As cold winds blow across the northern European plains and through Balkan valleys, many Europeans are relying on inexpensive local fuel sources for home heating. Though cheaper, heavy reliance on wood and coal burning for home heating could worsen an already unhealthy air quality outlook for the region.
While demand for wood is high even in economically advantaged nations like Germany and Czechia, some poorer countries and communities are turning to burning wood, cheap lignite coal, and even trash to keep warm. As air quality maps and data demonstrate, there is widespread, chronic air pollution in Eastern Europe, and the energy crisis could make a bad situation worse this winter.
What’s causing the European energy crisis?
European energy prices have been increasing since 2021. Much of Europe relies on the United States, Latin America, and Russia for energy. But as imports were reduced from all three sources this year, European gas consumption and inflation have risen. (1)
Making matters worse, human-caused climate change from air pollution is increasing energy demand. Northern European homes that in past years did not need summer air conditioning stifled under a record summer heat wave in 2022, an event that also contributed to higher energy prices.
Climate change means higher temperatures and more wildfires; it can also mean colder winters in some countries. Desperation for affordable heating in Eastern Europe is causing the worst air quality on the continent to threaten people’s health and endanger lives.
Region’s worst air pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina
During the winter, air pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina is consistently the most severe in the region. In 2021, 20 of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe were in Bosnia Herzegovina. Nine of the 50 most polluted cities were Serbian and seven were Polish. Cities in Italy, North Macedonia, Romania, Czechia, Hungary, Montenegro, and Russia rounded out the list.
Bosnia Herzegovina is a largely mountainous country as is the case in much of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. Mountainous geography can contribute to poor air quality when air circulation is stifled, stagnant air pollution fails to disperse, and high concentrations of pollutants build up in the valleys (2).
Winter air quality in Bosnian cities regularly exceeded the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline by over 10 times in January, February, November, and December 2021. The WHO guideline for annual average PM2.5 concentration is no more than 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3).
PM2.5 is a pollutant measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or less, linked to heart and lung disease.
Unhealthy air quality measured in Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo on Wednesday, November 9, 2022. Source: IQAir.
The U.S. Embassy air quality monitoring station in Sarajevo measured an average PM2.5 concentration of 98 μg/m3 for January 2022. While the average PM2.5 concentration for November 2022 is comparably lower at 38 μg/m3, firewood burning could still worsen air quality conditions.
Firewood burning is expected to rise this winter, which could further exacerbate poor air quality. Bosnia Herzegovina and Bulgaria banned wood exports in part due to concerns that there wouldn’t be enough wood for domestic use (3).
Poland air pollution caused by extensive coal use
Despite poor air quality and coal’s contribution to smog, Poland suspended its ban on households burning brown or lignite coal in September (4). The country had sought to reduce its high dependence on coal for domestic heating – a legacy of the communist era – but backtracked when prices rose following a ban on Russian coal.
Lifting the ban on household coal burning may see increasingly smoggy wintertime skies over Warsaw.
Air quality indices ranged from moderate to unhealthy levels across almost all of Poland on November 9, 2022. This trend in worsening air quality has been consistent since October, when the average monthly measurement of PM2.5 concentrations was 17 μg/m3 at the Komunikacyjna, Warsaw air quality monitoring station. PM2.5 levels thus far for November have averaged to concentrations of 20 μg/m3.
In January and February of 2022, Warsaw’s air quality has much improved when compared to 2021. For example, average PM2.5 concentrations were 37 μg/m3 in February 2021. In contrast, the average was down to just 15 μg/m3 in February 2022.
A return to widespread household wood and brown coal burning may bring those poor air quality numbers back in line with 2021.
Widespread moderate to unhealthy air quality measured in Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia on November 9. Source: IQAir.
Air quality was moderate in Warsaw, Poland on Wednesday. Source: IQAir.
There are concerns that even lifting the ban on household coal burning won’t meet Polish energy needs, possibly leading to even more desperate measures. Around 60 percent of households may not have enough coal for the entire winter. Some people are turning to burning wood, peat, oats, and garbage to stay warm (5).
Poland endures 40,000 premature deaths per year linked to air pollution. Only Bulgaria surpasses that number per capita in the European Union.
Air pollution in Greece increases during economic crises
Further south, there are other factors that impact poor air quality in Southeastern Europe. The region is host to 16 coal-fired power plants which are heavier polluters than other European coal-fired plants. A plant in Kosovo is one of the most polluting power plants on the continent. Industrial plants and car exhaust from older vehicles are also contributing regional polluters.
However, woodburning can be a significant regional pollutant. A previous financial crisis forced people to turn to more wood-burning to reduce their energy costs. In 2013, an economic downturn affected energy prices as is happening in 2022. As residents turned to the forests to heat their homes, cities like Athens and Thessaloniki were choked with smoke (6), (7).
Unhealthy air quality was widespread in Bulgaria, Greece, and North Macedonia on November 9. Source: IQAir.
Unhealthy air quality measured in Thessaloniki, Greece. Source: IQAir.
In Greece, an air quality monitor operated by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki measured a upswing in average concentrations of PM2.5 from September to November, 2022. Monthly average concentrations of PM2.5 measured 12, 22, and 32 μg/m3 for the months of September, October, and November 2022 respectively.
The PM2.5 concentrations are also a worrying increase from 2021 measurements. Monthly average PM2.5 concentrations for November 2021 were 26 μg/m3. In November 2022, that average rose to 32 μg/m3.
On November 9, 2022, Thessaloniki measured elevated, unhealthy concentrations of PM2.5 around the city. Poor air quality may persist if wood-burning becomes a staple heating fuel in Greece this winter.
When people struggle to stay warm during an energy crisis, it’s understandable that they will turn to any means necessary to keep their homes at a safe temperature. Governments may feel pressured to loosen environmental protections to control energy costs. Unfortunately, these short-term and dangerous energy policies can put human health at risk through increased exposure to deadly pollutants and by contributing to environmental degradation.
Here’s what’s needed – reduced dependence on heavily polluting energy imports and increased investment in sustainable renewable resources. By committing to cutting polluting energy sources, governments will save lives and be more agile during future economic and political crises.