Aautumn is here Residents of Nowy Targ, a market town in southern Poland, were given an unusual tip last year to keep their homes warm as energy prices soared. “People need to burn almost everything in the furnace, except tires and similar harmful substances,” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party. During a recent visit, On a crisp spring day, with snow still remaining on the ground, evidence could be seen and smelled that the locals had taken Mr. Kaczynski’s advice. Some families may have even ignored warnings about tires, judging by the acrid smoke rising from some chimneys. As the afternoon wore on, the mountains around the town faded into a sombre gloom as workers returned home to fuel their stoves before the chilly night. A bakery on the road leading to the train station smells more of burnt boots than a local delicacy.
Europe prides itself on being a green place, a 15-minute drive to a city where residents commute to yoga classes by bicycle. But much of Europe still stinks – literally. Those good-natured cyclists meander through streets packed with diesel engines. Farmers spray ammonia, a pungent gas, into the air. The remaining industry is a source of sulfur compounds that are harmful to nature. Perhaps most worryingly, generating energy from fossil fuels to keep homes heated can lead to unseen clouds of particulate matter clogging human lungs.across European Unionmore than 300,000 people die prematurely each year from poor air quality, according to European Unionenvironment sector. That’s almost half of the excess deaths from covid-19 in the first 12 months.
Admittedly, Helsinki is not Beijing, and Paris is not as bad as Delhi.But 96% of urban dwellers European Union Living in a city with air quality below the level recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Of the 17 cities with a population of more than 3 million, G7 rich countries club, 9 of them in Europe – including 6 of the most polluted countries. Thanks in large part to denser living, there are few towns and cities in Europe that can match the air quality in similar parts of the United States.
Plans are being drawn up at European level to clean the air, one harmful gas at a time. This would build on the steady improvements of recent decades: premature deaths have been cut by nearly half since 2005, a quiet policy victory. But even so, European Union Acknowledging that most Europeans have little hope of breathing indoor air WHO Guidelines for the foreseeable future.
In Europe as elsewhere, air quality is a consequence of geography and economics.this European UnionThe most polluted big city is Milan, which sits in a river basin, surrounded by the Alps and surrounded by many industries.another pollution hotspot European Union Located near the borders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. For decades, the region’s coal reserves meant energy was cheap. Communist-era industrial complexes gobbled up the black stuff; there was enough coal by-product left over for home furnaces. Known as smokers, and with good reason, these let the locals heat their houses cheaply. Even with industry gone, poorly insulated homes still exist. Some parts of Europe switched to natural gas for energy, much of it from Russia. In Poland, coal used to be a symbol of dynamism – but then stocks dried up and imports from Russia began too.
As the country grows wealthier, voters demand better air quality, such as the no longer toleration of steaming factories on their doorstep. Central Europe is at the apex of a polluting income trap: for example, having the money to buy a lot of cars, but not electric cars. Still, the region is on a clear track for easier breathing. Take Krakow, a wealthy city two hours by train from Nowy Targ. It used to be known for air “so thick that you could taste it,” said Andrzej Gula of Poland’s smog alert agency, which tracks air quality. A decade ago, the group led a campaign to ban the use of wood and coal for home heating, which came into effect in 2019. Subsidies are provided for less polluting technologies such as heat pumps. Mr Gula said the air was now clean enough to smell the stench of diesel cars that was once masked by other unpleasant smells. The new plan also bans the most polluting vehicles from entering the city.
The rest of Poland, with fewer tourists and less money, is following the same path, thanks to a patchwork of local, state and government. European Union– level decree. More recently, the war in Ukraine has dented the sails of air-quality activists. With energy prices soaring, many measures to fight pollution have been suspended or delayed, such as limiting sales of the smokiest coal grades. Even though prices have come down, few think the measures will be reintroduced before the autumn elections – like household smokers kicking back.
take a deep breath
Perhaps Europe’s still-poor air presents an opportunity for environmentally conscious policymakers. Because most of the substances needed to remove air smog are the same substances needed to reduce planetary boil smog.this European Union Talk of cleaner air is a “co-good” of its flagship policy to reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” by 2050. Voters in Central Europe generally see less urgency in tackling climate change, which is seen as a luxury issue foisted on them by nagging Scandinavian types. But policies that can prove to make local air cleaner are easier to sell.
It’s hard to argue for cleaner air these days. But even a searing cloud of smoke has a silver lining. The energy crisis will lead to an increase in unhealthy air in the short term – but then accelerate the decline as cheaper renewables, heat pumps etc. are deployed faster than otherwise. The mayor of a small town not far from Nowy Targ has complained about insufficient garbage collection this winter as waste is diverted to household stoves. Let’s hope Europe’s next energy crisis won’t be so bad. ■
Read more from our European politics columnist Charlemagne:
Europe Unprepared for What May Come Next in the U.S. (March 30)
Cucumber Saudis: How the Dutch were too good at farming (March 23)
Europe has led the global assault on Big Tech. But does it need a new approach? (March 16)
Plus: How the Charlemagne Column Got Its Name