I still remember my granny putting coal into a big tiled stove to keep her flat warm. Coal has been used in Poland for centuries. Only recently have people come to realize the environment and health damage of burning coal. Today Kraków, a stylish city where Pope Francis recently welcomed participants at World Youth Day, is among the most polluted cities in Europe.
I truly believe that people need to be made more aware of the impacts of air pollution on their health. Just as important is the realization how they can improve their situation directly or by supporting effective policies.
In its recent World Energy Outlook Special Report Energy and Air Pollution, the International Energy Agency (IEA) proposes switching fuel as a way of reducing pollutant emissions to the atmosphere. But what does this mean in practical terms? For granny, it could have meant replacing her old-fashioned coal furnace with a heating system run on natural gas. With that, she would have kept just as cozy while reducing her carbon footprint — not a concept she would have been familiar with. Her heating system would also have produced fewer pollutants like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide and none of the particulates associated with respiratory diseases.
But fuel switching isn’t just the preserve of grannies. When power companies switch from coal-fired plants to the latest gas technology, the positive impact can be immense – reducing carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 50%.
Change can be unsettling. My granny certainly felt uncomfortable during many dramatic changes she lived through. But she lived long enough to see the benefits those changes brought. That’s why we should not be afraid of change. In any case we won’t have to wait for a lifetime to see the benefits that gas brings over coal.
The IEA report is here (PDF).