From the years 1038 to 1569, the ancient city of Krakow was known as the capital of Poland. In 2000, it became known as the official European Capital of Culture. Now, it known for having some of the most polluted air in Europe.
This is largely because of emissions from coal, a fuel that makes up about 90 percent of the country’s electricity. The majority — about 50 percent — of Krakow’s winter air pollution comes from coal-powered domestic stoves. The other half comes from traffic and power plants.
But despite winter fast approaching, Krakow has taken an unprecedented step of banning coal for the purpose of home-heating. On Monday, local Krakow officials voted to ban residential wood and coal-burning come 2018. As of now, 35,000 households in the central area of Krakow use coal for heating, according to the BBC.
“Hundreds of people are dying each year because of air pollution,” Deputy Marshal of the assembly Wojciech Kozak said in a statement. “This resolution is a precedent on a national scale, it will introduce many changes in Poland and the region.”
The vote was a partially a result of a two-year campaign by the Krakowski Alarm Smogowy, a human health advocacy group dedicated to improving air quality in the city. But they were not the only ones fighting against coal use and air pollution.
“People in Krakow actually hate coal,” Andrzej Gula, a campaigner for cleaner air in the city, told the BBC. “They know it is the major source of the problem, they are demanding that politicians do something about this.”
The ban is a great step for Krakow in reducing the harmful effects of air pollution, but Poland still has a long way to go in the fight against global warming. In 2012, the Polish government vetoed EU proposals that would have set goals to reduce carbon emissions significantly from 2020 onwards. That deal, which Poland alone blocked, would have agreed to a target of a 20 percent reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
“There is no point whatsoever in gambling with [the] European economy’s future, introducing policies that might put our industries in jeopardy versus our competitors,” Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec said at the time. Poland is home one to one of the largest coal arsenals in Europe.
A spokesman for Greenpeace told the Polish DPA news agency that Poland was “holding to ransom the rest of the continent on an issue of real economic and environmental importance.”
The country also recently scheduled a high-level coal industry summit to take place at the same time the United Nations held its annual climate change conference in Warsaw. A report in Salon said many in the international community saw the overlap as “an extremely passive-aggressive move — and to some environmentalists, an outright provocation.”
Krakow is the second place in the world in the last seven days to ban coal use. On Thursday, the Premier of Ontario, Canada — the country’s most populous and second-largest province — announced the upcoming closure of its last coal-fired electricity plant. When that happens, there will be no more coal produced in Ontario.
Ontario has a population of approximately 13 million, compared to Krakow’s population of around 775,000.