Dark clouds in Poland

Violeta Santos Moura reports from Poland, where reliance on coal kills some 45,000 people each year

Winter wind blows from Bedzin’s coal-fuelled electricity plant, stoking clouds of smog, while a woman visits the city’s municipal cemetery. All photos by Violeta Santos Moura.

When worried Polish residents lament that ‘winter is coming’, it is not just the bitter cold they fear. It is the six months of smog caused by the mass burning of coal for domestic heating throughout the country.

Some areas have been measured to be more polluted than Beijing, with an estimated 45,000 deaths in Poland each year caused by air pollution. According to a report by the World Health Organization, the country claims 33 out of the 50 most polluted cities in the European Union.

Apart from being linked to asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular problems, respiratory diseases, birth defects and premature death, air pollution has also been associated with delays in cognitive development in children and, according to recent surveys, Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Beyond the pollution caused by cars, industry and energy generation, inefficient coal-fired domestic heating furnaces also contribute to the smog. An editorial published by the online platform My Guide Warsaw called it an issue that will ‘continue to literally blacken the country’s image until cleaner forms of energy production are implemented’.

A passerby wearing a filter mask walks past demonstrators protesting in the Polish capital of Warsaw against government action, despite high levels of smog in the country.

Such image-related concerns became all too real at the end of 2016 when a Financial Times article denounced Poland as ‘the continent’s capital of smog’, when the southern city of Skała made headlines after surpassing Beijing air pollution levels record.

This led to increasing pressure by the EU for Poland to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to diversify its energy mix to include cleaner sources of energy, and scale down its reliance on coal. This, along with plunging world coal prices and increased production costs, has threatened the highly subsidized Polish industry – and jobs.

Some 100,000 Polish jobs are related to coal. The powerful coal industry lobby ensured that the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice party won the 2015 parliamentary elections on the promise of the black stuff remaining the main energy source for the country.

An elderly resident of Głuchołazy, in Poland’s southwest, keeps herself warm with the help of her traditional coal-fuelled furnace – still commonly used in Poland.

Such was the effort to eliminate competition to coal’s monopoly as the main source of energy that the administration of former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, the daughter of a coalminer, ‘set tough regulations on the installation of wind turbines, in effect blocking competition from the renewables sector, which in 2014 covered about 10 per cent of national energy needs’.

As critics pointed out, ‘under the new legislation [...] wind farms would have to be built a minimum distance from residential areas of at least 10 times the size of the turbine – in effect… about 2km. The constraint would exclude 99 per cent of the Polish territory from wind energy development’. Otherwise residential areas are located just metres from industrial compounds.

Patrick (right), a young Muay Thai athlete, poses for a portrait with his friends while sporting a filter mask in downtown Katowice.

The fog of nationalism

Despite an obvious environmental and public health emergency for the common citizen, the real scope of the problem has been blurred for many by the influence of the powerful coal lobby and the mammoth number of jobs dependent on the coal industry. Sunny days shrouded in thick layers of smog are dismissed as foggy by incredulous Poles who believe there is politically more at stake than their health or the environment.

Coal is often referred to in Poland as its ‘black gold’ and the industry is a great source of national pride and identity spanning generations. In a country occupied many times over by its neighbours throughout its troubled history, coal has represented energetic self-sufficiency and political sovereignty. Many feel that if Poland gave up coal, it would mean relying on gas imports from Russia and being economically and politically at Moscow’s mercy. Meanwhile, old grievances and ‘historical caution’ work against the influence of the EU (and, in particular, Germany).

Eva Ciesielska, 39, uses a nebulizer on her 9-year-old daughter Zoe in their apartment in downtown Krakow.
Sunny days shrouded in thick layers of smog are dismissed by Poles who believe there is politically more at stake than their health or the environment

As a consequence, the issue of air pollution and its solution through shifting towards cleaner sources of energy is often deemed ‘un-nationalist’ by many and a ‘non-issue’; one brought up mostly by ‘leftists’ and ‘unpatriotic’ parts of society. Wearing a filter mask often causes irritation among others. People who have turned up for work wearing them describe being mocked and very few, even among concerned citizens, have felt comfortable discussing the subject for fear of social retribution and ridicule.

Health minister Konstanty Radziwiłł attempted last year to shift the discussion surrounding air pollution to blaming health problems on smoking. His strategy backfired as it led the public to calculate the effects of smog in terms of cigarettes. According to activist group Polish Smog Alarm, breathing Krakow’s air on a daily basis is akin to smoking 4,000 cigarettes a year, or roughly seven a day. Children are included in the estimate as air pollution does not discriminate according to age. Critics also point out that smoking is a personal choice while breathing polluted air is not.

With Poland set to host the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice in December, the country is on a collision course with the EU on multiple issues (such as refugee quotas, its clampdown on the independence of its judiciary, as well as its environmental and climate policies). Poland’s nationalistic relationship with its ‘black gold’ has become a ‘canary in the mine’ for the country’s wider political climate.

Violeta Santos Moura is a freelance photojournalist from Portugal. Her reporting ranges from documenting the European economic crisis to covering social and political strife in the Middle East and South Asia.