Polish cities inspired for climate

Receiving her Nobel Prize for literature, Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska said this about inspiration: “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” Szymborska insisted that inspiration was not the exclusive purview of writers and poets, “There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination… Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it.”

Their work becomes one continuous adventure
— Wislawa Szymborska

Szymborska lists doctors, teachers and gardeners among those professions where such inspiration flutters around, but she may just as well have been describing those in Polish municipalities who are working to tackle climate change.

As well as pursuing tried and tested methods and experimenting with their own solutions, these municipal employees have also embraced the ‘I don’t know’ that opens the door to inspiration, collaborating with cities around Poland and Europe to reach the extraordinary goal of net-zero emissions in just six more years that the city has set as part of the EU Mission for 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030.

Now, five major Polish cities are collaborating through their pilot action in NetZeroCities, an EU-funded project in which Eurocities and other partners help cities in their mission to become climate neutral by 2030. The NetZero Emission and Environmentally Sustainable Territories pilot brings together Krakow, Lodz, Rzeszow, Warsaw and Wroclaw to channel inspiration for shared climate solutions.

Polish cities have long worked to tackle climate change, with efforts that have historically outshone those of their national government. “The climate crisis is one of the most significant challenges facing us,” according to Rafał Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw, “We should do everything we can to deal with this challenge. We want to fight for our planet and leave it to our descendants in good condition.”

The climate crisis is one of the most significant challenges facing us
— Rafał Trzaskowski

Andrzej Łazęcki, Director of Krakow’s Municipal Economy and Climate Department, outlines the approach these cities are taking. While they draw on national and EU subsidies to assist in their climate challenge, they are conscious that these subsidies will not be enough to achieve all they have in their sights. “In Krakow, we are adapting to a changing financial landscape, moving away from traditional subsidies towards more innovative financing methods,” Łazęcki emphasises.

One key area of focus for this group of Polish cities is building renovations. Łazęcki mentions the challenges in this sector, notably the poor technical condition of buildings and the complex nature of renovation work. To address these challenges, the cities are exploring a range of financing options, including public-private partnerships for major projects and the energy service company (ESCO) model.

Building cooperation

Energy service companies are companies that install sustainable solutions, such as solar panels, at no initial cost to the buyer. Instead, they make their profits by taking a certain amount of the savings generated from these solutions for a set number of years. Effectively, this heightens their incentives as their profit depends on successful implementation. However, Łazęcki notes that ESCOs often shy away from the more complex, riskier aspects of building renovations.

Facades in Warsaw

The Polish cities’ NetZero Emission and Environmentally Sustainable Territories pilot tackles these issues head-on. This initiative will enable innovative renovations on a massive scale. “Our goal is to focus on entire building quarters rather than individual buildings,” explains Łazęcki. The project incorporates various aspects, from renewable energy to social issues, ensuring a holistic approach to urban development.

Our goal is to focus on entire building quarters rather than individual buildings
— Andrzej Łazęcki

Embracing the ‘I don’t know’ of innovation, Krakow is exploring innovative financing that may be useful for the group through the EU’s Prospect+ project, which Eurocities helps to steward. As a Prospect+ mentee and a panellist for the project’s 2023 Policy Dialogue, Krakow has been open to innovations that could enhance its work. The city is working alongside the Nicolaus Copernicus University team of climate and environmental advisors towards creating energy communities, cooperative enterprises where a number of residents or organisations invest together in energy saving renovations or upgrades, often producing their own energy locally, and then share the benefits.

Fighting scepticism

Unfortunately, Polish residents are often sceptical of such schemes. First, the cooperative approach must be strongly distinguished from the political system of Communism into which most residents are far from eager to slide back. Second, there is a feeling that the government should deal with energy policy and let people get on with their lives. Therefore part of the cities’ work involves engaging locals and explaining the nature and importance of their participation in climate initiatives.

Speaking at a Policy Dialogue held as part of Prospect+, Łazęcki highlights the cities’ efforts to develop a handbook for other cities to ease their transition towards more sustainable practices. “We are working with national development agencies to create a single model energy system simulator for the entire city, ensuring that our efforts are well-coordinated and effective,” he adds.

Without cooperation at every level, we will not be able to rebuild our countries or achieve the climate goals set by Europe
— Hanna Zdanowska

Krakow, Lodz, Rzeszow, Warsaw and Wroclaw are trying to orchestrate a fundamental shift of mindset, not just among their residents, but among all levels of government and other local stakeholders. They are seeking a more integrated approach at the national level and encouraging local authorities, energy agencies, and regional authorities to recognise the potential and benefits of such transformative projects. “Without cooperation at every level, we will not be able to rebuild our countries or achieve the climate goals set by Europe,” says Hanna Zdanowska, Mayor of Lodz.

A path to net zero

In Lodz, the Clean Air Programme combines many strands of the city’s work on climate and environment. The programme “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,” says Lodz Deputy Mayor Adam Pustelnik. “As a city, we have also invested a lot in photovoltaic installations, so we are changing our energy mix quite drastically,” he adds.

We are changing our energy mix quite drastically
— Adam Pustelnik

For Lodz, buildings are a logical place to focus on emissions reduction. The municipality still manages around 40,000 communal flats, which means it has a great opportunity to take the initiative on energy upgrades. Indeed, an EU-funded 10-year revitalisation programme is already combining this goal with that of increasing the attractiveness and liveability of a local community.

In Warsaw, building renovation was an area identified by local people during the city’s civic Climate Panel. “One recommendation is that the approximately 3,000 city buildings, schools, social housing, buildings, libraries and so on, should have photovoltaic installations on the roof,” explains Jacek Kisiel, Deputy Director of Air Protection and Climate Policy for Warsaw. Kisiel and his team have calculated that 80% of these roofs could facilitate solar panels. “Every municipal building where it’s technically possible and economically reasonable to have a photovoltaic installation will have one by 2030,” he says.

Buildings of Rzeszow

In Rzeszow, the city has made major headway in renovating public buildings, partly with the assistance of grants from the European Economic Area. One effort, spearheaded by the community of Miasto Rzeszów, focused on improving the energy efficiency of eight public utility buildings, including schools and kindergartens. This initiative involved insulating over 48,000 square meters of partitions, replacing windows and doors, installing solar collectors and photovoltaic cells, modernizing interior installations, and swapping out old lighting for eco-friendly alternatives.

In Wroclaw, a recent regulatory push aims to significantly cut buildings’ energy usage, targeting a reduction in energy consumption by at least 60%. The focus is particularly on older buildings, many of which are not energy efficient and are still expected to be in use by 2050. These efforts are part of a strategic approach to combat energy poverty and are projected to create numerous jobs​.

Empowering residents

To get residents and others on their side in the climate fight, Krakow runs campaigns like ‘Kraków w dobrym klimacie’ (Krakow with a Good Climate). This initiative, which ran from February to November, included a vast array of events and activities aimed at engaging residents and raising awareness about climate change.

Our aim was to provide a rich and varied range of events so that every resident could find something interesting
— Monika Chylaszek

The campaign featured a plethora of events, ranging from the distribution of nesting boxes and the Krakow Climate Academy, to family rallies, picnics, ecological field games, awarding flowers for electronic waste, and the interactive ‘Ekoeksperymentarium’ exhibition. It also included culinary shows, the Green Film Festival, a market with local artists, an upcycling fashion show, and workshops for creating musical instruments from recycled materials.

“Our aim was to provide a rich and varied range of events so that every resident could find something interesting for themselves and simultaneously broaden their knowledge about climate,” emphasises Monika Chylaszek, Director of the Department of Social Communication at the Municipality of Krakow. Over 10,000 Krakow residents participated in these events.

Commitment to climate action

Through their collaboration and ambitious goals, the innovative spirit in these Polish cities, and willingness to embrace an ‘I don’t know’ attitude, is opening the horizon of possibility for a climate neutral future.

Dreams, for one, don't charge admission
— Wislawa Szymborska

While finance for climate action takes time and effort to gather, Szymborska might emphasise the bounty that begins with imagining the possibility of change. “Life on Earth is quite a bargain,” she once wrote, “Dreams, for one, don’t charge admission.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer