Poland’s Clean Household Energy Initiative Should Save Over 21 000 Deaths Annually from Air Pollution by 2030
Krakow skyline. Eight of the European Union’s 10 most polluted cities are in Poland. But an initiative to swap out polluting coal and wood furnaces/boilers could change that.

An ambitious Polish state policy that aims to replace 50% of the country’s coal and wood household furnaces/boilers with electric heat pumps or natural gas could dramatically improve air quality in a country with some of the worst ambient air pollution levels in the European Union, says a new assessment by the European Clean Air Centre (ECAC)

The policy could save 21,247 lives a year in Poland, increase the number of people breathing clean air 15-fold, and help Poland reach new, and much stricter, EU air quality standards, according to the assessment, published in late December. New EU standards aim to align more closely with WHO clean air guidelines for PM2.5, the most health hazardous pollutant, with negotiations underway now about a timeline for implementation.  

The Polish national programme involves replacing half the country’s 2.7 million wood and coal-fired heating systems with natural gas furnaces or even more efficient heat pumps by 2030 – a rate of about 6000 weekly. 

Polish example may show a way to move faster

Today, only about 2 million Poles live in areas with PM2.5 air pollution levels of 10 micrograms/m3 or less – the envisioned EU air quality standard for 2030.
By 2030 nearly 30 million people would live in areas that meet the new EU air quality guidelines, if retrofits continue at the current rate.

The European Commission has proposed rules by which countries would need to meet a new PM2.5 target for ambient air pollution of 10 micrograms/m3 annually by 2030. That’s half of the current EU limit of 20 μg/m3 –  although at 5 μg/m3, the WHO guideline is even stricter. But some member states still have questioned the feasibility of the 2030 deadline to meet the new EU Air Quality Directive.

Yet, results from an assessment of Poland’s experience demonstrate that reaching the new standard on a tight schedule is feasible, even in nations with higher levels of air pollution, says the ECAC. 

Air pollution is the number one environmental health risk in the WHO’s 53-member European region, according to the World Health Organization. In 2019 alone, it accounted for 569 000 premature deaths. In the 27-member state European Union, the European Environent Agency (EEA) estimates that about 300,000 people die prematurely from air pollution-related conditions – including over 40,000 in Poland.

According to the EEA, eight out of ten most air-polluted EU cities are located in Poland. A key pollution source, to quote the Polish-language version of the ECAC report, is single-family houses using biomass and low-quality coal for heating.  Nearly 90% of Europe’s coal for household heating is burned in Poland.

For the past ten years, the sector has received much attention from legislators on local and country level. A decade of civil society activism in Kraków led the region to become the first in banning polluting coal furnaces/boilers. In 2019 a national programme subsidizing retrofits with modern electric systems was launched – and the results are potentially transformational.

Poland’s coal boiler replacement programme is an example of what ambitious environmental policy can mean for normal people. Our analysis shows that 2.7 million households will replace their heating source and with refurbishment of buildings, this will lead to a more secure, cheaper and cleaner energy source across the country, a triple win.Łukasz Adamkiewicz, ECAC’s lead researcher, told Health Policy Watch.

Ambient air pollution’s health effects

According to the WHO, tiny particles of PM2.5 or smaller penetrate deep into lung tissue, also entering the bloodstream and infiltrating into almost every organ of the body, causing systemic inflammation and carcinogenicity. Worldwide, between one-third and one-quarter of premature deaths involving heart attack, stroke, respiratory diseases, and cancers are attributable to air pollution. 

Right now, approximately 41 000 people die prematurely every year in Poland, as a result of ambient air pollution exposures.  Experts also note that the estimate is probably under-valued insofar as poor air quality has many indirect health effects, especially for more vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. With European society aging, the health burden of pollution is likely to grow even more.

More efficiency, less CO2 emissions

Furnace retrofits would also reduce CO2 emissions from the household sector by 33% by 2030, the ECAC study estimates

Along with reducing air pollution, the revolution in heating sources also will have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions – reducing CO2 emissions from the household sector by 33%, the ECAC study projects.

While some households have replaced coal furnaces with gas boilers, heat pumps so far have comprised 50-60% of the retrofits. Both represent a significant reduction in CO2 emissions, insofar as gas is much more efficient and releases far less CO2 that coal when burned.

Heat pumps are even better, achieving efficiency rates three-to four times that of other heating systems, according to the MIT Technology Review. This means the heat they produce is three-to-four times the electricity used. 

Additionally, heat pumps can, and are, being integrated with rooftop solar panels amongst some households in Poland with support from other state and national subsidy programmes. When a rooftop solar array powers the heat pump during daytime hours, this reduces further demand on coal power plant generation – traditionally Poland’s dominant electric power source.   

Growing share of renewables in the Polish energy mix. From left to right: share of electricity sources through time (grey – coal; blue – natural gas; green – renewable sources) and renewable energy production in TWh (yellow – photovoltaics, blue – wind green – biomass, brown – bio gas, grey – water).

Thanks to the gradual shift, more than a quarter of electricity produced in Poland now comes from renewable sources. According to the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity data, PV solar panels produced a record 17% of the country’s energy in July 2023.

That said, solar panel systems are still too expensive for many households and in many areas. And in many areas, the uptake of PV panels has already outstripped the capacity of the power grid to absorb the power thus generated.  This leaves further growth in the solar sector uncertain until the new Polish government sets a policy direction, said Adamkiewicz.

Continued subsidies essential to implementing the initiative 

The continuation of state-sponsored subsidies for furnace/boiler conversions is critical to maintaining the current pace of change; the subsidies are projected to support about 87% of the heating system modernisations over the coming years, the ECAC report notes.

Luckily for air quality, Poland’s new climate minister, Paulina Hennig-Kloska, plans on sustaining the subsidy programme, which is investing a total of €25 billion into the clean heating system retrofits.

Additionally, electricity tariffs need to be made more affordable and attractive so as to encourage consumers to move to more efficient heat pumps, as compared to gas, researchers and activists state. 

When compared with gas, the replacement with heat pumps has dropped from 60% in 2020 to 48% now as a share of the types of boilers being replaced, said Adamkiewicz. “A further decline will occur if the government does not prepare a special tariff and other regulations,” he warned. 

Poland sets example in the midst of trilogue negotiations

The Polish policy trends come at a crucial time for the EU Parliament.  The proposed EU Air Quality Directive (AAQD) is not only more rigorous in terms of air quality standards, it also would introduce an option for citizens to go to court over the health effects of excessive air pollution.

The final shape of the new Directive is currently under discussion between the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament in complex “trilogue” negotiations to hone down details of the new rules. As Parliament has already voted in favour of sweeping revisions, it is now up to the Council, which includes representation from all member state governments, to make the next step.

“Trilogue negotiations between the Commission, Council and Parliament are ongoing, and the legislation needs to be finalised by mid-February in order to become law before the European Parliament elections,” noted the ECAC in a press release.

Some member states in eastern and souther Europe have pushed back against the new EU rules saying that countries with a GDP below the EU average need a ten year time frame for  implementing the stricter air quality standard, rather than six years, as is now proposed. But Poland’s example shows faster implementation of clean air policies isn’t necessarily linked to income levels. 

Poland should be seen as an example of what can be done in Europe with the right policy in place,” states Adamkiewicz.

Image Credits: Zuzanna Stawiska , ECAC , Wysokie Napięcie.

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