In July 2019, we interviewed the Polish movement Krakow Smog Alert. According to Filip Pazderski, Istitute of Public Affairs, “In this smoggy spot on the map of Europe around the year 2013 a group of local activists in one of Polish touristic-jewel cities, being in the same time the most polluted town in the country back then, have established a civic movement called Krakow Smog Alert. They started by organising social campaigns trying to educate their fellow-inhabitants on the problem as well as to advocate in the local authorities for adopting any remedies. Right after, similar initiatives began popping up like popcorns in numerous other Polish cities. Local authorities of growing number of cities in Poland started adopting special programmes dedicated to the fight. Over the years, the Kraków group has grown, expanded and now operates as a registered association cooperating with the activist from other Polish cities under the umbrella of Polish Smog Alert. It is quite an achievement for a civil society organisation operating in a difficult environment and facing the government’s reluctance to take any significant step against the potential mass extinction of our planet by changing the mode in which our economies operate nor the sources used to produce energy.” This interview with Krakow Smog Alert belongs to the six stories of Resistance collected in Acitivizenship #4.
When did your fight for clean air start and what demands did you have?
Our fight for clean air started in December 2012. Firstly, we were focused very locally in Krakow: we wanted a clean environment with clean air. We went through all the data that was available and all the reports, and it appeared that because of its location – Krakow is located in the valley with very bad ventilation – the best solution would be to ban the burning of solid fuels in domestic furnaces. That was the main source of air pollution in wintertime. So we went out with this proposition to ban burning solid fuels.
Was there any episode that sparked your activism?
Well, it started in December, the air was quite bad back then, starting from Autumn through winter and until early spring. The air in Poland really stinks, and when you look at the monitoring stations, the data they provide is sometimes very appalling and shocking. Back then, the air was also bad, [so] we decided to act. That was also good timing: it was the time when the air quality programme for the region was consulted. We thought it would be a good time to start acting because this regulation could be incorporated into the new law. Some of us were [already] active in ecological movements or human rights movements, but for the majority, this was the critical moment when we decided to take action.
Have your objectives and strategies changed over the years due to changing external conditions?
We were quite lucky: we were the first ones who picked the topic, so local media were very interested. Also, people were struggling with the problem: we addressed an issue that really bothered them. We were approached by many Kracovians, by medical doctors, by artists, by people who were running companies. They all helped us. We had a big campaign calling for people to sign a petition to ban solid fuel in Krakow. So through 2013, we were acting more in the public space. Of course, we were meeting with the politicians, but this was not so visible for the public.
Our first actions were very much in the public space, calling people to take action, to sign the petition, and when the time of voting came, we took people to the streets. There was a march, and there were 1500 people. It was a funeral march for clean air so everything was very photogenic and the media really liked it. Thanks to our activity in Krakow, people started to be active in their communities, and an alliance started to emerge all over Poland: we created a coalition of Alerts called Polish smog alert, and we are the secretary. These alerts work at the regional and local level: they usually act in the public space and meet with local politicians. But at the national level, we mostly meet with politicians, we organise conferences, we write reports. This is a different kind of work.
Why do you think you were able to mobilise so many people on the right to clean air? What strategies have become the most beneficial for you?
I think, as I said, we were able to mobilise many people because we were addressing the issue that was burning for them. They were [already] thinking this was a problem. They did not really know whether it was harmful or not, but it was bothering them. What helped us was creating awareness among people that [this issue] was not harmless and that there are serious health consequences connected with air pollution. Thanks to our work, the media started to be more interested in the topic: we created a critical mass and then, when the topic was all over Poland, it also helped.
In your opinion, what is the biggest success of the group and what made it happen?
The thing which gave us power was our first success in banning burning solid fuels in Krakow. But then really other successes started to happen, so it is hard for me to distinguish them. The regulation in other regions started to happen. We managed to make some regulations happen at the national level: regulation for the new solid fuel boilers, norms for coal which is sold to individual buyers. These are also big achievements. Another thing is the program at the national level, which is called Clean air and helps people to get their houses renovated and make them energy efficient. [Now] we need to control how they are implemented, but, well, these are things that have not been caught by governments for years, so I think that any regulation is a big success. But what gave us strength was the first success.
Poland is often on the international headlines for issues concerning the independence of the judiciary and shrinking civic space, including pressures on environmental activists. How did your relationship with the authorities developed over time and did you witness any kind of pressure on your activities? If so, how did you overcome them?
Mmm… In the beginning, when we started, we put two things in our internal policy: we want to be free of any individual political sympathy: we can talk with everyone who is in power, and we also do not want to be connected with any political party. We made many disclaimers that we do not want to compete in national or local elections because politicians were afraid that we would use our political capacity on our activity. So we made it clear to all the politicians that we were not interested in seizing power, but we were interested in changing the regulations. We also do not wanna be associated with any business or business associated sources so we cannot be accused of being lobbyists. And I think it helped. As I said, at the national level we usually write reports, those things which I mentioned are very technical, e.g. regulations for boilers… they are not as sexy maybe. Because we have the knowledge, and we have the back-up of experts working in the field, it is difficult to say “You are not right, we don’t want to speak with you”.
Do you think that these kinds of pressures are happening in other organisations?
Maybe in other organisations, yes.. but it depends on the issue. Organisations that work more in the public space and engage more in protests are more targeted, I guess.
Do you or other Smog Alerts face other challenges?
I think the biggest challenges are faced by alerts active in small municipalities and villages where people are usually afraid to be activists, where everyone knows each other etc. For them, pointing out that some behaviours are inappropriate or that things must change is really brave. I really admire them!
We are observing a new civic enthusiasm and participation in environmental issues all across Europe. Do you see this happening also in Poland? If so, do you think that your organisation played a role in creating a sense of urgency for action?
Yeah, well it is maybe not very humble to say this, [but] I think we did help in creating this interest. Now there is a lot of talks on climate warning, but the interest in Poland started with air pollution. I think that it was really a debate and it helped to incorporate the issue of climate in the public debate. Maybe I am not the right person to answer the question related to participation, there are a lot of things happening, but I am not a regular citizen: maybe they are not aware of that, but I think that there are more of those initiatives than when we started. There are many grassroots initiatives. Our alerts started to tell our successes in Krakow and other people started to take action all over Poland on air pollution. But I think it also [happened] in other areas: some people are concerned with regulating rivers, some with deforestation, some with climate. I think that something is happening.
What are your organisation plans/aims for the near future? What would you like to achieve, now and how you want to make it happen?
For Krakow, we need to monitor how the regulations are implemented when the law enters into force in September this year. We will see how it goes, how it is implemented, and how the authorities check if people actually are using solid fuels or not, if they are giving them fines. When it comes to other actions, we are now focusing more on other sources of air pollution. Because of this regulation that we have on boilers, we can start thinking of other sources of pollution in Krakow, like transportation and industry. We want to start a bigger, nationwide discussion about transport and pollution related to transportation. [For example,] we would like to see traffic low emission zones implemented in Poland. Also, on a national level, we still need to improve and monitor the implementation of this Clean air program, which helps to make houses energy efficient. Another goal is to lower the alert threshold levels for PM10. This level is not European: each country can decide on their threshold levels of PM10, and ours is the highest in the EU. We have been campaigning for a long time to lower them down, and still, nothing happened. We would maybe like to unionise them at the EU level so that the government must lower them at the national level.
Do you think that the European Union could be an ally to your fight and for environmental movements running across Europe? How?
Yes, I think it is a good ally because, thanks to European regulations, we have the target and limit levels when it comes to air pollution, and I think that many things started to happen also because the government was afraid of the fines from the European court. So, yes, the European targets and European law are very important in our activity.