Despite a city’s best intentions, national policies can often have the last word.
Krakow’s medieval UNESCO World Heritage sites and its stunning architectural palette of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches and buildings has made it a tourist magnet among Europe’s travelling classes. In glaring contrast the city now has a less endearing title to deal with: Europe’s third most polluted air.
Polish cities are failing EU guidelines in greater numbers than ever before, with six falling in the top 10 most polluted cities according to EU data, and Krakow coming in third place after Bulgarian cities Pernik and Plovdiv. The Bulgarian capital Sophia is also among in the top 10.
Where Polish cities are losing the battle most is particulate matter (PM10) consisting of tiny airborne droplets or gas particles that come from smokestacks and tailpipes, or from burning wood or coal for home heating, which can lead to a variety of health problems including Asthma and, most recently according to EU science, cancer.
While large cities like Krakow and Zabrze do not have levels on a par with the extreme pollution of Beijing, their levels are well past the concentrations deemed safe by health experts. The average Pm10 in December 2012 was 147 μg/m3, while the maximum limit under EU law is 50 μg/m3.
It’s not that the local government is entirely to blame. Huge swaths of the city-centre are pedestrianized, while a modern bus and tram system provides transportation for hundreds of thousands of Krakovites. Some blame Krakow’s geographic position in a valley surrounded by hills where little if any wind blows, exacerbated by its proximity to the highly industrialized region of Ostrava, in neighbouring Czech Republic, and Nowa Huta, a Polish industrial area to the East.
The main problem however, is Poland’s addiction to coal. More than 88 percent of the country’s electricity comes from coal in and in cities across Poland some apartment buildings are still heated by it, but the Polish government shows no signs of budging on its energy policy.
Within the EU, Poland has been increasingly active in trying to block more aggressive regulations to curb climate change. In the EU parliament, the country has vetoed or blocked several long-term policies aimed at reducing the effects of climate change. Government officials say the country cannot switch to renewables as fast as the EU wants. The main opposition, the Law and Justice Party, is openly skeptical of climate change science.
Historically anxious to reduce its dependence on imported Russian oil and gas, Poland now sources two-thirds of its coal imports from Russia to feed its growing economy.
Meanwhile, as reported in the New York Times, Polish citizens have taken to the streets of Krakow, protesting the city’s poor air quality.
“We understand that protest is a drastic way of showing our discontent, but for years authorities haven’t done anything to solve the problem,” said Andrzej Gula, one of the rally’s organizers and a member of the informal group Krakow’s Smog Alert, which monitors air pollution.
“We demand a total ban on heating homes with coal,” Mr. Gula said. “This is the only way of improving the air quality in our town. The problem is that the politicians are afraid of doing that, as it would harm the Polish mining industry.”
With little appetite for change at the national government level, it seems that citizens of Polish cities may well have to endure some of Europe’s worst air pollution for years to come.