Tackling the Czech Republic's poor air quality

November saw the release of an annual government-commissioned report on the state of the environment in the Czech Republic. While the gist of the report maintained that a number of factors continued to improve, including water quality and canalisation, air quality was found to be a major problem. It found that in 2013, 55 percent of Czechs were still being exposed to above-average levels of the toxic chemical benzopyrene. Additionally, many cities suffer from smog and ground level ozone, while heating plants were found to account for 41 percent of dangerous PM10 particulate matter being inhaled by Czechs. Last year, the government spent more than 27 billion crowns on improving the environment. Since joining the EU, the country has been able to source around 120 billion crowns from EU funds to this end – but has only utilised 43 percent of total allocated funds for the 2007-2013 period. So is the new government doing enough?

Photo: František TichýPhoto: František Tichý Vojtěch Kotecký is an expert on environmental matters in the Czech Republic, previously representing the Hnutí duha environmental campaign group, and now with analytical firm Glopolis. I sat down with him to discuss the report’s implications.

“The new report once again shows that the air quality in the Czech Republic is very bad. Last year, according to conservative estimates, something like 1,600 people died in the Czech Republic because of air pollution. And additionally, thousands more are sick because of air pollution. This is an issue that the government and city councils need to start dealing with.”

What are the causes of this poor air quality? Does it still relate to a transition from the former heavily industrialised communist economy?

“It is actually a combination of several different factors across different parts of the country. In some parts of the Czech Republic, especially the north-east, the main cause of heavy air pollution is the old heavy industry. And there is increasing evidence that a substantial part of that is actually air pollution from Polish, rather than Czech industry. But local Czech factories, and especially steel mills are also a significant part of mix.

“In other parts of the country, especially in the countryside, in some small villages, heating with coal is a significant problem. In some poor villages, people continue to heat their homes with coal using old stoves, and in some cases people even burn their waste.”

One possible solution to that might be – perhaps not the most ecological – but to switch to natural gas.

“A switch to natural gas is a beneficial move, but it is also something of a trap. This is what the government heavily subsidised in the early 1990s, and it genuinely helped to improve air quality in many Czech villages. The problem is that when the price of natural gas increased, people switched back to coal.”

Vojtěch Kotecký, photo: Ondřej VrtiškaVojtěch Kotecký, photo: Ondřej Vrtiška So what can be done to encourage people in such villages to switch to a more environmentally friendly option – which is presumably also better for their health, as they are the ones who end up breathing the fumes.

“It seems that the only way we can deal with this local heating problem is that the government subsidises the insulation of houses. And also clean, renewable heating, which does not cause air pollution. This can be modern, high tech stoves that use biomass pellets. And solar panels and other solutions, which use locally-sourced renewable resources, and at the same time do not cause air pollution.”

Given recent scandals surrounding the Czech government’s subsidising of solar panels, is that an idea that anyone in the government is going to want to listen to right now?

“Despite all the problems, it seems that the government understands the need to support solar heating. And there are subsidies available for households that want to install solar heating so they reduce their use of gas or coal, especially for warming water.”

And is this something that the Czech national government does better with, or does it require a sort of nudge from the European Union – not to mention EU money too?

“The Czechoslovak government was very successful in the early 1990s. We had very strong air pollution legislation, which substantially improved matters. The problem was much, much worse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Just as an example, we decreased sulphur dioxide emissions by more than 90 percent over the 1990s, which was a major success. The problem is that this process has slowed down over the last several years, and we need to combine European and national legislation in order to deal with the problem.”

The Czech government has said it wants to spend 9 billion crowns in 2015 subsidising a switch from old-fashioned stoves, while another 30 million has been set aside for the promotion of energy saving and renewable energy sources. I contacted the Ministry of the Environment and they put me in touch with the ministry’s head of air quality division, Gabriela Srbová. I began by asking her if the government intends to react, on a policy level, to the rather disconcerting findings of the report:

Photo: Miloš TurekPhoto: Miloš Turek “Why is air quality in the Czech Republic relatively poor? The main issue is meteorological conditions....”

Are suggesting that the main reason air quality is poor is down to meteorological conditions? As opposed to emissions?

“It is not the most important, but one of the important factors. The biggest problem regarding air quality in the Czech Republic are suspended particles and benzopyrenes.”

Which come from?

“They come most from localised heating of households, from traffic and partly from energy plants and other industrial sources...There is an issue related to localised heating of households. Because we have very limited ways to manage or somehow eliminate poor or obsolete boilers in households. We can promote change, but up to now we have been unable to insist on it. We possess such an instrument by way of the Air Protection Act, which came into force in 2012. It says that from 2022, households cannot use any boilers in households worse that the 3rd emission class – that is our standard for boilers. So this effectively eliminates the worst boilers causing a mass part of air pollution.”

So you are suggesting that their use will be phased out over time. That their use will just gradually disappear, which will then cause an improvement in air quality.

“We hope so.”

And what about, in general, people burning coal in this day and age for their own heating? Is there some way to eliminate that completely?

“We can promote a change of fuels. As we plan to implement, under the [EU’s] Operational Programme, replacement of obsolete boilers with new ones that burn biomass in particular.”

So is the Environment Ministry at the moment committed to seeing that future reports on the environment show a demonstrable improvement in air quality as compared to the latest report?

Photo: Filip JandourekPhoto: Filip Jandourek “Definitely. Because all these activities we are taking are for this very purpose – to improve air quality in the Czech Republic. And a number of analyses show that this is the right approach: to replace household boilers. Some policies also impact upon stationary sources. And also a number of activities are designed to impact of pollution caused by traffic.”

From what I understand, that is in large part a question for city councils. So how is the ministry co-ordinating with city councils to reduce traffic, or working nationwide on its own initiative?

“We have given city councils an instrument to reduce traffic within their respective [urban] areas, or within settlements, by designing so-called ‘low emission zones’. And it is in their power, if it is at all possible, to create such zones. There are several conditions connected with the possibility of creating such a zone.”

In our interview, Vojtěch Kotecký picked up on the problem car pollution in the Czech Republic:

“A third part of the problem is air pollution in big cities, which is primarily caused by car traffic. This is a well-known issue that is also encountered in West European countries. It seems that in Prague, Brno and other Czech cities air pollution actually kills more people than car accidents do. This is something that city councils, rather than the national government need to deal with. And it seems that, for example, the London congestion charge would serve as an inspiration. And actually Prague City Council has been thinking about a similar approach for many years.”

So why the delay? Why is it still in the studying phase?

“Because things are much slower in this country when it comes to governance. Prague may be a cosmopolitan metropolis, but it is definitely not Berlin or London. Czech politicians, even politicians in Prague, are slower when it comes to such things...”

And you don’t think there is any kind of ideological resistance or anything like that? In terms of, you know ‘we must let the invisible hand of the market prevail because we have suffered through communism and can’t possibly regulate or limit such things.’

Photo: Miloš TurekPhoto: Miloš Turek “I think that this used to be a part of the problem, for example in Prague City Council ten years ago. But it has improved considerably because the Council understood that they need to deal with the situation. The real problem is a combination of political and bureaucratic neglect. An inability to move things forward; very slow decision-making, and a focus on other matters. Prague City Council basically spent the last fifteen years building roads rather than dealing with excessive car traffic in the city.”

There is a relatively new national coalition government in place. How would you rate both their theoretical policies with regards to air quality, and also their record of action so far?

“The government claims that it wants to deal with air pollution just like every other government of the last ten or so years has stated. The real question is whether it will come forward with new legislation and new money – subsidies for households and other solutions – and we will still need to see. It seems that, in theory, the government is prepared to tackle some of these issues, and that it understands what needs to be done. But in this country, quite often the real question is not whether politicians understand what should be done in theory, but whether they are able to make practical decisions; whether they are able to put money on the table; to put forth real, tough draft legislation and so on. And that will be the real test for this government.”

So currently, there is no draft legislation or anything similar making its way through the halls of power?

“About three years ago, we had a major change in air quality laws. This represented a major improvement, but we still need to see how far it will actually be able to go. But I think that right now, the far more important question is whether the government will be able to work with that legislation, to deal with individual factories; whether it will be able to open serious negotiations with Poland about Polish air pollution; whether it will put much, much more money on the table for the insulation of houses and renewable heating, because this is something the government, again, understands in principle. Some money is already available, but it is definitely not enough.”

How much is needed? Billions?

Photo: Barbora KmentováPhoto: Barbora Kmentová “Yes, billions of crowns. Environmental groups estimated that something like half a billion euros would be necessary annually to deal with the problem over the next ten or twenty years. And last but not least the government also needs to comprehend that the problems that will have to be tackled by city councils are to some extent also the government’s problems. And that it should either approach the city councils and force them to act or work with them to start dealing with car pollution in cities.”