Jakub Chełmiński combats smog

Jakub Chełmiński combats smog
Jakub Chełmiński

Even though I had been writing about smog before I got scared in winter 2016/17.

A journalist of Gazeta Wyborcza who has recently published a book on smog at the Poznańskie Publishing House. A must-read!

In the preface to your book, you state that smog has been neglected for a long time, however the moment we have become aware of its presence we can’t stop thinking about it. When did you reach a breaking point?

I think when our child was born and ended up twice in a hospital because of breathing problems during the first year of life. Or the day when I came back from a walk with my dog and my wife asked me if I had started smoking again because my clothes and hair smelled really bad. Even though I had been writing about smog before I got scared in winter 2016/17. 

Where do you live?

In Zacisze, in one of those detached houses. There are not only luxurious houses here, where people install fireplaces for pure pleasure but there are also poor houses from the 30s where people use coal, to keep warm and heat the water.

Do you remember your first article on smog?

In 2008 I wrote about researches conducted by Artur Badyda, Ph.D. who proved that living in Warsaw can be detrimental to the lungs. He started studying this subject and its relation to human health as the first scholar at the Technical University. A real scientist with a mission. He demonstrated that when you live in Tamka Street or Niepodległości Avenue you are up to four times more likely to be affected with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a very severe lung disease, than someone who lives in a village and enjoys fresh air.

Do you know the reason for this indifference and denial? I am fully aware of the political mechanisms so I can understand why politicians don’t see the problem. But citizens? It is as if we lived in an apartment built of carcinogenic materials and pretended that nothing bad was happening. 

Maybe because we tend to think we are helpless. This is how this mechanism works, that it has always been like this or that it used to be even worse in the past. This is what I hear from elderly people. 

However, there is also an interesting tendency that those who drive cars don’t see that they contribute to smog formation and blame those who use polluting stoves. And vice versa. Those who use stoves say: firstly do something with these old diesel cars and then we will take care of our stoves. And this type of discussion goes also among educated people. I tend to ask affluent people in Wilanów: so you like your fireplace, don’t you? Do you know that your smog is no different?

Say something more about these fireplaces.

Wood emits harmful substances too. In Warsaw, there is a regulation that you can use wood however, the moisture content of the wood should be below 20 percent. So you cannot use wet wood. But show me someone who has instruments to control this. It is widely accepted that if the wood is seasoned one can use it.

Jakub Chełmiński
I used to visit tenement houses in Praga. The Estate and Construction Management Agency (ZGN) claims that there are no heaters in the building because they were fully decommissioned. In practice, these heaters are still being used contrary to a prohibition. So not only do people use them but are also exposed to higher risks of fires.

How to attract and retain the attention of the politicians, make them react? Is going out on the streets a good idea?

In Kraków, hundreds of people went on an anti-smog strike in 2013. It forced the city council to introduce changes and today there is a ban on solid fuel burning. There are more and more organizations and individual activists who file suits against the local governments and central power, dress statues in masks, encourage neighbours to replace their coal polluting heaters. In Warsaw, we have the Warsaw Without Smog organization, which is a part of the Polish Smog Alarm, Wawer Smog, and Warsaw Smog Alarm.

Why do we lag behind Kraków so much? Can’t we just follow their lead?

It’s a good question. It seemed natural that since the process of replacing heaters was getting to the end in Kraków, one could employ specialists who were working there. However, the problem in Kraków was bigger, more tangible, almost fifty thousand heaters mostly in the very centre. Fireplaces were banned, too. There mustn’t be any smoke in the city. Here, there is an obligation to replace old coal polluting heaters by the end of 2022. Of course the worst ones. However, there is a way we can replace the old heaters for such types which are in line with the standards of the ecology project, but they will be still coal heaters. For now, we cannot expect a total ban on using coal in Warsaw nevertheless, the activists have come up with a petition. The Warsaw and voivodship authorities ensure that they are taking into consideration this option, but we don’t know what will be the outcome.

It is unbelievable how local politicians are afraid of taking decisions that would have country-wide consequences. I understand that in Silesia these decisions are tough but what about here?

Indeed, especially that we have the most extensive district heating system in the European Union. We can contribute to the bills of the poorest residents, who cannot be connected to the district heating network but they will start using electric heating.

Having read your recent article it came to me as a shock to learn that only a small number of local heaters disappeared in recent years and the number is constantly increasing. 

It is not about that the new heaters are being installed but this year the city council has counted more precisely the heaters in their buildings. In Targówek there are 90, in Włochy 130 more than last year. The officials felt offended by the article because all in all 350 heaters were demolished, 500 are planned to be demolished by the end of the year. So they are doing something. However, after the recalculations conducted by the Property Management Department (ZGN) it turned out that there are more heaters to be demolished than it had been estimated a year ago.

I know how it all works from the inside out. I used to visit tenement houses in Praga. The Estate and Construction Management Agency (ZGN) claims that there are no heaters in the building because they were fully decommissioned. In practice, these heaters are still being used contrary to a prohibition. So not only do people use them but are also exposed to higher risks of fires. Out of six hundred tenement houses in Praga, only a few are being connected to the district heating system. In Praga Południe this year 20 out of 362 tenement houses will be connected to central heating. These are of course neither easy nor cheap investments but at this pace, it may take a while. And this situation is happening only two kilometres away from Bankowy Square. 

Cars have triggered strong emotions, too.

At the end of 2018 in Warsaw, there were over 1,5 million registered cars. The next half enters and leaves the city every day. This traffic should be regulated in some way. The question is how. There are numerous ways. We can do it the Swedish or London way and introduce paid access to the city. There is also the German method to prevent the oldest and the most harmful diesel cars from entering the centre. We should conduct a thorough analysis and propose paid parking zones, various fees. How many people will be willing to choose public transport, how much it will bring funds to buy new buses or trams, how it will limit the exhaust emissions. Then we will be able to discuss the details. Right now, when we hear “limit the cars in the city centre” we all have something different in mind. 

We should also take into consideration the social costs of such limitations. The most affluent will afford to enter the city centre. However, consider how many professionals, nurses, blue-collar workers commute to work. For example from Ostrowia Mazowiecka there is no train to Warsaw. Buses from the nearby smaller cities have been canceled. My friend lives 30 kilometres from Warsaw. It takes him about 2 hours to commute to the University. He gets on a bus at 6 o’clock. If he was able to afford an old Golf and get to the city in 40 minutes probably he would choose this option. It turns out that building underground is not the only necessity. It is important to take care of an effective transport system in the entire region of Mazovia.

Has something changed under Trzaskakowski, the mayor of Warsaw, when it comes to smog? Is Justyna Glusman responsible for this issue? 

She is responsible for low emission smog. She stresses that transport and investments (i.e. car smog) are Robert Soszyński’s domain. After the election, one year passed by rather ineffectively because all new employees were undergoing training. For example, it was the time when the new Department of Air Protection was being formed. New regulations concerning polluting heaters were being prepared. From October you can apply for subsidiaries that will help you replace old and inefficient stoves. No heaters have been removed yet but people seem to be interested. It’s undeniably a step in a good direction. It is a shame it took so long. It should have happened two or three years before that when the activists had been talking about it. We have wasted a lot of time.

What can each of us do?

Those who have heaters must replace them. It is neither easy, nor cheap, but they have to comply with the regulations. It is almost about twenty thousand households in Warsaw. I would advise all people who use fireplaces to leave their comfort zone and give up luxury. It is easy, you can do without fireplaces which you use to create a romantic atmosphere. There are drivers left, who are the most resistant when it comes to giving up their vehicles. Some people drive out of laziness, some just have to use cars. During all this process we should also think about the poorest residents who will mostly be affected by the ecology changes. We should all help them go through this.