SOME COUNTRIES’ borders are visible from space. At night, North Korea looks like a black void separating China from South Korea. Deforestation in Haiti has left a stark contrast between its brown soil and the Dominican Republic’s lush vegetation.
Poland is an unlikely member of this club. Yet on cold days, the edges of Europe’s largest region of air pollution fit its outline snugly. At 10pm on January 18th fumes enveloped almost the entire country, only to dissipate 100km or so beyond its borders.
The air breathed by an average Pole may not be Europe’s dirtiest. According to the European Environment Agency, Balkan nations like Serbia do worse on metrics like years of life lost per person. However, Poland’s effluvia stand out for their geographical spread. Of the 100 European cities with the most air pollution, 29 are Polish.
Poland’s nationwide sheet of smog stems from its use of coal—often of the cheap, extra-dirty sort—for home heating, rather than the cleaner natural gas common in nearby countries. This causes 80% of its emissions of PM2.5, grains of matter that enter lungs easily. In the summer, Poland’s PM2.5 level is only slightly above the EU average. But when Poles turn up the heat during winter, it can be three times greater.
Coal seams run deep in Polish history. Under communism coal was both the main fuel for the country’s economic modernisation and a big export. Afterwards, the miners’ union blocked efforts to cut jobs in pits. In 2007-15 the state spent €14.8bn ($18bn) propping up the bloated industry. And in 2015 Law and Justice, a nationalist party, won election with a manifesto that supported coal. Poland is the only country in Europe to use more coal-derived energy for heating today than it did in 1990.
The ruling party has had to moderate its backing for coal of late. The EU has earmarked €2bn to help Poland decarbonise, while soaring prices for carbon-emission permits have made electricity from coal uncompetitive. The European Court of Justice has also found Poland in violation of EU environmental directives. Half of Poles think air pollution is a serious problem.
In September Poland reached a deal with unions to close its coal mines by 2049. It has also subsidised replacements for coal-powered heaters. The city of Krakow has banned burning coal and wood, and reaped bigger gains in air quality than those of nearby areas. However, it will take more than this for Poland to stop standing out on pollution maps on a chilly day. ■
Sources: Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service; World Air Quality Index; “EU-28 residential heat supply and consumption”, by N. Bertelsen and B. Vad Mathiesen, Energies
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