21 September 2018

Interview with Anna Dworakowska from the Krakow Smog Alert

Interview with Anna Dworakowska from the Krakow Smog Alert
Interviewer: Kamila Knap

Anna Dworakowska, co-founder of the Krakow Smog Alert Association and the Polish Smog Alert – a movement bringing together citizens ' initiatives for clean air. She has been involved in campaigning for clean air in Krakow and all across Poland for five years. She campaigns for systemic changes to improve air quality, works on improving the system of informing about current air quality, and on developing cooperation between clean air organizations at the national and international level.

Kamila Knap: Just a few years ago, there was hardly anyone in Poland who cared about air pollution. The Krakow Smog Alarm was one of the first initiatives that started to raise this issue. It would be difficult to mention all of your achievements in raising awareness of air quality, first among the residents of Krakow and then the other Poles. You have become a very recognizable organization, too. What prompted you to take action and who established the Krakow Smog Alert?

Anna Dworakowska: - Actually, it was the Krakow’s smog that prompted us to act. At the end of November and beginning of December 2012 we noticed that during the whole month, all thirty days, there was only one day in compliance with the air quality limits. For the rest of the twenty-nine days the limits were exceeded two, three, four, or even eight times. It was the last straw, we started to dig deeper, search for information and look into why no one seemed to care. At the time, there would be one or two articles published at the beginning of the smog season, when the quality of the air in Krakow deteriorates dramatically. And that would be it. Officials would claim that there was nothing they could do and the circle would close – and we were left with six months of stinking air in our city. It turned out that there was a lot of room for improvement. 

The main sources of pollution and appropriate measures had already been identified in The Air Protection Program. It had been already known for several years then that the necessary and basic step would be to introduce ban on burning coal and wood in Krakow. The Air Protection Plan stated the need for such a ban, but in the very next sentence it asserted that this was impossible for social and economic reasons. We knew that the barriers standing in the way to clean air would have to be removed. Initially, the fight against social, economic and financial barriers was our major activity.

Who were the founders of the Krakow Smog Alert?

Anna Dworakowska: We were a group of a few friends. Some of us have previously worked in organizations or foundations, others had quite a lot of experience in economy, while others had a good grasp of environmental protection. So we were not random people, our actions were supported by substantive knowledge of the members of the organization. One day - one smog day too many - we decided that either we move out of the city or we would try and fight for our air.

The first big success came very quickly - after a year of campaigning we already managed to have the first ban on burning coal and wood voted in favour of [Later overturned by the Provincial Administrative Court, Ed]. At first, we were berated by the politicians, seen as harmless loonies, despite the fact that the solutions we proposed were outlined in the expert analysis carried out for the air protection plan. We did not invent the proposals for actions, they were identified by experts as necessary. After a half a year of social campaigning, the politicians began to admit that the ban was needed, that, in fact, it could be introduced, that protections for the poor and subsidies for replacing heating sources could be introduced.

At this point, Krakow is at the forefront of implementing this type of measures. The city provides subsidies for replacement of coal and wood burning boilers, energy bill assistance program for the poor, and now has launched the program of home insulation grants addressed to the low-income people. Its purpose is thermomodernisation of the buildings so that the replacement of a coal boiler with, for example, a gas boiler would not result in higher bills for the residents.

The ban on burning coal and wood in Krakow enters into force the next year, September 1st 2019. For sure, it will be the enforcement of these provisions that will decide on their success.

Could we say that the negative association with Krakow due to smog is now rather unfair?

Anna Dworakowska: Right now, you can say that Krakow is in the forefront of antismog measures. Of course, more can always be done, and we are constantly demanding more from the Krakow authorities. When it comes to low emissions, a lot is going on. Introducing the ban and later its successful execution is crucial in this regard. New technologies, like sensors attached to drones, could be of real use.  However, much remains to be done when it comes to traffic pollution. Krakow starts to take some action, but one could do much, much more.

Sources of pollution are different depending on the country or region. What are the characteristics of Polish and Cracovian smog?

Anna Dworakowska: Polish and Cracovian smog pollution is essentially quite similar. There are two major pollutants all across Poland: particulate matter pollution, pm 10, pm 2,5 - the number indicates how tiny the particles are - and the carcinogenic and mutagenic compound benzo-alpha-pyrene. The main source of both particulate matter and benzo-alpha-pyrene is the so-called low-stack emission, that is emission from chimneys below forty meters. This is mainly domestic heating equipment for coal or wood, in which often also garbage is being burned. This type of equipment is also popular in small manufacturing facilities, such as carpentry or shoe repair workshops. Countrywide, there are about four million single-family houses that burn coal or wood. And then you need to add apartments in tenement. A scale of this problem is massive.

In big cities, there is also the issue of vehicle transportation, of course. In Krakow cars are responsible for about 20% of particulate matter pollution in the city centre. This is also a significant source of pollution and as a city we need to be able to deal with it more effectively.

There has been a great technological breakthrough; energy can be now obtained from sources other than fossil fuels. Poland is already a rather highly developed country - so why are we still struggling with pollution? Why is it still so bad?

Anna Dworakowska: Because we keep focusing on coal and bad-quality coal at that, burned in substandard boilers. It's a paradox, because Poland is the home of many companies manufacturing boilers for solid fuels. These companies are able to make very modern boilers that produce twenty times less pollution than the primitive ‘soot puffers'. However, most people buy 'soot puffers' instead of modern boilers because 'soot puffers' cost two thousand zlotys or less, and modern boilers several times more. Until recently, there were no standards regulating emissions from heating equipment in Poland. Of course, this is why people bought 'soot puffers', which are not only cheap but they also can burn anything. You can burn bad quality coal, wood, garbage, anything at hand.

I think the situation is so bad because we suffer the consequences of a long-standing negligence. It is not just this government, or only this one and the previous one. This is the negligence of all the governments since 1989. There is no regulation in place on what can be used for heating of houses, residential buildings. The problem is popular 'my home is my castle' attitude, people choose this kind of solution.

Do you think that we reached a tipping point or are we still waiting?

Anna Dworakowska: We have absolutely reached it! There is a major smog awakening. I think that the spark has started in Krakow and, in fact, all Cracovians should be praised. The social support for our work has been huge. We all went out to the streets, signed appeals for months - it all really took off in Krakow. The residents of other cities also demand clean air. The anti-smog movement started to grow, smog alerts reached other cities – so far we developed into network of around 30 smog alerts. A small technological revolution started, for example, regarding air quality sensors. There are low-cost sensors available, you can buy it for as little as 1,000 zlotys. They are available to virtually everyone, you can install them in your home and find out what is the quality of air around you. Access to information about the air quality is now very easy; there are dedicated apps for phone. When we were getting started, one of the most important things that we did was to inform about the air quality in Krakow on our fan page. A few years ago, in order to know what the air quality was, you had to put significant effort into search of information and be able to interpret the data. Now, there are plenty of apps. Actually, the first phone app showing in real time the quality of the air was created for our Alert and it was made pro bono by students of the Cracow University of Technology.

The awareness is growing, the surveys we conduct every two years prove it. People know more and more, and they want the authorities to act. On the one hand, there are local initiatives and regional activity, too, because more and more of the regions adopt antismog regulations. On the other hand, the matter of smog finally made it to the central government. However, we are still waiting for tangible. There are so many declarations and many things are in progress, but meanwhile the air quality is still awful and we need more determined steps.

The regulation was introduced that prohibits the sale of 'soot puffers'. After July 1 this year, if one want to buy a coal or wood burning boiler, it must meet emission limit. The thing is that the regulation is full of holes and it's easy to get around it - we are now waiting for the second regulation that will tighten it up. The big issue has been the law regulating coal quality standards. We have been demanding it for the last four years. The act was finally brought on, but we still lack regulation introducing coal quality standard and it is unknown whether we will see it before the upcoming heating season. A scheme of financial support for people who need to replace the "soot puffers" with more efficient heating systems is crucial. The support scheme was announced, worth one hundred billion zlotys, but the announcement alone does not equal change. It still hasn’t been launched and people still do not receive this form of support.

I have the impression that everything is going in the right direction, but much too slowly. 

So when will the air in Poland be clean?

Anna Dworakowska: I would love to say that it’s a matter of a few years, but this would be the optimistic variant. The challenge is huge - as I said, there are four million pollution sources in single-family housing only, and you need to add apartment buildings to these. The scale of the problem is gigantic, but if the change occurs, the winter landscape of Poland will be transformed, the multi-coloured suffocating fumes will disappear. Let us hope that this will happen within, say, several years, a decade at the latest.

Powietrza! Antysmogowy Marsz Żałobny. Zdjęcia z marszu autorstwa Kamila A. Krajewskiego (studioluma.pl).

Powietrza! Antysmogowy Marsz Żałobny. Zdjęcia z marszu autorstwa Kamila A. Krajewskiego (studioluma.pl)

If you could take one decision affecting air quality in Poland it would be ...?

Anna Dworakowska: One decision is not enough, but very little is said about inspections and inspecting organizations in Poland. Efficient environmental protection inspection policy does not exist, as we could see during the recent landfill fires. I would establish services with wide powers to handle just the inspections. The inspections should cover both entrepreneurs and individual households, what they are burning and their waste management - as it usually translates into what they burn in their furnaces. Outside of the major cities there is practically no control at all. Also large industrial plants should be inspected, like those in Skawina near Kraków,  where residents have repeatedly complained about the air pollution from the industrial plants. Unfortunately, there is an industrial zone there and nothing is being done. The story of Mielec, where one quarter of the whole population went on march against, again, a slab manufacturing plant, is also the story of how there is no control over industrial plants.

Do you have any advice for emerging activists?

Anna Dworakowska: I think it is important not to act alone but in a group and look for people willing to work with us. This is not a job for a year or two. We have been campaigning for five years now and although we achieved a lot, there is still so much ahead of us.