Adam Pustelnik is the First Deputy Mayor of Lodz. In this role he is responsible for planning, business development, and investments into the city, among other things. At the recent Eurocities Environment Forum, where he met with other city politicians, Alex Godson caught up with him to talk about the energy crisis.
In your conversations with other leaders, you have been discussing both the current situation and offering solutions. Firstly, in what ways has the current energy crisis impacted Lodz?
Both the direct and indirect effects of this energy crisis directly impact not only our city, but every city in the country. First of all, centralised tax reforms in Poland already put us in a situation where cities have very limited assets, and then we have this situation of increased energy costs. Meanwhile, the city must pay all its subsidiaries, all the city controlled communal companies, meaning that the financial liquidity available for the purposes of communal services dropped dramatically overnight.
The other side is the indirect costs. Poland started its adventure with capitalism slightly later than some other Western counterparts, and in Lodz, which is a former industrial area, manufacturing and industrial production still account for a huge amount of jobs that are often export driven. So, when the energy costs double, it’s a huge hit for the entire local ecosystem. It threatens many jobs, and a lot of local enterprises became insolvent, and some had to rely on public aid.
As a city administration, have you been able to take steps to help individuals, and what have those been?
There are various layers to this. One of them is simply the energy costs that the city has to pay from the city accounts. The other ones are the costs that especially effect the business level, whether big or medium enterprises, as I say, mainly in manufacturing; and then there is also individuals, especially the most vulnerable and how it affects them.
Everyone in business and the wider public is aware that lowering our dependence on fossil fuels is a must, and so is reducing energy consumption
In Poland, you still have a lot of individual heating sources that are often based on coal-driven heating infrastructure and with the coal prices growing, a lot of individuals were affected. However, the city actually supported many individuals to access coal. While the price was more expensive than before the crisis, it was less expensive than it might have been to individuals because the city was able to intervene to purchase on a more collective level. Therefore, we stuck to the fixed price on the state level, meaning that certain energy prices were guaranteed.
At the same time, we have, ongoing, a pretty monumental Clean Air Programme which aims to convert the formerly, let’s say, dirty heat sources into new ones. We’ve invested a lot of money into this plan, which offers subsidies for individuals buying heat pumps, encouraging the energy transition. As the city, we have also invested a lot in photovoltaic installations. So we are changing our energy mix quite drastically.
How has the approach to energy management in the city changed as a result of either the COVID or Ukraine impacts?
It has been turned upside down. Public entities and big organisations tend to transform and change when they are really forced to. You probably noticed during the pandemic, when suddenly many not especially digitalised enterprises, or many divisions of the administration, adopted the use of Microsoft Teams, or Zoom, seemingly overnight. In this way, the pandemic was one of the most significant factors that drove digitalisation and technology uses in the administration.
The same situation can be said to have happened here. Everyone in business and the wider public is aware that lowering our dependence on fossil fuels is a must, and so is reducing energy consumption. However, this change was happening very, very slowly when the energy cost was reliably low. Now, we have all been pushed towards lowering dependence on fossil fuels, using renewables or making more effective energy infrastructure.
As a city, we took many actions, such as transferring light sources to LED bulbs and implementing cuts in energy usage, like turning of the lights earlier in certain spots or imposing energy consumption reduction on our subsidiaries. We have also made very positive progress on photovoltaic installations and, as I partly mentioned, encouraging the use of heat pumps in people’s homes.
As a result, I think we made a dramatic change in a very short amount of time. It probably would have taken us way more time without this stimulus.
What room do you think there is for the EU or for the Polish state to do more here and especially in the transition towards renewable energies?
I think that there is a huge role. Most Polish cities have either been rebuilt from total ruins after WWII or had to totally readapt and reinvent themselves after the collapse of communism. For example, my city had almost 30% unemployment in 1990-1991, because in the Communist times it was a industrial powerhouse that just collapsed overnight.
When the energy costs double, it's a huge hit for the entire local ecosystem.
We started to redevelop after 2004, and Poland’s accession to the EU, and EU funding, was and still is, one of the major sources of our redevelopment and growth.
It would be really hard for cities in countries like Poland, and others like Lithuania, or Romania, or even some parts of Eastern Germany that started to develop way later, to catch up and to skip the necessary development steps without external support.
EU funding therefore allowed us to invest in infrastructure and revitalisation. To this, we added our own approach to city branding to attract the right investments. We are a compact city that can offer a good quality of life, and lower cost of living than other large cities, including in Poland. We have also traditionally been one of the more international cities in the country, and have recently welcomed thousands of Ukrainians, which only adds to our diversity and attractiveness.
When it comes to further reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and becoming more renewables focused, I advocate for decentralising financial mechanisms nationally to help cities. Now it depends too much on a political brokerage with the national government, and not on achieving common goals, such as improving the quality of life of Polish people, while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. The amount of politics within politics, at least in Poland, is unbearable.
In my opinion, it’s the only way to achieve, in a relatively short time, a visible change in this field that we are highly dependent on.
The Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, strives to show that a sustainable transition is possible with mayors and cities on board.