In Poland, an Ohioan finds a parallel world on climate policy

Despite an ongoing freeze on state policies to boost clean energy in Ohio, efforts to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy are underway in Cleveland and the rest of Cuyahoga County. Poland’s capital city of Warsaw is making similar efforts, despite the national government’s overall commitment to coal for the nation’s energy future.

“Every survey is showing that citizens are more and more engaged in the issues of energy,” said Katarzyna Kacpura, the deputy director of Warsaw’s infrastructure department. “Because of our citizens’ feedback, right now we are concentrating more and more on the clean air problems.”

‘More ambitious’

“In Poland, there was always some different perspective from the national government than from the government of Warsaw,” observed Marcin Wróblewski, an economic specialist with Warsaw’s infrastructure department.

“Our energy sector is still primarily based on coal, and the national government — regardless of which government it is — must have all of this in consideration,” Wróblewski explained.

The national government’s commitment to coal has grown since Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party won control of the country’s government in last fall’s elections.

In contrast, “Warsaw always was more ambitious as to climate policies,” Wróblewski said.

The city is among nearly 7,000 signatories to the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.

“A lot of people live in cities and would like to have clean air,” said Kacpura. “That’s part of the cities’ problem. So, cities have to take lots of actions.”

With 1.7 million people, Warsaw is Poland’s largest city. Particulate emissions there and elsewhere in the country have crossed into unhealthy levels multiple times in recent years. Air pollution is the world’s fourth-leading cause of death, and particulate emissions are linked to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, asthma and other health threats.

Warsaw’s sustainable energy goals for 2020 include a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, a 20 percent drop in energy consumption, and a 20 percent increase in renewable energy generation compared to a base year of 2007.

Making progress

It’s not clear whether the city will be able to meet those goals within the next three and a half years. As of 2014, however, it had achieved nearly half its goal for cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The city continues to make progress, Kacpura and her colleagues reported.

Those efforts include investments to retrofit buildings and modernize public lighting and transportation. Although the city includes modern skyscrapers and other buildings, much of its construction dates back to the 1950s. At that time the city was rebuilding itself after the devastation of World War II.

Warsaw does have the advantage of having 80 percent of the city on a central heating system, as opposed to other areas in Poland that rely more heavily on individual systems that generally produce more pollution. Nonetheless, modernization of that system is sorely needed, said Dorota Kunica, a strategy and development specialist, also in Warsaw’s infrastructure department.

Education and public awareness play a big role in Warsaw’s energy efforts. The infrastructure department uses short videos to highlight energy issues and promotes a curriculum for students. The group also works with companies and other organization to present public events, such as a Warsaw Energy Day in June and a “picnic with climate” in September.

Nonetheless, the city’s efforts would be easier with more support from the national government, Wróblewski noted.

‘Trying to move forward’

A somewhat similar dynamic exists in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, which includes the Cleveland area.

“I think that the state has gone backwards on clean energy standards…whereas the county is trying to move forward on this,” said Mike Foley, director of sustainability for the county.

Ohio’s clean energy standards spurred investments in renewable energy after they were adopted in 2008, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported last year. However, those investments dropped dramatically after state lawmakers began debating cutbacks to the standards and then “froze” them for two years in 2014.

Statewide jobs in wind energy also fell last year in the wake of the freeze and another law that tripled property line setbacks for wind turbines.

Nonetheless, Cuyahoga County’s Office of Sustainability has forged ahead with multiple programs to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency. The department is just over a year and a half old.

Last year, the county formed a financing hub to connect businesses with funding sources for clean energy projects.

Earlier this year, the county rolled out its Sustainable Cuyahoga toolkit, developed in partnership with the GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

“I call this the ‘yellow pages’ of sustainability in Cuyahoga County,” said Shanelle Smith, the county’s deputy director for sustainability. The online source provides specific information about whom to call to learn more or to start different types of projects.

And just in time for the Republican Convention, the county rolled out its bike share program, sponsored by University Hospitals.

“It takes cars off the roads, which means there are less emissions going into the atmosphere,” Foley noted. This can especially help “on hots days in the summer, when people with asthma really are affected by high ozone levels.”

These are real-life health implications for people in Ohio,” Smith stressed.

Meanwhile, the current freeze, with a pending bill to extend it “makes life a lot harder,” Foley said, although his staff and the county will still press ahead with multiple projects.

Their counterparts in Warsaw will do the same.

“A lot of climate policies in general are under threat,” Wróblewski noted in Warsaw. “But we are doing everything that we can to improve the situation, at least locally.”

To read the full article as it appeared in Midwest Energy News on August 23, 2016 click here.

Research was made possible by the Transatlantic Media Fellowship Program.  

Please note that the views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.