Pittsburgh doesn’t want to choke on smog. How does it manage?

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

Despite being over 7000 kilometres apart, Kraków and Pittsburgh work with a similar target in mind: they both want to be leaders in the fight against polluted air, even if this means working against state policies. Pittsburgh wants all buildings to use renewable energy sources by 2030. Kraków will introduce a ban on burning coal in households in just 8 months’ time.

On 1 June 2017 the Mayor of Pittsburgh Bill Peduto wrote to President Trump on Twitter: “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.” He commented on Trump’s very decision by stressing it was “disastrous for our planet, for cities such as Pittsburgh”.

This was in reaction to Trump announcing he would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a document which obliges all countries in the world to fight against climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent a further global temperature increase.

In the days that followed, Peduto’s decision to fulfil the provisions of the most important climate agreement in history received support from mayors of dozens of cities, state governors and some of the world’s largest international firms and corporations. Pennsylvania’s steelwork capital, known as the Steel City, became synonymous with the pro-ecological transformation in the USA.

The Steel City is choking

Humongous black clouds rising from factory and steelwork chimneys, the stench of smelting metal, the rumbling of machines, areas that only a moment ago were green hills, now filled with slag, rubbish, sewage and steelwork waste flowing down the city’s streets. “Pittsburgh is a smoky, dismal city at her best. At her worst, nothing darker, dingier or more dispiriting can be imagined,” the writer Willard Glazer wrote of Pittsburgh in 1883.

In those days Pittsburgh was known as the valley of work, the poisonous, polluted powerhouse behind mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as the transport, chemical and glass industries. It was developing at a staggering rate, but was impossible to live in. “Steelworks and coal industries were developing everywhere then. People died from the pollution. It is estimated we lost 50% of our population because of industry. Imagine a city that has 600 thousand residents and then only 300 thousand remain,” says Grant Ervin, Peduto’s advisor on sustainability. “This had to change. Pittsburgh’s air was so polluted that the city’s streetlamps remained lit throughout the day as well as in the night, because it felt like dusk was falling the whole time.”

But it wasn’t dusk. It was the dust rising above the city as a result of coal mining. The city’s residents were slowly realising the health risks related to smog, even though only a few decades before, at the end of the 19th century, they were certain the smoke over the city could actually have a beneficial effect on people’s health.

In 1941, when people were falling ill and dying en masse, Pittsburgh’s authorities made a decision to regulate types of fossil fuel and fuel-burning technology. The city had to hold off the introduction of these new regulations until the end of the Second World War. In the post-war years, Pittsburgh revived. “This was helped along by the crisis in transporting oil to America’s northern industrial areas. Pipelines constructed during the war were bought by private companies towards the end of the war and modified to transport gas. And so gas started to reach Pittsburgh. And because we already had regulations regarding coal burning, people started to use gas,” says Ervin.

And this was just the beginning of the revolution in the Steel City.

The best city to live in

Pittsburgh has been voted the Best American City to Live in six times since 2000. The city whose economy relied on coal as recently as the 20th century and which suffocated on its smog is now a leader in developing renewable energy sources.

In 2008, the city’s authorities adopted the first Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan and vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2017 Mayor Bill Peduto set even tougher objectives in a bid to improve the quality of air and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan 3.0 defines the steps to be taken up until 2030,” says Grant Ervin, who stresses that the plan complies with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

The plan was devised in cooperation with the city’s residents, NGOs and scientists. It envisages 100% of the city’s electrical energy coming from renewable sources, a 50% reduction in harmful emissions from fossil fuels as well as a 50% reduction in pollutant emission from transport. “Every city should devise such a plan. Because even though the Paris Agreement is executed at the national level, President Trump has shown you cannot be sure of anything. Thanks to Pittsburgh having its own plan, we can be sure,” Ervin says proudly. He stresses that Pittsburgh’s experience shows that every fossil fuel-based economy can undergo a transformation towards green sources and that every home which uses coal can become ecological and use alternative heat sources.

In Poland, it’s just Kraków

Kraków is the best and, so far, the only Polish city in a position to reflect the ideas that Ervin talks about. A ban on using coal in households will come into force in September 2019.

The resolution, which was adopted in September 2016, had to overcome numerous hurdles. The authorities of Małopolska wanted to introduce the first anti-smog legislation as early as 2013, but the resolution was prevented by Poland’s Supreme Administrative Court.

It wasn’t until legislation was changed at the national level and the Environmental Protection Act was amended that local authorities were able to introduce a ban on the use of solid fuels. So far, Kraków has been the only city in Poland to do so, although a number of residents attempted to challenge the provisions of the resolution when, in 2016, they filed a complaint with a regional administrative court.

The anti-smog legislation was defended and kept in place.

Of 30,000 coal furnaces in Kraków, 4,000 remain today. The city’s residents have eight months to remove them, but… they can only count on the city’s financial help to have a furnace removed and an ecological heat source installed until the end of 2018.

The anti-smog resolution provides for furnace replacement subsidies until the end of 2018. In 2016, Kraków’s residents could receive up to 100% financing. In 2017, the figure was 80%.

This year, the city provides subsidies up to a maximum of 60% as part of the Low-Stack Emission Reduction Programme (Program Ograniczenia Niskiej Emisji PONE). Those who submit their application by the end of December 2018 can count on a subsidy. They have exactly a month left.

After that, they will have to make the investment from their own pockets.

Kraków will also have to take alternative steps in order to limit the amount of poisonous emissions. “The roadmap of what cities should do is very clear. They must invest in RES and ecological transport, they need to reduce industrial emissions and completely eradicate the use of fossil fuels. I hope Polish cities will be able to manage this, even if it means going against the state policy, which, both in America and in Poland, defies global, pro-ecological trends,” stresses Grant Ervin. 

This text was created as part of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship program. Each year, the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw sponsors a select number of journalists for an independent, transatlantic trip to research stories relevant to the foundation’s work on climate & energy policy, democracy & human rights and foreign & security policy. Fellowships are selected annually and are open to journalists in any medium. Dominika Wantuch is one of the three fellows 2018 . 

Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.