Carriages in the Market Square, Krakow, a city whose popularity with tourists belies a longstanding pollution problem. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

In a city where coal and wood are commonly used to heat homes, forcing change is a meaningful step to help clear the air—but more challenges remain.

Krakow, Poland, wants to clear the air.

While the city’s beautifully preserved historic core is unusually elegant and charming even by central Europe’s high standards, Krakow’s air has long been appallingly dirty. Across the 1.7 million-citizen metro area, Krakow’s pollution is so notorious among locals that an old joke continues to circulate: When you open a window in Krakow, you don’t freshen the air in your apartment, you freshen the air outside.

That’s why, in a new ruling this month, the city is making an attempt to mitigate the notorious pollution. The regulations themselves aren’t altogether novel: Anyone burning wood or coal in their home, or installing a barbecue, will face a fine. Still, the effort marks an important first for Poland. In a country that contains an astonishing 33 of the 50 most polluted cities in the European Union, Krakow’s moves to clear its air of coal and wood smoke mark a real departure that could do much to improve its citizens’ public health. In a country that’s still addicted to coal, however, it may be a long time before Poland’s cities make it off the blacklist.

According to figures cited by German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, breathing in Krakow’s polluted air for a year is akin to smoking 3,000 cigarettes. That means that if you bring up a child there, it effectively has a five-and-a-half-pack-a-week smoking habit. And while many cities struggle with unacceptable airborne particulate levels, Krakow’s are off the scale—in autumn 2015, they reached levels 540 percent above what is deemed safe.

Historically, much of that pollution has come from coal-powered industry—the city is the site of a major steelworks—but the majority has still come from domestic stoves. These are common in a city that escaped the World War II bombardment that flattened many other Polish cities, and thus has an older-than-average housing stock today. Around the turn of the millennium, for example, Krakow’s older buildings contained as many as 45,000 hearths. It’s not just the high carbon consumption that’s the problem, it’s the way the city’s topography concentrates them. Krakow is located in a fairly high-sided, relatively windless basin that fails to disperse fumes, and actually collects them from surrounding municipalities.

The city has been trying hard to turn this around for some years. Low-income households have been given full financial support to switch to central heating, and 25,000 stoves have been taken out of service since 2012. This drive has slashed the number of homes using coal to somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 (reports vary). That’s a massive drop, but after the carrot comes the stick—and the plan here is to actively winnow out the remaining offenders. Using drones and heat sensors, the municipality will track down remaining hearths and fine the tenants up to $125 (500 Polish Złoty) for illegal burning.

In reality, the city has agreed that it will not levy fines against tenants in buildings where landlords have not yet provided other heating alternatives. It can take time to install clean heating systems in rickety old buildings, and some are still waiting. One Krakow tenement, visible behind the trees in this Google Street View image, has been cited by local media as a building that now faces a heatless winter after problems with its new heating system mean it’s not yet ready to take over from the old stoves.

Rather than targeting people like these, the new law will do more to find people who have other means of heating but still use old stoves to burn scavenged wood, coal and even trash—a practice that is a surprisingly common cost-cutting practice across Poland. While the fines are fairly low, they could be enough of a risk to make such illegal combustion unappealing.

But will the fines, coming after a long period of coal divestment, do much to clear the city’s air? Possibly not. The new law only covers the city proper, and much of Krakow’s pollution comes from the surrounding area, from suburban towns and from country homes where domestic fuel burning is standard. The city’s huge steelworks in the eastern district of Nowa Huta still produces fumes, even if it retains only 3,500 of the 40,000 employees it paid in the 1970s. Above all, Poland still remains heavily dependent on coal for energy.

While coal use has drastically reduced across Europe, Poland still consumed 50 million tons of hard coal in 2018, and roughly 59 million tones of lignite—an especially dirty fuel source commonly referred to as brown coal. This is a notable climbdown from astronomically high historical consumption levels, but even now Poland expects to be deriving a third of its power from coal in 2040. One reason this projection is so high is that Poland doesn’t just burn coal, it also mines it.

Following massively reduced production elsewhere in Europe, Poland now produces 86 percent of the EU’s coal. The industry is seen as more than just a vital job provider: In a region where Russia uses its gas supplies for rough diplomacy, Poland’s domestic coal production gives it an energy source that doesn’t depend on maintaining goodwill with Russia.

Mixed in with this landscape is some climate-change denialism from political party and union Solidarity, plus claims from right-wing president Andrzej Duda that coal is a divinely ordained gift to the country. As such, there’s been little momentum behind attempts to put the brakes on coal consumption. Use actually went up slightly from 2017 to 2018, and coal-fired power stations are still being built.  

Against this backdrop of coal boosterism, it might seem harsh and hypocritical to clamp down on the typically poorer households burning coal and wood to keep out the often bitter cold of Poland’s long winters. But while such lower-income citizens may need to cut any corner possible, they also need to live lives that aren’t cut short or blighted by pollution-related illness—and are more likely to live in locations especially vulnerable to it. Krakow’s combination of help to cut coal and bans on domestic stoves may well not be enough to make their air radically cleaner, but it’s certainly a start.

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