BLACK AIR

Bełchatów coal mine is the largest opencast coal reserve in Poland. The neighbouring power station is the largest coal-fired power plant in Europe and provides 20% of Poland’s energy. With an annual CO2 emission of about 38 million tonnes, the European Commission ranked Bełchatów Power Station the most climate-damaging power plant in the European Union.

Bełchatów coal mine is the largest opencast coal reserve in Poland. The neighbouring power station is the largest coal-fired power plant in Europe and provides 20% of Poland’s energy. With an annual CO2 emission of about 38 million tonnes, the European Commission ranked Bełchatów Power Station the most climate-damaging power plant in the European Union.

A family celebrates the Mass for Saint Barbara in Bobrek, a neighbourhood in the city of Bytom. Saint Barbara is the coal miner’s patron saint.

A family celebrates the Mass for Saint Barbara in Bobrek, a neighbourhood in the city of Bytom. Saint Barbara is the coal miner’s patron saint.

Burning fossil fuels is not only the main actor in global warming and climate change, it is also the main source of air pollution. Air pollution is a global threat leading to large impacts on health and ecosystems and many researches have seen emissions and concentrations recently increased in many areas worldwide. When we think about air pollution our minds go directly to Asia. Cities like Beijing, Delhi and Shanghai are the most polluted in the world, but we should not forget that air quality in Europe is not as good as we imagine. The World Health Organization claimed that seven million premature deaths occurred worldwide each year due to air pollution. Poland has been rated the most air polluted European country according to the European Environment Agency. Thirty-three cities among the fifty more polluted in Europe are in Poland. Among these: Krakow, Warsaw and Katowice.

“Air pollution in cities is a big load from transport, industries, energy generation and in some places it comes from agriculture. We need to basically work with those sectors, to identify the solutions in each of those sectors. Even better is helping people, making easy for them to use public transport, and particularly public transport that has low emissions. Because if you can take people off ten cars and then into the bus, you take ten cars off the road,” observes Dr. Diarmid Campbell of WHO.

In Poland, it’s a bit different. Well known is the deep-rooted practice in Polish people to burn coal for heating houses, especially in small towns, because It’s cheap.

“There are different sources of course, air pollution depends on the country. These seven million are referred to both outdoor and indoor air quality. The main sources of outdoor air quality in Poland are the low-stock emissions of burning coal in home stoves and boilers, transports and coal-based energy,” Weronika Michalak of the Health & Environment Alliance points out.

As a result, according to Krakow Smog Alarm living in Krakow is the same as smoking 2,500 cigarettes a year.

 
Every year on December 4th, coal miners wear the uniform and celebrate the patron Saint Barbara. Coal miners are still considered the nation’s working-class heroes.

Every year on December 4th, coal miners wear the uniform and celebrate the patron Saint Barbara. Coal miners are still considered the nation’s working-class heroes.

 

As a result, according to Krakow Smog Alarm living in Krakow is the same as smoking 2,500 cigarettes a year.

The graveyard in Bobrek. Air pollution increases allergies and is the main source of cardiovascular diseases and breathing problems such as asthma and lung cancer.

The graveyard in Bobrek. Air pollution increases allergies and is the main source of cardiovascular diseases and breathing problems such as asthma and lung cancer.

The last call

It’s early December and the winter in Poland is harsh and rainy. The temperature can easily drop below zero. Katowice, the main city in the Upper Silesia, is a historical coal mine based region in southern Poland. The city of Katowice will be hosting the two week long UN conference on Climate Change. About 20,000 people including scientists, doctors, NGOs, stakeholders, and politicians are attending the 24th edition of this conference claimed as one of the most important events of 2018. The summit, also known as COP24, takes place in the Spodek Arena where only the accredited participants can get access after a three-step security control. That’s the place where the new agreements and policies on climate change will be decided. Moreover, the city is surrounded by police and the government established the security controls at the borders for the period of the conference.

During the climate march on December 8th, thousands of protesters from all over the world united to use their voices together for a climate mitigation. The crowd were surrounded by police from both sides of the streets.

During the climate march on December 8th, thousands of protesters from all over the world united to use their voices together for a climate mitigation. The crowd were surrounded by police from both sides of the streets.

The march started at noon with the Italian anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao”.

The march started at noon with the Italian anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao”.

A police corp block the group of anarchists on suspicion to be dangerous.

A police corp block the group of anarchists on suspicion to be dangerous.

Greenpeace organises a climate hub in the middle of the big roundabout in front of the Spodek Arena, where the participants of COP24 can have meetings, working spaces, enjoy a dinner or attend side events and concerts. It’s a meeting point for different cultures and a place for networking, where people from several countries can tell their experience of global warming and climate change. Many people are involved in what seems to be the biggest contemporary challenge of our society; most of them are only here as observers. Only a few government delegates and policymakers will decide the final resolution.
This year the main sponsor of the conference is the majority state-owned coal company Jastrzebska Społka Weglowa which is the largest producer of coal in Europe. Furthermore, the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, during the opening day, declares that his country can’t leave its coal dependency because the reserves can supply Poland for the next 200 years, a bad joke that shocked many people at the summit.

The coal production in Poland, which has undergone struggles to remain competitive since its transition to a market economy in the 1990s, depicts a different scenario. According to the Eurostat in 2017, Poland imported 60 per cent more coal than in 2016, in majority from Russia. The Paris Agreement to limit the increase in temperature to 1.5°C seems more difficult to achieve than before.

On the sunny day of December 8th in Plac Wolności, a square in Katowice downtown, thousands of protesters from all over the world united to use their voices together for a climate mitigation. At few meters away, a deployed group of thousands of police corps observed every movement carefully. Flags with climate and air pollution slogans covered the square entirely. The march started at noon with the Italian anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao”.
The crowd of protesters were surrounded by police from both sides of the streets. There was a police man every three meters, fully equipped with a shield, helmet, and a shotgun. Along the march some activists provided black pollution masks with the COP24 logo. The march ended four hours later with almost no problems. Three anarchists were arrested on suspicion to be dangerous.

Protesters shout “wake up for the climate” next to the UN conference on climate change in Katowice.

Protesters shout “wake up for the climate” next to the UN conference on climate change in Katowice.

What everyone should see

Fifteen kilometres from the UN conference on climate change, black and yellow clouds come out from the chimneys of Bobrek, a neighbourhood in Bytom. The air is toxic and awful to breathe. Burning coal to heat houses is a common practice in this country where coal provides 80% of thermal energy and electricity. Burning coal is cheap and many coal mines and steel companies provide free coal each year to benefit their employees. Bobrek was a famous district of coalminers and steelworkers. Divided by blocks of community houses, every one has a main entrance and three floors. Everything was built in function of both coal mine and steelwork. The glorious heavy industry dates back to the 19th century but due to the difficulty and higher costs of coal extraction, the steel mill closed 6 segments of the production line. This has forced many families to leave the area during recent years. Now, it is plagued by poverty.

Many people left Bytom due to unemployment and sector’s problem. Since 1990 the sector has adopted gradual changes aimed at reducing its high costs.

Many people left Bytom due to unemployment and sector’s problem. Since 1990 the sector has adopted gradual changes aimed at reducing its high costs.

Barbara at her house in Bobrek. She uses a coal oven to heat her house but the coal dust emitted does not allow her to open the windows.

Barbara at her house in Bobrek. She uses a coal oven to heat her house but the coal dust emitted does not allow her to open the windows.

“I can’t afford neither a new heating system nor the central heating. I don’t have an alternative to coal.”

Barbara is one of the residents. Sharing the same name as the patron saint of miners, she seems afraid and skeptical to speak on the problem. In her small apartment on the first floor, Barbara raises two children. She uses a coal oven to heat her house but the coal dust emitted does not allow her to open the windows.

“I’m stuck here because I can’t find another apartment, the prices are too high and the waiting list for social housing is too long”.

During the coldest day, many people in Barbara’s situation have to burn more coal because their houses don’t have an adequate thermal-isolation system.

“I can’t afford neither a new heating system nor the central heating. I don’t have an alternative to coal.”

There are different subsidy programs for each Voivodeship, the regions of Poland, but each one has a different system. In many cases there are no differences between rich and poor people.

“We definitively need to subsidy more of the poor people. We often see that people who can afford new and renewable heating systems actually burn low quality coal or even waste just to save money. We need to bring more awareness among people, starting from all the education levels. People have to know that with our activities we impact the environment where we live and consequently the environment impacts us,” said Weronika Michalak.

Bobrek was a famous district of coalminers and steelworkers but due to the difficulty and higher costs of coal extraction many people lost their job. Consequently, people were forced to leave the area and abandon their homes.

Bobrek was a famous district of coalminers and steelworkers but due to the difficulty and higher costs of coal extraction many people lost their job. Consequently, people were forced to leave the area and abandon their homes.

What’s next?

The UN conference ended late on the night of the 15th of December with a package of guidelines for putting the Paris Agreement into practice from 2020. Among the most relevant is the standard that defines how governments will measure and report their emissions-cutting efforts. However, much was left behind. For instance, how single countries will meet their targets.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its latest report that reaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels would be disastrous, resulting in more droughts, floods, sea level rise, infectious diseases, and cyclones.

Dr. Diarmid Campbell of WHO advises “without giving people solutions and presenting them in a positive vision, then we will never get action. To say you have to change your life to save the planet fifteen years down the line, most people think “Well, I need to keep my job, I need to feed my children. It does not just depend on me. Everybody would have to act to solve this problem, it's too big for me." If we will be able to change the way we present this and talk about positive visions, which for instance is around what would you like your city to look like 20 years down the line? And how do you get that? I think we can have much better chance.”

Now, the future of our planet depends on how smart and quick the single countries will act.

Transports are one of the main sources of global warming and air pollution. Making easy for people to use public transports will reduce CO2 emissions and air pollution.

Transports are one of the main sources of global warming and air pollution. Making easy for people to use public transports will reduce CO2 emissions and air pollution.

© Marco Carmignan. All rights reserved.