Problems with coal in Poland

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Problems with coal in Poland

Violeta Santos Moura reports from Poland, where using coal kills about 45,000 people each year.


Winter wind blows from Bedzin’s coal-fuelled electricity plant, making clouds of smog, while a woman visits the city’s cemetery. All photos by Violeta Santos Moura.

When Polish people say they are worried about the winter, it is not only the terrible cold they fear. It is the six months of smog from the burning of coal for their home heating.

Some areas are more polluted than Beijing, with about 45,000 deaths in Poland each year from air pollution. A report by the World Health Organization says the country has 33 of the 50 most polluted cities in the European Union.

Air pollution is linked to asthma, lung cancer, heart problems, breathing problems, birth defects. early death, delays in mental development in children, Alzheimer’s, and dementia.

With the pollution from cars, industry. and energy production, inefficient coal-fired home heating furnaces also help to make the smog.


A woman in a filter mask walks past demonstrators protesting in the Polish capital of Warsaw against government action, despite high levels of smog in the country.

And in 2016 the UK Financial Times newspaper said Poland is ‘the continent’s capital of smog’, when the southern city of Skała beat Beijing’s air pollution record.

This led to more pressure by the EU for Poland to cut greenhouse gas and to use other forms of energy including cleaner energy, and to use less coal. This with world coal getting much cheaper and increased production costs, is a problem for the subsidized Polish industry – and jobs.

About 100,000 Polish jobs are linked to coal. Support from the big coal industry made sure that the national-conservative Law and Justice party won the 2015 election with a promise that coal would remain the main energy source for the country.


An elderly resident of Głuchołazy, in Poland’s southwest, keeps herself warm with the help of her traditional coal-fuelled furnace – still often used in Poland.

The effort to stop competition to coal as the main source of energy resulted in the Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, the daughter of a coalminer, introducing strict regulations on wind turbines. This stopped competition from green energy, which in 2014 produced about 10 per cent of national energy.


Patrick (right), a Muay Thai athlete with his friends with a filter mask in Katowice.

The fog of nationalism

In Poland they often call coal ‘black gold’ and the country has been proud of the industry for many generations. Many of Poland’s neighbours have occupied the country during its troubled history, and coal has represented independence in energy and political sovereignty. Many feel that if Poland gives up coal, it will mean relying on gas imports from Russia and dependence economically and politically on Moscow.


Eva Ciesielska, 39, uses a nebulizer on her 9-year-old daughter Zoe in their apartment in Krakow

So many people often think that moving to cleaner energy is ‘un-nationalist’ and that it is an idea from the left and from ‘unpatriotic’ parts of society. Wearing a filter mask often makes others angry. People often laugh at people who wear masks to work and very few people want to discuss the problem.

Konstanty Radziwiłł is health minister and last year he tried to say smoking and not air pollution was the cause of the health problems. His idea did not work as people calculated the effects of smog in terms of cigarettes. Activist group Polish Smog Alarm said breathing Krakow’s air each day is like smoking 4,000 cigarettes a year, or about seven cigarettes a day. This includes children as the effects of air pollution do not depend on age. They also say that smoking is a personal choice but breathing polluted air is not.

The 2018 UN Climate Change Conference will be in Katowice, in Poland in December, and so the country is going to have disagreements with the EU on many issues, such as refugee numbers, its control of the independence of its judiciary, and its environmental and climate policies.

Violeta Santos Moura is a photojournalist from Portugal. Her reports range from the European economic crisis to social and political strife in the Middle East and South Asia.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)