WARSAW — The autumn chill in Poland has many people firing up their cheaply fueled coal furnaces and adding to the country’s air pollution woes.
About a third of Poland’s households keep themselves warm by burning coal or coal-based fuels. A smaller number illegally burn trash. Those habits contribute to Poland having some of the worst air in the EU. A study by the European Environmental Agency released Wednesday estimates that air pollution kills about 44,000 Poles every year.
Reports like that one are prompting action. Three of the most polluted regions in the south of the country have new anti-smog laws in place, and Mazowsze, the region that includes Warsaw and the surrounding area, is due to have its own restrictions approved by November 1. Regional authorities are shouldering most of the efforts in battling smog because the central government of the ruling Law and Justice party is a close ally of the powerful coal industry and has been reluctant to take steps that endanger the sector.
The new regional government regulations ban the dirtiest types of coal-based fuels like coal slurry or flotation concentrate, toughen rules on furnaces to make the most polluting types illegal and pay subsidies to help people buy more modern stoves.
But coal retailers say the push to clean up smog could have an unintended effect: It could leave some of the country’s poorest people without heat. They accuse anti-smog campaigners and the authorities of pushing unrealistic and costly standards for heating fuels and equipment that will increase energy poverty in Poland.
When fuel becomes a disproportionate item in household budgets, people will burn trash or simply freeze if they can’t afford fuel, said Łukasz Horbacz, the head of Polski Węgiel (Polish Coal), a lobby group of coal retailers.
His words strike a chord with Agnieszka Cicha, 47, a hospice nurse living with a husband and four children in Lututów, a village in central Poland. She heats her home with coal dust — a slightly cleaner fuel than slurry or flotation concentrates.
“The cold season in Poland can be very long. We only stopped heating the house in May,” she said. “Now it’s October and we have to heat it again. I always need to account for the cost of heating and it takes priority ahead of other spending.”
According to a national survey commissioned by Polski Węgiel from pollster TNS Kantar in late September, 37 percent of Polish households use coal and coal-based fuels for heating, and they had to earmark about 11 percent of their income for fuel. One in 10 coal-using households responding to the poll spend least a fifth of their income on fuel.
“With the new anti-smog measures that ban burning of coal slurry and flotation concentrates, poorer households will have to turn to the next cheapest fuel, coal dust, which is currently about three times more expensive than slurry,” Horbacz said. “On top of that, the measures, such the ones passed in the Katowice and Kraków provinces, want households to replace old stoves with most modern class 5 boilers, which are expensive but in practical terms perform just as well as cheaper class 3 boilers.”
A class 5 boiler can cost as much as 10,000 złoty (€2,325), more than twice the average monthly wage.
Cleaning the air
Air quality campaigners aren’t impressed by the retail coal lobby’s arguments.
“The banned fuels may be the cheapest, but they are also less calorific than better quality fuels, so you have to buy bigger amounts to get the same effect,” said Anna Dworakowska from the anti-smog campaign group Kraków Smog Alert (KAS). “Burning trash would be cheaper still but it is banned for a reason: It’s toxic. Coal slurry and flotation concentrates are toxic as well … They’re coal waste and burning them should be banned.”
According to KAS, it costs about 1,390 złoty a year to heat a building by burning coal slurry in an old inefficient boiler. That rises to only 1,438 złoty if quality coal is used in a new efficient boiler, according to an analysis by the NGO.
As for replacing boilers, Dworakowska concedes there are costs involved, but points out that there are programs to help finance a replacement.
Public perceptions in Poland are changing — and a spate of smog alerts in the country’s largest cities last winter made the problem acutely political.
“As long as we don’t resolve the problem of heating Polish buildings, we won’t be able to deal with autumn-winter smog,” Andrzej Guła, head of the NGO Smog Alert, said at a panel discussion during a recent economic conference in the southern town of Krynica.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Łukasz Horbacz.