Columnists: Brook Riley, Rockwool International

Published on: 25 Mar 2019

Poland’s clean air programme: pathway to climate neutrality?

Poland has a grim reputation on air quality: 44,000 premature deaths every year, 33 of the 50 dirtiest cities in Europe, and millions of houses heated with ‘smokers’ (coal boilers with pollution levels many times over the legal limit). But now at last there are ambitious plans to tackle the crisis: Poland’s new clean air programme is promising €25 billion to renovate four million homes over the next ten years.

Public pressure helped swing it, and nowhere more so than in Krakow, Poland’s second biggest city and a UNESCO world heritage site. Starting about four years ago, there were mass demonstrations. Billboard owners gave pro bono space for anti-smog advertising campaigns. Priests began calling for clean air in their sermons. The result: as of September 1st 2019, Krakow will ban the use of coal and wood for heating. Other cities are following. There are already 30 anti-smog campaigns across the country.

Think of the clean air programme as a nationwide carrot to Krakow’s stick. It offers a combination of grants, low interest loans and tax rebates to help households replace their boilers and install insulation.

Planning began in 2017. By summer 2018, with European Commission and World Bank help, the basic technical details of the programme had been worked out. Then it caught the eye of Kazimierz Kujda, a senior member of the ruling PiS party and the head of the National Fund for Environment Protection (‘NFOS’, Poles call it). Kujda seems to have immediately grasped the programme’s political significance: many of the party’s core supporters live in smoker-ridden homes, and Poland was holding regional elections in October 2018.

Kujda lobbied for NFOS to manage the programme and for it to be launched in time for the elections. It was the programme’s breakthrough moment. But then it got snarled up in bureaucracy. The application form is ‘like a complicated tax form’ according to one expert. And NFOS itself has none of the nimbleness needed to reach out to four million households. ‘They’re used to setting up things like water treatment projects, not carrying out a large-scale retail operation,’ says an official. To cap it all, Kujda was dramatically outed as a former police informant in February, and forced to resign.

What next?

So far there have been only 32 000 applications to the programme, and just 600 contracts have been signed. Yet clean air is as politically important as ever. The Polish national elections must take place by November at the latest. PiS bosses are worried: they have promises to deliver. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party leader and former prime minister, has personally intervened. It is seen as crucial that the programme is properly up and running by the next heating season.

While Kujda’s departure has created a political vacuum, Polish and EU experts say the technical issues are challenging but fixable. For example, local banks and municipal offices should be involved to manage the outreach to the four million households. And funding needs to be upfront – at the moment, grants are only paid out after the renovation work has been completed.

The solution is to set up a de-risking fund for local banks with EU Regional Funds and European Investment Bank money. Finance is not seen as a problem: €25 billion is far too big a bill for the Polish government, but the EIB, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Commission and private investors are all keen to fund viable schemes. What’s more, the EIB has a reputation for attracting big private investors by offering good rates of return and AAA security.

On one condition, however: Polish and EU experts point out that the programme must prioritise energy savings. If old smokers are merely replaced with new coal boilers (the worst-case scenario), there will be no reduction in CO2 emissions – and no EU funding. Saving energy is also the best cure for energy poverty: at the latest count, 4.6 million Poles cannot afford to properly heat their homes.

The big picture

The debate about Poland’s clean-air programme is taking place at the same time as the negotiations on the EU’s long-term climate strategy. Last November, the European Commission recommended increasing the EU’s 2050 greenhouse gas reduction target from 80 percent emission cuts to full-blown climate neutrality. The European Parliament agrees. But before this can be translated into new legislation, all EU heads of state must give the green light.

Poland has traditionally dragged its feet in EU climate negotiations. But the PiS government badly needs the clean-air programme to begin delivering for its core voters before the autumn elections. And because only the Commission, the EIB and the World Bank can secure the necessary financing, the EU has leverage.

Most important of all, the programme has the potential to reverberate beyond Poland. Renovation on such a big scale is precisely what is needed to go climate neutral. Poland is showing that it may be possible to get public and government commitment to combine air quality, energy savings and greenhouse gas cuts in the same package. A good beginning.

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Brook Riley