Keeping the air clean in Warsaw

Regardless of all the things that may divide our societies, Magdalena Mlochowska, Director of Green Warsaw, points out that there is one thing that everyone has in common: “We all need to breathe.” That’s why clean air is a priority for Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, and it’s why the City of Warsaw is coming at the issue from every angle, from getting rid of dirty boilers, cleaning up transport emissions, and empowering local people to become air quality aficionados.

“Like most European cities,” Mlochowska admits, “we’ve been struggling with air pollution for many years. Transport is still an issue, as is air pollutants blowing in from neighbouring communities, and we even have some furnaces here that are obviously not great for the air.” The struggle has not been without effect: The number of days where the concentration of PM10, tiny particles that create problems in our lungs, exceeds European standards is consistently going down, as is the annual average.  “The air quality in Warsaw is continuously improving,” Mlochowska says, “and that means  better quality of life and better health for everyone here.”

While air quality affects us all, its effects are not equally distributed; Vulnerable groups, including people with health issues (especially respiratory problems), elderly people, children and pregnant women are particularly at risk. The city can also use its air quality measures to tackle inequality, for example by targeting energy poverty and energy exclusion.

Boilers and buses

The city is working to eliminate emissions coming from old boilers that burn solid fuel or oil without the efficiency of modern boilers, meaning they produce less energy and more pollution from the same fuel. “We’ve been giving subsidies to residents to get rid of their old stoves and boilers in favour of connecting to the district heat network and putting in renewable alternatives,” Mlochowska explains, “Thanks to municipal subsidies, over 4,500 boilers have been liquidated so far.”

Another key to success in Warsaw has been upgrading the buses. “Warsaw is one of the European leaders in zero-emission electric buses,” Mlochowska says proudly. “We are developing the metro, building new tram lines and developing a network of bicycle paths along with a system of self-service city bike rentals.” The city is also looking at further development of bus lanes and low-emission zones.

A budget for the people

Not all the changes in air quality come from above. Central to Warsaw’s effort is educating, empowering, and facilitating local people so that they can become air-quality advocates and motors for positive change. This ranges from education campaigns in schools to projects funded through the participatory budget.

The participatory budget is an annual opportunity for local people to have a say in how the local budget is spent. Anyone can propose initiatives of any kind, and local people vote on their favourites. “Many of the projects that people submit and support are pro-ecological,” Mlochowska remarks, remembering an example from last year where a winner decided to carry out mobile air quality measurements to better understand air-quality patterns in eastern districts of Warsaw. Participatory processes like these, including citizen science, are high-priority throughout the EU, as expressed in the EU Action Plan ‘Towards zero pollution for air, water and soil’.

Local people are interested in air quality, and want to see the data, says Kisiel Jacek of Warsaw City Hall, “People really, really look for the statistics.” This is evidenced on Twitter when the World Air Quality Index, catches Warsaw on a bad day: “When the quality goes down, people are on social media talking about it,” Jacek affirms. Even the national broadcast, Radio TokFm, gives a daily air-quality update every day.

Surprising findings

Public square with peopleinWarsaw
Public square with people in warsaw

“What we found in the study in eastern Warsaw really surprised us,” Jacek recounts, “Many of the areas where we had thought the air was quite clean were actually some of the most polluted.” The culprit: private cars. Local government action is tackling bad boilers, but the number of cars has not fallen, so that traffic will soon be the number one cause of pollution in the city. This is a thornier issue, “cars are a sensitive topic for people, so we have to approach it,” Mlochowska explains. The sensors are part of the picture here because they let the city supply direct evidence of the impact of traffic on their health.

During the pandemic restrictions, traffic was cut to a third. “It was the best year for air quality,” says Jacek, “the first year when we had all the indicators below the levels considered to be healthy.” Being able to point to this huge contrast is a strong motivator for local action, and has been an important factor in pushing the low-emission zone. An upcoming proposal from the European Commission is the ‘Euro 7,’ a set of new air pollutant limits for road vehicles, which will form part of a group of measures aiming to halve the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution by 2030. Cities, including Warsaw, are keeping pressure on the EU Commission and Parliament to ensure that these tough measures come through.

Sense of sensors

The city also works with local residents’ organisations, research institutes, government administrations and international organisations. Because pollution does not stay where it is generated but rather moves across cities, countries and continents, Warsaw also works closely with neighbouring communes, including a joint air quality monitoring system covering 18 districts of Warsaw and 17 surrounding municipalities.

“164 air quality sensors were installed as part of this project,” Mlochowska says, “this will not only allow us to locate areas of increased emissions, but also it will also allow us to create educational value, increasing the residents’ awareness of the sources and harmfulness of air pollutants.” Careful measurements that make the nature and shape of local air-quality issues clear are essential to mobilising people and effectively tackling the problem. This is why, says Mlochowska, “We are currently building one of the largest air quality monitoring systems in Europe.”

Energy and war

Improving air quality is a priority across the EU, and as Mlochowska points out, a lot of efforts to tackle them, including in Warsaw, are co-financed by the EU. Warsaw is glad of the assistance it has received and hopes to continue cooperation with the European level. However, Mlochowska notes, for more effective collaborative action, it is important to “ensure that EU funds are distributed and invested at the level of local government,” rather than through national bottlenecks. She would also like to see more opportunities for exchanging knowledge and experience across European cities.

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, volatility around energy is a topic that looms large across the EU. Warsaw wants to see an EU response that will ensure energy security for all residents “without sacrificing equal access to good quality air for all.” New recommendations published by the WHO show that there is still a long way to go before reaching acceptable levels of air pollution globally, and this long-term goal shouldn’t be sacrificed for short-term expediency. “The reaction of our national government doesn’t help, because now we’re talking about subsidies for people who have coal as a main source of heating. Since 2017, we’ve been running campaigns about this issue and subsidising people to choose renewable options. We also go door-to-door and talk to people, which is one of the best ways to create different attitudes.”

Mlochowska admits that going green isn’t at the top of everyone’s priorities. “When we talk about energy prices, about war and fear, it’s not an easy moment to talk about energy,” she says. And yet Warsaw is not content with focusing on the short term. It is through sustained action on all fronts that the city has been able to create an enormous shift in the emissions of its population of 1.7 million people, and it is only by a determined focus on the long-term that it can hope to create a future where none of us need to risk our health just by walking or cycling around the city.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer