Why were Czechs gasping for fresh air?

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Imagine waking up to a day when the city's covered with smog, there is no sunlight and you cannot breathe, the air is heavy and there's nowhere to escape to. A day goes by, and then another and another...In the 1980s, many residents of the north Bohemian and Moravian industrial zones were used to such conditions. Doctors advised them to take in large amounts of Vitamin C, stay indoors, keep all windows closed, and avoid any strenuous sport. Then, the Communist regime fell, numerous factories and mines closed down, power plants were cleaned up, and residents were able to breathe cleaner air. Until last week when it appeared that it was back to the old days...

Usti nad Labem, photo: CTK
"Please be warned of a high concentration of air pollution; we advise you to stay indoors and only go outside if absolutely necessary." This is how the local authorities of the northern town of Usti nad Labem warned residents last Tuesday. Due to the phenomenon known to meteorologists as thermal inversion (when a layer of cooler air is trapped near the ground by a layer of warmer air above), residents in towns and cities were gasping for fresh air. The worst affected region is North Moravia, close to the Polish border, where the main contributor to polluted air is coal mining. In the mining town of Karvina, for example, dust levels were more than ten times higher than usual last week. Renata Sucha is from the rehabilitation department of a hospital in Karvina:

"We live in the Ostrava region - the region with the highest incidence of lung cancer, bronchitis, and you can say that every second child here suffers from allergies. But all of us were affected by the smog last week. We had breathing difficulties and the polluted air stung our eyes - it's all because of the mines and the Detmarovice power plant. People came to us to measure their blood pressure and all readings were high! We could definitely feel it."

Last week's smog scare was all over the Czech press with headlines like: "Back to the 1980s?" Experts say this is certainly not the case, but urge the state and citizens too to become more environmentally friendly. With me now is Martin Bursik, the head of the Czech Republic's Green Party and former environment minister. What appears to be the problem now? What has been causing these high levels of pollution?

Martin Bursik
"We can observe negative trends mainly in transportation because there is no policy that regulates it or promotes low emission cars, alternative fuels, bio-fuels, or condensed natural gas. We have a huge problem with the increasing number of lorries that transit the Czech Republic from south to north and east to west. Besides this there is a problem with household heating. That's the main reason for the smog this winter season because the prices of natural gas have increased and the logical reaction of the public mainly in the villages is that they burn any source of energy that they can find."

The residents of many towns and villages took to natural gas heating thanks to government subsidies. But now, prices have increased so much that it is twice as costly to heat with gas as it is with coal. So, is it fair to say that the state is partly to blame for most homes going back to less costly but more damaging sources of energy such as coal?

Photo: CTK
"The first problem is because of increased gas prices, people have shifted from gas to coal or even burning waste. So, one of the mistakes that the government has made is that it increased VAT on wood and wood based products that are used as heating fuel from 5% to 19%. If you compare this to Austria, where the VAT is 8% and Germany, where it is 7%, you see that there is no policy that promotes bio-fuels. There are 14 producers of pellets - wood pellets used as home heating fuel are just as comfortable as gas, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and produce clean heat with almost no ash or emissions. But the problem is that they export 95% of their products to Austria because of the VAT. Another thing is that there should be in a period of two years clear information for the public that it will not be possible to use coal as home heating fuel. Of course, there must also be programmes that promote and help with the transformation to heating with bio-fuels.

Ostrava, photo: CTK
"The third main change is environmental tax reform. The state has the tools to influence prices by varying consumer tax. It's a policy of the European Union and the environment ministry has already prepared a concept for the environmental tax reform and it puts different consumer tax on various sources of energy and heat - coal, gas, nuclear power, etc. This is to deliver the message that in the future the ecological ways of energy production will be the most efficient ones economically."

What about all the trucks that are passing through the Czech Republic? A toll system is to be introduced but people have been sceptical.

"By looking at Austria and Germany, we know that this doesn't change anything. The only difference is that the state will get more money and can use it to repair roads or build more highways. But until you offer other alternatives to trucks, make it more economical to use railroads, and ban trucks from driving on the weekends, including Fridays, there will be no change in this horrible situation that we are facing here."