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Kraków’s smog trauma

Every year in winter time Kraków changes beyond recognition. The air is heavy and thick, breathing becomes hard and doctors get used to longer queues in hospital corridors. Many people on the streets wear anti-smog masks and their outdoor activities become limited. All thanks to pollution, which prevents people from  doing sports and enjoying time outside. The effects are felt by everyone.

July 5, 2017 - Monika Michulec and Agnieszka Pelczar - Articles and Commentary


Smog is not a natural phenomenon. It is human-induced and exacerbated by low wind levels and temperature inversion. Smog’s main components are PM 2.5 – a suspended particulate, and carcinogenic benzopyrene, both of which have a detrimental effect on human health. Long-term exposure to these elements can cause the shortening of an average life expectancy in population and the growth in the number of deaths due to respiratory diseases. The World Health Organisation has been studying the problem of air pollution for many years, and as part of its research, it published a list of the 50 most polluted cities in the European Union. Among them, 33 are located in Poland. Kraków has come 11th in the classification.

In Kraków, the main cause of smog is coal stoves. These emit harmful substances as people use low quality coal or rubbish to heat the furnaces. In the burning process, these stoves release poisonous elements. Furnaces account for 42 per cent of the air pollution in Kraków. Another 21 per cent is produced by industrial plants and 17 per cent by fossil fuels coming from cars driving within the city. Moreover, the wind brings around 20 per cent of the smog from nearby towns, where the air quality is much lower than in Kraków. The city’s geographical location in a hollow does not help as it prevents proper ventilation.

According to the data of the Voivodeship Inspectorate of Environmental Protection in Kraków, air pollution caused by the suspended particulate PM 10 is extremely worrying. The highest measurement from December 31st 2016 was 114 µg/m3, and in January 2017, the level reached 325µg/m3, while the allowed norm in Poland is only 50 µg/m3. The numbers are frightening, and this puts Kraków in a bad position in comparison with other European cities. In the discussion about smog and how to address the problem, however, one needs to consider not only ecology, but also financial and economic concerns.

Monika Chylaszek, the spokeswoman for the President of the city of Kraków, claims that the main problem is the high cost of fighting smog. The city’s 2017 budget for reducing the harmful substances in the air has been substantial. “We have already replaced 7,000 stoves and we have received applications for the replacement of another 7,000. We are also in the process of introducing new ecological buses “Euro 6”, which cost around two million złoty (around 471,900 euro). These buses are not cars, to be bought for 10,000 złoty, but a serious investment.”

There are many ways to lower the level of air pollution, but for an average Kraków inhabitant, these may be out of reach. The replacement of stoves, the use of higher quality coal or the purchase of a new more ecological car might be inaccessible. “This is true, but it does not give people the right to poison others. If I cannot afford a new more ecological car – I simply do not drive, that is what public transport if for. Similarly, increasing the quality of coal makes it difficult for those who use the cheap one. But does that mean we should let them poison us?” says Dr Paweł Kubicki, a specialist in the socio-cultural aspects of city functioning from Jagiellonian University.

Kubicki points to solutions from other European cities which could be adopted in Kraków: “Helsinki decided to remove all private cars from the city by 2050, it will be the first European metropolis without any individual car traffic. Last year, the Netherlands banned diesel car registration, and the ban on driving within city centres has become a norm in many European cities, where ecological zones are being created. For instance, in Berlin, there are less than 300 cars registered for 1000 inhabitants, while in Kraków the number of cars is 700.”

According to the Kubicki, getting preoccupied with the possible negative effects that these excessive restrictions can have may prevent real action, the effectiveness of which has been proven in many European countries. The success of such solutions can set a good example for Kraków, which has not yet caught up with the way Europe thinks about the environment. The reason for the lack of any real action might be connected to the resistance of citizens to top-down solutions affecting people’s private lives. Therefore, there is a need to educate society and to convince people to trust in innovative solutions, many of which require sacrifice and compromise on the part of both the authorities and the populace.

During the last anti-smog protest on Kraków’s main square, on February 25th 2017, one could hear people calling on the authorities to take action. The “clean protest”, as it came to be called, focused mainly on the recent bill by the Minister of Environment Jan Szyszko, which allows for the almost unrestricted cutting of trees. According to the new law, property owners are allowed to cut trees on their land without any external permission. Clearance will not be permitted only if it is connected with economic activities, as well as in landscape parks or natural monuments.

Protesters objected to the new law, claiming that the damage done by cutting down trees will be impossible to redress for many years to come. Dismantling green spaces in cities will have a severe impact on the rise in pollution levels. Moreover, actions taken by Kraków’s president Jacek Majchrowski to address the problem might soon be thwarted. As the president stated, “Since last year, we have been planting trees and anti-smog plants. This year, we are investing 100 million złoty in green spaces in the city.” But after the passing of the new law uncontrolled tree cutting will affect most of these projects.

The participants of the “clean protest” also called for solutions such as the ban on the sale of coal duff, the acceleration of stove replacements, and ceasing the concrete expansion of the city. Moreover, they stress the need to withhold new building permissions for as long as the problem continues. They also called for a ban on cutting down trees in the Kraków area, as well as an increase in the quality of coal allowed in stoves.

One of the supporters of the protest and the leader of the Logical Alternative movement, Łukasz Gibała, blames the local authorities for the lack of improvement in air quality. “The biggest sin of the city authorities is disregarding the issue of smog. This has been made clear by irresponsible statements, such as those of Jacek Majchrowski, who said that he had already solved the smog problem in 2014. Underfinanced public transport, which should work much better, free replacement of stoves and the building of parking spaces for park and ride schemes, are all changes which are up to the local authorities, the president and city councillors, but they are introduced too slowly or not at all.”

However, according to the president’s spokeswoman, the accusations against the city authorities are unsubstantiated. “Everybody talks about ventilation corridors to clean the city’s air, but few know what they really are. Looking at the past few days, we can see that the corridors do work as every time the wind blows the problem of smog disappears. We also have to remember that it is a double-edged sword, as the corridors also bring pollution from the neighbouring towns, where the smog levels are much higher than here. In the end, we are based in a hollow,” Chylaszek explained.

The relations between Gibała and the current city authorities have been tense, as the former took a number of steps to recall the president. To this end, a referendum was conducted, but Kraków’s population decided that the president should stay. When asked about the level of cooperation between the Logical Alternative and Smog Alarm groups and the city authorities, Chylaszek stated, “These are two different organisations, so it is difficult to give a clear-cut answer. We constantly cooperate with Smog Alarm. Their work in large part focuses influencing changes in our country’s law, which should be improved if the effectiveness of local authorities is to increase. The Logical Alternative, on the other hand, focuses on political actions, self-promotion and sewing anti-smog masks.”

Foreign investments, which directly translate into more jobs for Polish workers, are another aspect worth taking into account. More and more companies support the city budget with their taxes which contributes to the image of Kraków as entrepreneurship friendly.  According to data provided by ASPIRE, which represents IT companies and those providing advanced business services, Kraków is the number one place in Europe in the Tholons Top 100 Outsourcing Destinations 2016 ranking, and ninth in the world. The issue of air pollution could negatively affect the further development of the sector, or even lead to the withdrawal of companies and their transfer to cleaner places with a better reputation among employees and business partners.

However, Monika Chylaszek claims that the problem does not yet exist, and the issue of air pollution has not had any influence on the level of foreign investment in the city. According to Chylaszek, entrepreneurs and big companies mainly focus on business attractiveness of the city, possibilities for growth and cooperation with other partners. Pollution has not been an aspect which could cease the constantly growing foreign investment.

But in the long run pollution may become an issue. As Kubicki argues “The main question is: do I have to live here? Or do my children have to live here to inhale smog without being able to play outside for six months a year?” While the problem of smog might not be the main factor deciding about the levels of investment, there is no certainty that it will not become an issue in future.

If one looks at local trends, Kraków’s inhabitants increasingly choose to relocate for health reasons, as they take into account the consequences of living in such a polluted environment. Especially concerning that these consequences might be visible only after many years of inhaling bad air. Thus, Kubicki remains pessimistic: “We cannot rule out that, with the ongoing ecological catastrophe in Poland, we will eventually face the problem of ghost cities. Kraków is currently expanding with new housing estates and skyscrapers being built on an extremely large scale, but who knows if anyone will be interested in buying those flats in five to ten years. It might be that the middle class – the best taxpayer, will move out or simply escape from Polish cities,” he said.

As a possible solution to the problem, Gibała suggests that those who pay taxes in the city should register as inhabitants. “I am a supporter of free public transport for all those who have been paying taxes in Kraków for at least a year,” Gibała said. “Such a solution was introduced in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. It would pay off, as many people who are not registered in the city would register and Kraków would receive more income from the taxes. In Estonia, the income from tax balanced the losses coming from lower ticket sales,” Gibała explained.

Such a strategy could potentially improve the quality of the air without being a burden to the city’s budget. However, so far the city authorities have been reluctant to introduce any long-term, radical solutions. Free public transport, which was briefly introduced in 2017 in response to high pollution levels, did not bring the expected result as it required commuters to show valid vehicle registration cards in order to be eligible for ticket-less travel. Such ad hoc, uncoordinated remedies are unlikely to make a big difference.

Still, the city authorities insist that free public transport for every taxpayer is not a possible solution. “I checked the cities which are cited as examples in the discussion and they are mainly small towns, where four buses are sufficient to ensure access to every part of the city, and the funds invested in public transport are not as high as in Kraków,” Chylaszek said.

Thus, the discussion is far from over and, so far, nothing has been done to properly address the issue of dramatic smog levels in the city. While the summer months will bring some respite to the citizens of Kraków, it is no secret that the problem will return along with the heating season. And the citizens of the city will dig out their anti-smog masks in order to survive the winter. Again.

Monika Michulec and Agnieszka Pelczar are students of European Studies at Jagiellonian University in Kraków and interns with New Eastern Europe.

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