As the number of people living in cities grows across the globe, so does the role of urban hubs in fighting climate change. Whether large or small, cooperation between neighbouring regions is becoming increasingly important. Bartłomiej Kozek talks to Wojciech Szymalski, chair of the Polish think-tank Institute for Sustainable Development, about different approaches taken by small towns and large cities take in pursuing climate policies and policies to combat energy poverty and smog.

Bartłomiej Kozek: Energy is a huge problem with both social and environmental consequences in Poland. What is being done to fight energy poverty and is it enough?

Wojciech Szymalski: Energy poverty – depending on its definition – is a problem for 10 to 20 per cent of the Polish population. Its existence seriously undermines policies related to combating smog, as can be seen in cities such as Kraków. Those sceptical of fighting air pollution argue that such actions will result in greater costs for people already struggling to pay the bills.

We have been promoting action against smog in various ministries for years. The team of the new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has recognised the importance of smog recently. A special clean air programme is being developed, and it may make a real difference in terms of helping people who contribute to air pollution but don’t have sufficient financial resources to change their habits.

Nonetheless, the programme will be limited to just 23 of the 33 Polish cities that are ranked among the 50 most polluted cities in Europe. The 10 biggest cities from the list will not have access to help. There is a chance, however, that it will become a model for local authorities to reproduce. Monitoring its efficiency will be key.

A few years ago, the Institute for Sustainable Development prepared a pilot programme for the low-carbon development of Starogard Gdański, a small town in the northern Pomeranian region of Poland. What makes a local climate and sustainable development strategy successful?

To succeed, it’s essential to engage with highly motivated local authorities. At the county (powiat) level in Poland, which is mid-way between the municipal and regional levels, the main actors are the county government leaders (starostowie) and directors of various public administration bodies. In case of Starogard Gdański, our cooperation with the town was started by the public administration.

In recent years, the number of counties willing to actively work on climate issues has reached about 10 to 12. Local authorities in which there were already politicians investing in solar power or thermo-renovation were the most eager to get involved. On the municipal level, we must take note of the councils that taking part in the Mayors’ Agreement on Climate and Energy. One thing they need when implementing local policies to shift to a low-emissions economy are measures to track the progress and efficiency of their actions, for example on energy savings.

Knowledge of local problems and their scale is key here. When local authorities have proper easy-to-use indicators, changing policies and tracking their effects becomes easier too. Then they can make programmes supporting households to switch to cleaner energy sources more efficient. Local authorities also need patience as most of these shifts take time and require continuity for them to work. Kraków, the second-largest city in Poland, is a good example here, as it has been implementing policies aimed at fighting air pollution (including subsidies for people changing their heat sources) since 1995.

What are the differences between putting in place low-emissions strategies in big cities and in smaller towns further from the main urban centres?

In my experience, the smaller the local authority, the larger the problems that may arise. As citizens in smaller towns are closer to their representatives, if citizens to not see the benefit for themselves of a given programme, then local leaders feel it directly and risk a backlash. On the other hand, in smaller councils it is far easier to contact and consult the citizens about the project and reach a consensus.

Larger cities have more room for innovation and experiments, such as taxing car rides to the city centre. These would not succeed if not for the top-down approach from local authorities. A solid and efficient local policy will not succeed in tackling ecological challenges if it does not use all the resources available to it in the local government’s toolkit. We will not have total success if we limit ourselves to subsidies and nudges in the right direction. We also need to control and limit negative externalities.

In both cases, long-term actions require public support. Information is key here, and it is hard to complain that citizens are poorly informed when sometimes even the authorities themselves do not know exactly why a certain policy is important.

How do you explain the slow reaction of urban activists and government to the air pollution problem, which has been raised by ecologists for years?

The main problem that has made addressing air pollution difficult until now has been insufficient diagnosis of the problem and its scale – even though local authorities have credible data on the matter. After some years, a critical number of facts and figures has been gathered which has forced the government to take action.

About three years ago, the former, centre-right coalition government between the Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People’s Party (PSL) also wanted to pursue similar policies through a special programme with the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management. However, their proposals lacked a key part of the new government’s plans: financing up to 100 per cent of the costs of buying more eco-friendly heat sources for the most needy.

What actions should the public sector be taking? To what extent can actions be taken by local authorities – even without governmental assistance?

In 2014, we carried out our own research based on polling and good practices from other European countries. The most important policies are building new, energy-efficient public housing (as well as refurbishing the stock already in place), support for changing energy appliances, and supporting investment in the energy efficiency sector.

Local authorities need to confront the matter in innovative ways. Centres for Social Assistance (OPS) could gather data for statistical purposes, which would allow us to analyse the scale of the problem. It’s also worth pointing out that both waste policies and social assistance are managed at the local level and connections between them are important, yet not pursued in practice. We could imagine a programme that would allow poorer people to gather their waste and exchange it at Centres for Social Assistance for cleaner and healthier sources of energy, including higher quality coal. Such a solution may be an ad-hoc and temporary one, but it could help both improve air quality and the health of participants.

We’ve talked about local authorities, but there are also other important actors that should take up the fight against energy poverty…

True. The NGO Habitat for Humanity focuses on tacking the confrontational attitude of energy suppliers towards people who are having problems paying their bills. Right now in Poland,  just one or two unpaid bills may result in being someone being cut off from their energy services. There’s a lack of understanding of the sources of problems amongst energy suppliers and insufficient will to enter into dialogue with people experiencing financial hardship.

Is the ‘Strategy for Responsible Development’ that is supposed to guide the governmental policy of Mateusz Morawiecki’s cabinet giving us the proper solutions?

The strategy you are referring to is great – at least in terms of public relations. The strategy gives overarching importance to increasing the income levels of Polish people. Energy should, at least according to the document, come at the lowest possible cost, which sadly means that currently the cheapest energy sources get the most attention. Issues such as subsidies distorting the prices of different sources are not being raised.

The strategy clearly puts the financial wealth of Poles before health or the environment. It focuses on obtaining fast returns from development investments that could finance more generous social transfers for citizens. It prefers the existing, at-hand possibilities for growth in the Polish economy, such as exploiting domestic coal reserves, to opening up new ones, such as renewable energy or other sectors of the low-emissions economy.

In many sectors the strategy lacks progressive policy for emissions reductions. The example of logging in the pristine Białowieża forest shows that, for the current right-wing government, cheap wood for energy or furniture is more important than Poland’s sustainable development.

A serious discussion is in order on whether our priorities should be simply low energy prices for consumers. Cheap energy can mean a lack of incentives to save energy, insulate homes, or switch off appliances. A better scenario would be the one in which energy is more expensive, but the rising costs are tamed by help in making energy savings. Heating the home with cheap coal does not necessarily work out cheaper than a scenario in which proper refurbishments limit energy demand for cleaner and more expensive energy. The proper implementation of such a strategy is key, involving first setting up financial assistance, and only later allowing for rises in the price of energy, not the other way around.

What can we expect from the Polish government at the COP24 climate summit in Katowice?

The government will definitely be interested in using COP24 for its PR value. Poland is currently at a crossroads regarding its energy future. It has a choice – it can either stay dependent on coal or embark on developing nuclear or renewable energy. In each of these scenarios, the cost of a unit of energy will rise, and the scale of this rise does not differ much between the three cases. I think we should go with the ‘green’ one, but the government is secretly choosing the ‘black’ one. I say secretly – a clearly set energy policy is currently absent right now.

I hope that Mateusz Morawiecki will listen to someone who tells him not to stick with a coal monoculture and will develop policies supporting energy clusters, for example, that would help local authorities in pursuing ambitious developments in renewable energy. Right now, the growth of this sector is basically stuck.

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