The European Court of Justice (ECJ) found Poland guilty of violating European Union air quality laws on Thursday. According to the court, Poland consistently exceeded EU pollution limits between 2007 and 2015.
The European Commission brought the case before the court in 2015, arguing that Poland had been moving too slowly on air quality improvements.
In its ruling, the ECJ said the government’s current plans to improve air quality were insufficient. The court said Poland must ramp up efforts to reduce air pollution, putting particular emphasis on cutting levels of particulate matter called PM10.
PM10 is a mixture of tiny inhalable particles – 10 micrometres or less in diameter – that can contain toxic materials and cause health problems, ranging from minor irritation to cancer, after entering the respiratory system.
According to the court, levels of PM10 exceeded daily limit values in 35 out of the 46 zones in Poland that were tested. Pollutant levels in nine of the zones also exceeded annual limits.
Although Poland does not currently face any fines as a result of the decision, environmental law non-profit ClientEarth said the country could receive “hefty” fines through a separate court process if the government fails to improve air quality.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the country would need some time to improve the situation. At a conference after the ruling, he stated “Fighting smog is one of the government’s priorities. But we will not be able to do it within a year.”
The Polish government launched a programme called “Stop Smog” on Thursday in response to the ruling. Morawiecki said the programme aims to reduce reliance on coal to heat homes by half. In addition to placing limits on the use of coal for heating private residences, the programme will improve thermal insulation in buildings.
The country has a long way to go. 33 of Europe’s 50 most polluted cities are in Poland, according to a 2016 World Health Organisation (WHO) report. Much of the pollution is caused by coal used to heat private homes.
Morawiecki also said in December that the 33 most affected cities would each have a dedicated programme to combat smog and its impacts, and that additional restrictions would be placed on using inefficient stoves for heating beginning in July.
Poland is not the only EU member facing possible penalties over pollution. The court’s decision is seen as part of a wider EU effort to cut down on deaths from air pollutants. The Commission estimates more than 400,000 people in the EU die each year because of poor air quality. Last month, the Commission called out nine other member states, including France and Germany, for exceeding agreed pollution limits and threatened legal action if they fail to bring pollutant levels in line with EU regulations.