Piotr Olejarczyk, Onet: Your website says that 91% of people breathe polluted air. What are the statistics for Poland?
Wiktor Warchałowski, president of board and co-founder of Airly: That’s a good question. In Poland, nearly 50 thou. people die because of very bad quality of the air. These are 50 thou. premature deaths that could have been avoided. When compared with car accidents, it turns out that in Poland, more people die because of the poor quality of the air. These are terrifying numbers and, when you look at the quality of the air in Poland, we all breathe very bad air. The air is of poor quality not only in Krakow and Silesia. We are talking big cities, towns and villages where there is no information about the quality of the air.
Where is the situation the worst?
I’ll say something twisted: the problem of smog in Poland affects mainly small towns and villages. We tend to think of air pollution in terms of cars, traffic and metropolises. However, our research suggests that the quality of the air tends to be far, far worse in smaller locations.
Why is that?
The main source of smog in Poland are residential boilers; in our country smog affects small towns and villages where there are no sources of cleaner heat.
Has it happened to you that, looking at the Airly gauges, you were stupefied?
Absolutely. Although more and more rarely, I must admit. Sometimes it turns out that, following installation of our devices in a new location, one light is always purple which means that there is something going on in the air. Frequently, local authorities and communities intervene, notifying the municipal services about the problem. But sometimes they simply raise awareness when it turns out that a resident uses poor quality fuel and does not even realise it. Monitoring the air quality in itself can improve the air quality because it involves growing awareness as well as local level activities.
Speaking about the local level: how does Airly cooperate with local authorities? Do municipalities want to invest in this air monitoring? Or maybe they assume that as long as a problem is not examined, the problem does not exist?
People often say that if you do not want to have a problem, you’d better break a thermometer. We need to bear in mind that poor air quality strongly affects human health and life, as well as budgets of municipalities and counties. The poor air quality involves more hospital stays and deaths. So there is a direct impact on public finance. If someone does not understand health-related arguments, let’s use numbers. More smog contributes to a growing number of lung cancer. This, in turn, involves higher costs. Sometimes you can make people understand things this way.
What is the cooperation between Airly and local authorities like?
It has changed dramatically in the recent years. I have an impression that local authorities in Poland have finally realised that the entire problem should not be attributed to them. In fact, a city council is not responsible for smog; it is each and every resident. Local governments often want to solve problems and have the tools like subsidies for exchanging old boilers and stoves. We always tell local governments to make use of these tools and encourage the residents to exchange sources of heat.
One year ago, you published a report “Breathe Poland” that presented air pollution in the first year of the pandemic. Have you noted an improvement since that time? Is it the same? Worse?
I can refer you to our latest report which we will present in a few days. I am certain that the awareness of people in Poland has changed dramatically. This is a value that we cannot measure with our devices. I can see it in debates and talks with local governments but also “regular” people. To many people, smog is no longer a theoretical but a real problem affecting human life and health. The pandemic has helped because people devote more attention to their health. Interestingly, polluted air very negatively affects life expectancy related to the Covid-19 virus and its spreading. We discovered it all last year. I found it terrifying that in more polluted locations, the number of Covid-related deaths was bigger. These smog reports are capable of raising awareness.
When and where can we read the latest Airly report on smog in Poland?
On Friday, we are launching it on www.Oddychajpolsko.pl.
I am asking about the possible improvement in the context of the government’s programme Clean Air. What is your opinion on the programme?
The programme sets the right direction. Anything related to exchanging boilers, thermal modernisation and better heating systems is welcome. You must have heard different opinions on the Clean Air programme, favourable and critical alike. However, when you think of the number of boilers exchanged in Poland to date, it is anything but impressive and there is a lot of room for improvement. We are facing tens of years or even more before we can breathe really clean air in Poland. We have the tools but actions are lacking. It is hard to say where the problem really is. As part of the Clean Air programme, the banking sector has been involved and the programme is heavily promoted. But it should definitely accelerate. The number of exchanged coal boilers should be much bigger if we want to avoid these 50 thou. excess deaths.
Is the exchange of coal boilers taking so long for economic reasons? Have you heard people saying “OK, environmental issues are important but even with the state’s support, I still cannot afford to exchange the source of heat”?
Absolutely, this is a very serious problem. Transition to gas heating in the context of the growing gas prices may raise some concern. However, I think that the existing market solutions are the answer. I mean heat pumps which make use of renewable sources of energy to heat houses. Of course this involves an initial investment of several dozen or more Polish zlotys.
For many people this is serious money.
This is why I am so optimistic about the programmes of improving air quality and the related subsidies. These programmes are a leverage that allows to reduce the risk related to the growing prices of natural gas.
Airly has its sensors not only in Poland. How does Poland rate against the other European countries when it comes to air pollution?
We need to consider the type of air pollution. Unfortunately, suspended dust is our infamous speciality. Together with Bulgaria and Romania, Poland is an infamous EU leader. When it comes to gas-related pollution, however, Poland rates relatively well. There are countries with worse results with respect to nitric oxides and ozone. When we talk about smog, we need to bear in mind that Poland is an infamous leader and this is nothing to write home about. Poles are facing a lot of work on smog and dust pollutants to step down from that leadership. At present, a majority of the most polluted locations in Europe are Polish cities.
Wiktor Warchałowski. President of Board and co-founder of Airly, a company in charge of the Intelligent System of Monitoring Air Quality. As a result, it is possible to monitor the quality of the air in real time by means of an online platform – map.airly.org and mobile applications. A graduate of AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow. Member of Mensa International. Awarded 3 times the title 30 Under 30 by Forbes Poland. Winner of the Polish edition of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.
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