As Europe scrambles to minimize the impact of the energy crisis and make this winter as warm as possible, it could trigger other problems that could cause serious harm to the health of living beings and lead to death. As Europe tries to avert a widespread energy crisis, European households are turning to solid fuels such as coal and wood to heat their homes. According to Bioenergy Europe, a Brussels-based international organization comprising 41 associations, 143 companies, several academies, and research institutes, the demand for wood in Europe has already increased due to rising electricity prices. The return of stoves as the primary source of heat will significantly impact the environment and living beings. In addition to air pollution, using solid fuels for heating, especially old stoves in poor condition, has serious implications for human health. Using solid fuels for heating releases a range of fine particulate pollutants into the environment, including volatile organic compounds and dioxins, which are known to damage lung development and worsen conditions such as asthma and heart disease. In 2019, the European Union reported 307,000 premature deaths from particulate matter pollution. This problem, exacerbated by the energy crisis, is expected to affect Central and Eastern Europe, which has given the green light to solid fuels for home heating.
In Poland, where political debates have been raging for a long time about how this winter would play out, the opposition had warned for months of a possible coal shortage while accusing the government of abandoning the people to their own devices. When the Polish government initially recommended insulating homes, was faced with a coal shortage that could affect around 2 million households, Poland's de facto leader Jarosław Kaczyński suggested that people burn almost everything for heating this winter, except for harmful substances such as tires. At the same time, the Polish government announced a grant of 3,000 zlotych (€630) to help households that rely on coal for heating to buy more coal and other fuels. Around 35% of Polish households use coal for heating, and a total of 11.5 billion zlotys (€2.4 billion) will be allocated for the new subsidy program. Aleksander Śniegocki, CEO of the Reform Institute, a Polish think tank, said this means that Poland is risking years of progress towards cleaner air and environmentally friendly forms of heating. On the other hand, Hungary, a country heavily dependent on Russian gas, cancelled a draft law banning the felling of trees in protected forests to survive this winter and announced an increase in lignite production to secure household energy supplies. Judit Szegő, project manager at Levegő Munkacsoport, a clean air-focused non-governmental organization based in Hungary, said that this decision is entirely wrong, as wet wood burns less than dried wood and releases more harmful pollutants into the environment. In Romania, where more than half of the population is heated with wood, the government has started distributing vouchers to subsidize the purchase of firewood this winter. In 2020, Bulgaria, which has failed to adequately heat the households of a quarter of its population, banned wood exports to third-world countries this winter to ensure adequate supplies for its people. Ugo Taddei, head of clean air at ClientEarth, an organization that provides legal assistance on climate and the environment, described this as a sharp reversal from the policies that many governments in Europe have adopted to reduce air pollution from domestic heating.
While governments across Europe are focused on getting through this winter and putting air pollution on the back burner, a group of German citizens recently sued the German government over "dangerously" high levels of air pollution. The seven plaintiffs claim that the government has failed to protect their health by failing to make progress in meeting the World Health Organization's recommendations for air quality levels set for 2021, violating their right to breathe clean and healthy air. While air pollution levels in German cities have fallen in recent years and are now generally in line with European Union legislation, air pollution levels in Germany, like in many countries, remain above World Health Organization limits. The plaintiffs, including people with asthma living in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich, four of Germany's seven largest cities, claim they breathe air with pollution concentrations four to five times higher than the World Health Organization's acceptable limits.
Europe is going through a turbulent period in the energy sector, and as winter approaches, the crisis and the accompanying debates are deepening. While many alternatives to Russian gas are on the table, at a certain point, promoting the use of coal and solid fuels, which is a quick fix, will inevitably have environmental and human health impacts. A study published last month shows how simply breathing in car fumes can awaken dormant cells and lead to lung cancer, and nearly one in 10 cases of the disease are attributed to air pollution. Experts warn that air pollution will worsen this winter as people turn to coal, wood and even garbage to heat their homes. At this point, how this winter will pass and the German court's decision in the case against the government will be decisive for the future.