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Poland Refuses to Give Up Coal. Now Its Smog Levels Rival China

AP Photo/Alik Keplicz

All across Poland, anti-smog masks are becoming a new norm. The country’s dependence on coal is swamping the air with pollutants, so much so that 33 of Europe’s 50 most polluted cities are in Poland.

The country’s capital, Warsaw, has air pollutant levels eight times greater than normal limits set by the EU. On Tuesday, the country had nearly the same levels of harmful air pollutants like sulfur and carbon monoxide as Beijing.

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Across southern Poland, schools were closed this week to keep children from breathing toxic clouds, and public transportation was made free across parts of the country to discourage car use.

Other cities around the world have targeted cars when pollution gets too extreme, but deeper structural problems are to blame in Poland.

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In 2016, coal production hit its lowest level in 35 years in the US, China has more than halved its coal production since 2013, and the rest of Europe is eagerly investing in renewable energy. But not Poland. As the rest of the world runs from coal, Poland is gorging on it.

Poland gets nearly 90% of its electricity from coal and the country is building new coal plants. The government insists that the economic benefits of coal outweigh any of the negative consequences and has vowed to create up to 100,000 coal-related jobs.

During the winter, many Polish people still burn coal in old stoves inside their homes.

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In some of the heavier coal regions, the smell of burning coal is familiar. In the popular tourist town Krakow, lung diseases, heart attack, stroke, and much more are burgeoning. Carcinogens from cheap coal are so pervasive that pollution-induced nosebleeds are a common occurrence. People stay inside rather than face the unfiltered air.  

A backlash is slowly forming. A ban on coal and other solid fuels for home stoves comes into effect in 2018 for Krakow. But even as persistent health problems grow and citizens are driven to the streets to protest, the government is holding fast to its commitment to coal.

“We’re not a country where the sun shines and wind blows all year,” said Jaroslaw Grzesik, head of the mining division of the Solidarity union, to Bloomberg. “We’re a country rich in coal, and we should care about our economy and our citizens.”