Polish coal, Polish smog, Polish chaos

Poland has some of the worst air quality in the European Union, and 2017 was marked by grassroot efforts to fight smog. It seems that the Polish government is slowly getting on board. Michał Olszewski asks: will Poland cut emissions in time, or will 2018 bring fines from the EU?

greenpeace action against smog - activists climb a building to hang a banner that says in polish that politicans are ignoring smog)

Every year 48,000 Poles die from air pollution – but the government’s response has been slow (Photo by Panek, edited, CC BY 3.0)

The beginning of the year in Polish politics was marked by government reshuffles. Prime minister Beata Szydło was replaced by Mateusz Morawiecki, who was tasked with calming things down within Polish foreign policy and easing tensions between Brussels and Warsaw.

Whether this happens or not is a different question. But there is no doubt that one of the consequences of the change is that the minister of environment was sidelined: Jan Szyszko will go down in the history of environmental protection in Poland and Europe as the one responsible for the destruction of a part of the Białowieża Forest. Also, the minister of health, infamous for claiming that “smog is a theoretical problem,” was dismissed. The new environment minister is Henryk Kowalczyk, who had until now specialised in agricultural policy.

Even more importantly, the new prime minister has laid down that fighting smog is one of the priorities of the government. The Ministry for Enterprise and Technology has been designated as responsible (which may seem odd at first glance). Jadwiga Emilewicz is now the minister engaged in the fight for clean air, and Piotr Woźny is the undersecretary of state responsible for anti-smog policy. These changes have given people hope that the necessary solutions will be implemented more quickly.

In this way, the prime minister was trying to anticipate the likely developments. The politicians knew that the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, which has been examining whether Poland adapted its legislation on air quality to EU requirements for the past two years, would soon hand down its ruling.

Poland is among the countries which most exceed particulate matter (PM) standards, often by several hundred percent. Every year, 48,000 Poles die prematurely due to air pollution. There could only be one verdict: the Court found that Poland had infringed the EU law on air quality and stressed that “the mere fact that the limit values applicable to PM10 concentrations in ambient air were exceeded is sufficient in itself to establish the failure of a Member State to fulfil its obligations.”

This decision may have a crucial impact: Poland has to immediately take measures to noticeably improve air quality and reduce levels of harmful substances. If this does not happen, penalties up to 300,000 euro per day that the failure continues are possible. Poland would then become the first EU Member State fined for disregarding air quality standards.

There is no doubt that the Court has issued a just ruling, as Poland has been asleep in recent years. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that over the last four years Poles’ awareness in this regard has increased profoundly, which also concerns politicians.

The impetus for combating smog came not from political measures but a grassroots movement of several inhabitants of Krakow. They began their battle for clean air in 2012, which soon developed into the Krakowski Alarm Smogowy (Krakow Smog Alert – KAS), which became the driving force for a social movement that was too strong to be ignored by politicians. Members of the Civic Platform (PO) and Polish People’s Party (PSL) in the region got to work and drafted an anti-smog bill which was revolutionary for Poland and the whole of Central Europe. Next, the discussion was transferred to the national level, where it came up against resistance, including protests by the ruling party claiming that any anti-smog measures would mean death for Polish mining. Politicians have so far managed to introduce regulations on the quality of boilers.

The contradiction between grassroots measures at the local level and the sluggish legislative process in Warsaw is still visible today. Although local governments are adopting anti-smog resolutions, to a large extent they remain a dead letter. For example: in Małopolska, where inhabitants are forced to replace low-quality coal stoves and stop using the cheapest coal that is largely responsible for poor air quality. Meanwhile, the government refuses to introduce coal quality standards for manufacturers. This means that the most harmful coal cannot be used in stoves, but can still be sold in coal yards or even kept in basements.

Following the ruling of the Court, the prime minister and the undersecretary of state responsible for combating smog announced a nation-wide thermo-modernisation program which would include better insulation and energy efficiency. The government allocated 45 million euros (around $56 million) for its implementation, approximately half of what the Małopolskie Voivodship had spent on tackling air pollution in the past two years.

But the fight for clean air in Poland at the government is still chaotic and lacks determination. Under pressure from public opinion the prime minister decided to reduce the number of ministers – so Piotr Woźny, the official responsible for combating smog, had to resign after only two months. And in the beginning of March, the government adopted coal quality standards with a loophole enabling coal waste (largely responsible for smog) to stay on the market.

Meanwhile, harsh penalties hang over Poland. If the anti-smog battle does not gain momentum, they will finally be imposed.


Michał Olszewski (born 1977) – journalist, reporter, writer. For more than twelve years he worked for Gazeta Wyborcza and Tygodnik Powszechny, where he concentrated mostly on environmental issues. He is engaged in a Krakow-based campaign against air pollution.


  1. heinbloed says

    Renewable power is so cheap now that even the German railway (who has purchased power in advance via RWE) want to get out of coal power.
    But is forced by law to buy it:


    In the Netherlands the coal exit is already decided, today the gas exit was made public. Well, the national (Dutch gas!) exit …:


  2. The whole thing comes down to money. possible fines of circa Euro100 million per year – ouch. Gov’ action so far – nothing (Euro45m falls into that category). In fairness to the Poles – they are not a rich country compared to the rest of the EU – if I was them I’d be asking the EU: Ok so where do we get the Euro100bn for meaningful emission/pollution reduction? – given the 3% deficit limit. Move the problem back to the pointy-heads in Brussels (or indeed the ECBundesbank in Frankfurt). Want menaingful CO2 reductions? want pollution reduction? fine – where does the money come from? (answer: I’d suggest governments – they can create it – out of thin air).

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