Government report gives Czech Republic low marks for air quality

Photo: František Tichý

A newly-released government report on state of the Czech environment for the year 2013 has underscored the continued issue of poor air quality across the Czech Republic. The report also highlighted other pressing issues such as the poor condition of forests, risks of erosion and excessive use of land for construction of roads and buildings.

Photo: František Tichý
It wasn’t difficult for the Czech Republic to gain high marks in the early days of its shift away from the highly polluting former communist system. But 25 years on, the government’s latest report on the environment paints a worrying picture. On the upside, the report showed that in 2013, a long-term trend in the reduction of toxic emissions continued; also more Czechs have access to clean water and canalisation. But, air quality, both in terms of particulates and carcinogenic benzopyrenes, remains a major problem. Not just in cities choked by cars and dependent on heating plants, or in the industrial north-east, but also in villages with people still heating with wooden or coal-fired burners – often throwing in their plastic waste for good measure.

I spoke with Vojtěch Kotecký formerly of the environmental group Hnutí duha, and now with analysts Glopolis, and began by asking him to sum up the report:

“We continue to have very bad air quality in some parts of the Czech Republic. In some of our industrial regions, in some of the big cities because of heavy and increasing car traffic, and also we continue to have some very bad air quality in rural areas, because of local coal heating via small stoves.”

Vojtěch Kotecký, photo: Ondřej Vrtiška
One of the idealistic impressions a person might have is of leaving the city and arriving in the countryside and breathing in some fresh air, but that is not always the case is it? Sometimes a person can visit a village in winter time and people are burning wood and coal in their fireplaces, burning their plastics as well.

“This is a major environmental problem in this country. A problem which affects the health of thousands of people. And it depends heavily on local conditions – whether there is gas used in a village or not; the local socio-economic conditions play a role too in determining what people heat their homes with. And it also heavily depends on local geography because villages in narrow valleys are obviously much more affected by local air pollution.”

What does the government intend to do in the future to improve air quality? There has been talk of sourcing some EU grant monies to encourage people to update their heating systems. So what can be done?

Photo: European Commission
“Probably the only thing that the government can do is to help people in the countryside to buy new, clean heating sources such as small biomass stoves; or solar panels for heating water; and it should also help people to insulate their houses so that they do not need to use so much fuel to keep their homes warm.”

Czech environment minister Richard Brabec (ANO) has told Czech media of plans to source as much as CZK 9 billion of EU funds to help Czechs shift to cleaner methods of heating. But with gas prices high, many in the country are simply choosing to burn what they can, with health implications swept under the proverbial rug.