The low energy efficiency of buildings and energy poverty caused by this are the source of air pollution in Poland (and elsewhere). A lack of resources for thermal renovation forces people to search for the cheapest fuel possible. According to Polish energy expert Ludomir Duda, investments in energy efficiency are the way out of this situation, but they require better education efforts among the general public.

Łukasz Nowak: Raising energy efficiency is connected to both environmental and economic issues. It is also an important tool in combating climate change. How is energy efficiency connected to energy policies?

Ludomir Duda: High energy efficiency is based on two pillars. The first one is technology, and the second is awareness among energy users to allows them to make informed choices. While it is easy to assess the connection between technology and energy usage – most products on the market have proper energy rating certificates, housing included – when it comes to changing behavioural patterns, the connection to energy demand is not so clear cut.

We can point here to the example of the automotive industry. Almost every car user knows how much fuel their car uses per 100 kilometres. Many new cars even show the current rate of fuel use in real time. Such devices lead us to modify our driving patterns, which in turn leads to a significant drop in individual fuel demand. In comparison, knowledge regarding the energy usage of the buildings we live in seems surprisingly low.

My observation is that a very limited number of people who pay their energy bill know the final usage of energy in the building, even when it has a proper certificate. No one confronts the certificate with the real energy usage of their home. There is not much knowledge about the influence of different air flow methods and cost of paying for the heating.

So this means that even the most sophisticated technology will itself not solve the problem of energy wastage?

Exactly! I have observed this in my work in cases in which energy use has grown in some newly insulated homes. That’s a result of user behavior.

A telling example is the case of a housing cooperative in Warsaw which decided to renovate their buildings to make it more energy efficient and check the heat energy usage afterwards. It turned out that, despite the fact that all of the buildings got the same type of improvements, the heat usage in one of them was half that of the rest! After analysing the results, it turned out the difference was due to an education action carried out by one of the inhabitants of the block with his neighbours about ways to maximise the positive effects of insulation. Education was key in generating both best ecological impacts and individual financial savings.

Raising awareness around energy consumption is paramount to increasing energy efficiency and should be promoted from an early age as part of the educational curriculum. Investments planned by the Polish government in order to fight air pollution should be accompanied by efforts in expanding knowledge on the matter. The educational system would be the most effective way of doing this. It is a positive coincidence that one of the most urgent investments needed to fight smog is to guarantee clean air in schools and kindergartens as children are vulnerable to the negative effects of breathing in toxic compounds in air.

The asthma epidemic in the most polluted cities evolves in adult life into  problems with COPD – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Generations of people breathing in polluted air will be prone to allergies, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. Such a situation will lead to rising healthcare and social security costs, as well as falling productivity. The latter will be really painful as – according to research – smog can have a negative impact on our intelligence.

The problem is really dire as school buildings do not protect pupils from air pollution. In fact, air quality can be better outdoors than in classrooms. It could be argued that the obligatory education system is a direct thread to children’s health!

What should we do to care for ourselves and create healthier conditions for the next generations?

Sadly, no proposed strategy for fighting air pollution will fix the problem in the next decade, even though there are no technical and technological barriers to guaranteeing schools free from pollution.

What we can do in the coming years is create a space free of dust and carcinogenic particles, as well as with CO2 levels safe for teaching. We just need to have better insulated windows, promote energy-recovery ventilation, and install air filtering. Such investments will not only protect children from the harmful consequences of breathing dirty air, but will also improve learning conditions and limit infections.

There are no economic barriers for such solutions. The most important part of such a plan is that it not only does not raise operating costs for schools, but also yields high returns thanks to lowering the demand for heating and air conditioning. If such an investment were be paired with an education campaign aimed at both kids and their parents, then it could have a great effect on a much needed change in energy awareness among the wider public.

Raising awareness on any topic without radically changing the whole curriculum seems a bit utopian. Are there any other ideas regarding fighting air pollution that may be easier to implement but equally effective?

The costs of the slow poisoning of children in Polish schools and kindergartens are not the only danger for our future. Another is connected to the changes in the demographic structure of society. Lower fertility rates and the mass emigration of young people searching for better work created a generational gap, which may result in a real catastrophe for people who are currently in their 30s and 40s. For the first time in our history, there will be a situation in which there are more older people than younger ones. It will result in almost doubling the deficit of the Polish pension system and therefore a steep lowering of pensions. The proportion of women between 45 and 65 years old to people over 80 will change from 550 to just 250 for each 100 people from the older cohort. The levels of medical personnel per 1 000 inhabitants will drop over 20 per cent. The amount of people over 80 that will be forced to use wheelchairs will rise from 650 thousand to 1.25 million.

Add to that the fact that just a fraction of apartments is currently adapted to allow for the independent living of people with disabilities and that there are almost no senior-oriented housing projects. On the other hand, quite a lot of huge apartments and single-family homes are owned by households consisting of one or two senior citizens. Besides being unfit for their needs regarding failing physical conditions, they are usually not particularly energy efficient. This leads to the energy poverty of senior citizens and the lack of creditworthiness needed for investments to lower energy bills.

According to research conducted in Połaniec in south-eastern Poland by Tomasz Duda, the average energy costs of local elderly people reaches 4 500 Polish złoty per yer (ca. 1 050 euros). This situation creates a challenge for the governmental programme regarding investments in insulation as such a project for a big home with a single elderly person inside seems absurd – especially seeing as such a house is often unfit for living in in at old age.

The only alternative currently available is to transfer the elderly inhabitant to a Social Assistance Home (DPS). This radically shortens the lifespan of the affected person as he or she gets depressed due to lack of control over his or her life. It is also extremely expensive as the yearly costs of such a step are 40 000 złoty (ca. 9 350 euros).

The way out of this conundrum is to build houses for senior citizens. Expanding the time a person is fully independent by just two years by making homes that address the needs of their age gives a return of the costs of the investment. At the same time, the energy costs the elderly person would pay should not exceed 30 złoty per year (ca. 7 euros). However, the government seems to prefer building new apartments for younger people who want to raise children in about 50 square metres. A much better alternative would be to create new homes for senior citizens close to where they lived previously. Their former homes should be insulated and offered to younger people.

All of this sounds very nice, but it also begs the question why, in spite of high returns from investments in energy efficiency and a lack of technological barriers, we are not seeing these investments on a sufficient scale?

The answer lies in the economy. After the economic transition in Poland, the members of the former regime sold banks and whole industries that had to confront the market economy. The situation differs in the case of natural monopolies, such as in the electric energy and gas sectors. They became one of the most important feeding grounds for the political elite of all stripes. Every change in government results in changes in the boards of energy companies. Lack of competition on the market means that their incompetence is not challenged by other market players.

Energy savings due to thermal insulation means, for example, less energy consumed – and therefore a lower profit for energy companies. Politicians living off the energy sector do not have an incentive for supporting such investments. That is the reason why all such policies pursued by Polish governments are a charade performed just to achieve the goal of formally reaching the country’s climate goals. It is also a reason why subsequent governments do not perform and implement awareness-raising campaigns, which in turn leads to a very low level of knowledge regarding energy issues in society. A good example is the issue of norms regarding coal quality for local institutional users. Stringent regulations would lead to losses for coal mines that cannot sell the coal of the lowest quality to the energy sector.

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