Kacper Forreiter, Onet: Two years ago you wrote “Choked Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution”. To write the book you visited many places around the world, including Poland. It seems impossible to write a comprehensive book about smog without paying a visit to my home country.
Beth Gardiner: That’s right, I wrote the book about air pollution and travelled around the world to research the topic. However, the truth is that to write a book about smog you can go literally anywhere in the world as you would be hard pressed to find regions which have fully clean and healthy air.
Yet you chose Poland as one of the destinations to cover in your book.
Well, if we have a look at the location of the different types of air pollution, we will see how universal they tend to be. Diesel engines are a problem for most European countries but the chapter about London was where I wrote about the Diesel issue most broadly since that’s where the problem is most serious. Of course, there are many more types of pollution in England.
Poland is unfortunately one of the most polluted countries in Europe and this is one of the reasons why I visited it. But I also chose Poland because I was looking for a place where I could tell the story of coal and you could not find a ‘better’ backdrop for the story.
Of course, coal is used all over the world and it is a problem everywhere in terms of public health and its impact on climate change, irrespective of the geographical location. But…
… but in Poland the problem is more severe.
In Poland, coal is used widely both as an energy source and heating fuel. This is what causes air pollution to be so high, which makes it a good place to discuss the issue more elaborately.
You talked to people in Poland while researching your book. What did say?
Even people dealing with the environment said that coal-generated energy is not such a great problem as energy plants are calibrated, they use filters and relevant technologies curbing the emissions of pollutants. However, what everyone said was that the core issue was to deal with the so-called low emissions, that is the pollution caused by household heating.
Do you agree with this stance?
I agree that low emission of pollution is indeed an enormous problem, especially if we consider the fact that people who heat their homes with coal usually chose coal of the lowest quality there is. Also the stoves and boilers they use are technologically outdated and are not fitted with filters.
Yet, at the same time I cannot agree with the standpoint that coal-fuelled energy plants are not a problem. They too produce pollution. Even if you get rid of stacks on houses, you will never do away with polluted air if coal continues to be the core source of energy for the entire country.
Have you visited Silesia? This is the region I come from. Coal is the symbol of the region and the area is one of the greatest manufacturers of the raw material. The people of Silesia call coal ‘black gold’ and it is hard to imagine they would ever give up on it. We often hear political and economic arguments that if we did not have coal we would have to resort to Russian liquid gas, which is inadmissible.
Yes, I did go to Silesia and heard these arguments. In Poland, coal is inextricably linked with culture in identity. To some, it is almost an existential issue for the entire country.
Many people simply see no alternative to coal.
It demonstrates a complete lack of imagination. People fear gas because they do not want to be dependent on Russia and this is understandable, it is a common fear across Europe. Perhaps owing to the difficult historic relations of Poland, this is particularly vivid here. But who said that gas is the only alternative? There are other options e.g. solar and wind energy, as well as more stable relationships with the rest of Europe which would permit work towards a better energy balance to secure a completely different future for Poland. There exist other ways of heating households e.g. heat pumps. I really think that the Polish attachment to coal has dramatically narrowed down the perspective on alternative solutions.
What about the financial arguments? Coal supporters often refer to the price of coal which is allegedly more attractive that the price of other energy sources.
But this is completely untrue! The Polish mining industry is hopelessly inefficient and the mines keep losing money. What is more, high quantities of coal are imported, ironically, from Russia that so many Poles fear becoming dependent on. I talked to representatives of coal-importing companies and they told me about the high prices they were paying for the coal. It is not a cheap fuel in other respects as well.
In terms of health, you mean?
Coal burning causes people to get seriously sick. If less coal were burned in Poland, Poles would be healthier.
But people do not see this. To notice the cause and effect relationship one would have to adopt a more abstract standpoint towards the problem.
We have some hard data. Cleaner air would cause fewer cases of cancer, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s, premature births, heart infraction, strokes and deaths. We really need to see the bigger picture here and assess the real cost of coal.
People will realise that they contracted a serious disease but refuse to see that this may be the result of polluted air that they have been breathing all their lives. There is also politics.
Of course, the fuel lobby is mighty and preys with its arguments on cultural associations and attachment.
But awareness of the problem is on the rise, isn’t it? Don’t you find that a change has taken place when it comes to air pollution?
I do. When I planned my visit to Poland I was familiar with one positive Polish example. The example that human determination and willingness can bring about a change for the better.
Is it Kraków you are referring to?
Kraków is an incredible example of how inhabitants united and with their alarmist approach and by exerting pressure they made city authorities take action. Based on what I heard and saw the quality of air is constantly improving there. The surrounding towns and villages around the city are still a problem, though. It seems you have an expression for what is happening there. Somebody explained to me that Kraków was like a doughnut.
A round Kraków pretzel.
The villages around Kraków still use coal as the main heating fuel but nevertheless the decisions made by the Kraków authorities are noteworthy and they are a huge step towards a better future. We do not know whose life or health they saved but trust me, they did.
One city will not save the entire country but it certainly serves as a good example of how to go about the problem.
What is the situation like elsewhere in the world?
The awareness of issues related to air quality is growing around the world. I think that this is partly due to the observation of climate change and the occurrence of dramatic weather conditions that there are more and more of. I am thinking of all the fires and floods. People who did not even think about the environment a few years back today have a tendency to pay more attention to the problem.
We owe a lot to activists who have been raising awareness of air pollution. I talked to many people from Kraków, California, and London who are genuinely committed to alarming the society about a problem that has a truly negative impact on their lives.
It would be great to see politicians doing more to increase the knowledge of the society about the problem and accelerate actions aimed at curbing pollution. I must admit that a few years ago we had politicians who would completely disregard the problem of air pollution while some time ago Marek Gula of the Kraków Smog Alarm made me realise that today you would be hard pressed to find a politician who is oblivious to the issue.
This is exactly how politicians operate. The society has to become so angry to demand action from the authorities and only then do they respond. Otherwise, politicians tend to cater to the needs of the rich and big business. Governments and not the society should be responsible for regulating the activities of polluters.
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