce the traffic laws that already exist! I suspect this doesn’t happen because the politicians themselves regularly break these laws (former prime minister Beata Szydlo’s car accident is a perfect example)!  

In winter, the main problem is the amount of obsolete coal/wood furnaces – and there are more than two million of these in Poland (possibly even closer to three million depending on how you count them). And who knows what type of coal they are burning or where exactly it’s coming from? What average citizen really knows what sort of harmful chemicals are coming out of the chimneys? 

So the problem is: how do you change two million furnaces to gas or city heating systems? Each one requires planning, money and time. The experts tell us that it’s going to take a long time, lots of money, and many people working together in a coordinated national effort. And the government seems capable of doing such actions when it is a huge project like a motorway, a football stadium, or a mega-airport (a far from wise idea). But when it comes to air pollution, it’s simply not a big enough priority for them.  

Ordinary Polish people want to focus on living their lives and don’t want to think about the smog problem when it’s not actually happening. And so for the politicians, the smog has become just another big political game. They make big statements (“We are the first government to tackle the smog issue”) and pretend like it’s a high priority, but they know perfectly well that very few people are actually paying attention to what they are doing about this issue. They know they can always fall back on the excuse of it being “a huge problem that will take years”. 

The recent elections demonstrate this. Even after the dramatically weak results of the government’s modernizing “Czyste Powietrze” programme (only about 150 furnaces changed in one year – out of more than two million), the public didn’t even seem to notice or care. Even the opposition parties didn’t seem to make it a campaign issue. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party got 45% of the vote, even bigger than four years ago, despite its obvious failure to protect the environment and public health.  

Meanwhile, every day I walk my daughter to pre-school in the Żoliborz district and I observe many people who are between the ages of 30 and 60. They are sitting in huge, shiny new SUVs with the engines switched on; they are staring at their phones, polluting the air all around them with no regard for anyone in the area who is forced to breathe the pollution coming out of the tailpipe. I see police officers stopping homeless people on the street, but I do not see them stopping anyone who is driving with black smoke pouring out of their tail pipe, polluting the streets. 

What I see in the Warsaw city leadership is a bunch of politicians closely following public opinion and trying to make these highly-calculated decisions based on who will vote for them. I don’t see any real leaders looking out for the public interest, willing to take a stand against the car and coal lobbies.  

I think that we could solve much of the smog problem quite quickly if more people would learn to care and be more vocal about it. For example, smog activists in Warsaw have been trying to collect 10,000 online signatures calling for a ban on burning coal in the city of Warsaw. It’s a great idea, which has already been implemented in Kraków, so it seems obvious that many people in Warsaw should support it, right? But it has been months since the petition was created, and they still have not gotten all the signatures they need. Why? Is it too hard to sign an electronic signature on your computer? No. It’s because this issue is not a priority for most people until the smog problem gets really bad again (I imagine they will get the necessary signatures once the smog gets worse…). 

Does anyone see the light at the end of Poland’s tunnel of smog? Again, optimists point to the huge progress in Kraków after banning the burning of coal within the city limits. Hopefully other cities will follow their example, but I have serious doubts it will happen soon.

In my opinion, both local and national government should take steps to: (a) lower the fares for public transportation to create an even greater incentive for commuters to leave their cars at home ; (b) start charging a modest monthly pollution tax for anyone who owns a vehicle, and increase the amount of this tax every year; (c) double parking fees everywhere that is accessible by public transit; (d) create more car-free zones and low-emissions zones; (e) strictly enforce existing traffic laws; (f) invest heavily in transforming the energy system away from coal; (g) and stop spending public money and wasting political energy on things like excessive military spending, subsidizing the coal industry, building new parking garages in city centres, huge football stadiums that sit empty most of the year, or a mega-airport.

In addition, we should have very strict enforcement of fines for creating environmental hazards, such as those created by people and businesses who cut the DPF from their vehicles. For the amount of harm that they are doing to our children’s health, it should be treated as a serious offence and not with the typical “that’s life in Poland” ambivalence. 

Regarding the furnaces, most major cities have a large public debt clock somewhere central. In my opinion, citizens deserve to know what the government is doing with their money, and the same goes with the Polish government’s plans to solve air pollution. We have a right to know whether they are making progress or not. Therefore, I would propose that large electronic billboards be installed in the centre of every major Polish city showing the current air quality, the number of furnaces that have been changed in the given year (regionally and nationally), and how many furnaces remain (regionally and nationally). While we’re at it, let’s put more of these electronic billboards on the main roads to and from all the major airports in Poland. Don’t visitors to Poland have a right to know if they are being poisoned?

In the meantime, there are more and more cars in the city every year, so the traffic gets worse, the pollution gets worse, our health gets worse. It’s not clear to me who is benefiting from this, except for businesses. This brings me to the most cynical and depressing part of what’s happening – the conversation about smog has been hijacked by huge corporations.  

To give just one example, Toyota has a campaign that says ‘Stop Smog, Go Hybrid’. They are essentially saying that a consumer can show that they care about smog by purchasing a certain type of car. But the hybrid cars still contribute to the smog problem! Do they want us to believe hybrids don’t emit anything? Do they think hybrids don’t stand in traffic like other cars? The reality is that even if you have enough money to buy a hybrid, you will not be stopping the smog in any meaningful way. They just want you to feel better about yourself for a moment.

In the end, these types of advertisements only reinforce the widely-held perception that Poland’s air pollution crisis is actually just an invention designed to generate profits for big business – that it’s not actually a serious health crisis but rather a way for businesses to manipulate consumers into buying their products. And let’s not forget, these products also include the pharmaceutical industry, which ultimately benefits from all the sicknesses caused by our pollution.  

People can become more aware and make personal changes, like riding a bike or public transport to work, not using their furnace whenever possible, and seeking government help to change their heating systems. But, as is the case with climate change, the most important work is on the national level, because our leaders set the rules and are supposed to set an example that is good for all of us. And such leaders are nowhere in sight, because the leaders we have represent the majority public opinion: that smog is not any kind of serious priority. 

 

Click to watch Smog Wars documentary.

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