Approximately 60% of the Polish population resides in cities, whose area has been steadily increasing and currently constitutes more than 7% of Poland’s territory. Urban areas have a major impact on the climate and the environment. The high density of urban building structure contributes to the formation of the urban heat island effect (places where the air temperature is higher compared to the surrounding areas). Urban traffic generates noise which, as indicated by the WHO, poses one of the most serious hazards to the environment (in Poland nearly 1/5 of city dwellers are exposed to excessive noise). Due to increased exhaust emissions from transport and industrial pollution, the quality of air is deteriorating, which is Poland’s major problem – 39 of the country’s cities are among the 100 EU cities which in 2021 the European Environment Agency ranked as the most polluted.
The key to ensuring the sustainability of urban areas is carefully considered development based on planning concepts. In Poland, the number of local land development plans is increasing each year. In 2021, such plans were devised for 55% of the Polish urban gminas, while in 2010, it was 42%. What is important in planning urban development is to use green areas as an element mitigating the effects of climate change and promoting the environment’s successful adaptation to this change. Green spaces in cities absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, retain water and, if skilfully distributed over a city, facilitate air temperature regulation and noise reduction. In the years 2010-2021, the amount of green areas in Polish cities increased by 10%, although their share in the total area of cities was maintained at the level of 2%. Polish cities offer an average of 23 sqm of green areas per inhabitant (by 2 sqm more than in 2010). City dwellers of Podkarpackie and Lubuskie voivodships may boast the largest share in green areas per person (over 30 sqm), while the residents of cities in Podlaskie Voivodship have the smallest green area at their disposal, i.e. 17 sqm per inhabitant. Reducing exhaust emissions from transport is a challenge for Polish cities. Poland is one of the most motorised countries in the EU (only Luxembourg and Italy are ahead in the ranking) with 664 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants in 2020 (560 was the EU average), which increased by 211 from 2010 (by 80 in the EU). However, most of these vehicles were old: ¾ of them were over 10 years old, while those aged under 2 constituted only 5% of the total. What is more, the fleet owned by Polish residents was dominated by high-emission vehicles and increasingly often powered by diesel engines: 52% of passenger cars registered in Poland in 2020 were petrol-fuelled cars (compared to 61% in 2010) and 32% were diesel cars (23% in 2010). The remaining 16% (similarly to a decade before) were cars powered by alternative fuels: electricity, hydrogen, biofuels and gas, but a majority of them (3 million out of 4 million in 2020) are LPG-powered cars.
It is then the development of low-emission means of urban public transport and encouraging inhabitants to give up cars in favour of public transport that reduce the negative influence of cities on the natural environment. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic (which severely limited the society’s mobility), a statistical inhabitant of a Polish city or town used public transport (including the Underground) 161-175 times a year.
The bus fleet in Polish cities is becoming more ecological. Even though its larger part still runs on diesel oil or uses hybrid fuelling (combining electricity and diesel), the number of buses using alternative fuels is steadily increasing. In the period of 2010-2021, their number grew from 280 to over 1890, and their share in the total urban bus fleet rose from 2% to 15%.
Among the incentives to use public transport in cities are the Park&Ride car parks, designed for drivers willing to change from their own car to a means of public transport. In 2021, 176 such parking sites operated in Polish urban gminas (3 times more than 5 years before), including 44 in Mazowieckie Voivodship, 41 in Dolnośląskie Voivodship, 25 in Pomorskie Voivodship, and 20 in Śląskie Voivodship. Some urban-rural and rural gminas have also decided to implement this solution – in 2021, there were 109 Park&Ride parking sites in urban-rural gminas and 93 in rural gminas.
Those inhabitants of Poland who choose bicycles as their means of transport, have at their disposal an increasing amount of bicycle tracks. In the last 10 years, the total length of bicycle tracks in Poland grew threefold (from 6,000 km in 2011 to 19,000 km in 2021). Almost half of all those tracks are situated in urban gminas, where on average, there are 62 km of bicycle tracks per each 100 km2 (in 2011, it was 25 km per 100 km2). Urban gminas in Mazowieckie Voivodship can boast the most extensive networks of bicycle tracks (100 km of bicycle tracks per each 100 km2), followed by Podlaskie and Wielkopolskie voivodships (93 km). Śląskie Voivodship, on the other hand, has the lowest density of bicycle tracks in Poland (31 km per 100 km2).
Poland is one of the main agricultural producers in the EU. The country belongs to the top three largest producers of basic cereals and root crops and is moreover the largest supplier of apples and poultry in the EU. Utilised agricultural area covers 60% of Poland’s total area, and its cultivation is not without impact on the environment – more than half of the greenhouse gases emitted by the agricultural sector in Poland is the result of soil fertilisation. Nevertheless, fertilisers increase crops and some types are desirable, as they improve the soil’s properties (which is the case of calcium fertilisers that normalise the soil’s acidity level). On the other hand, excessive use of mineral fertilisers (which include nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) causes e.g. water eutrophication. In Poland, fertilisers of this type are the most popular, and their total consumption increased from 120 kg per hectare of utilised agricultural area in 2010 to 131 kg in 2020. The use of calcium fertilisers, partly thanks to subsidies, also grew in the last decade (more than twofold, reaching 90 kg per hectare). This, however, proved insufficient to satisfy the demand resulting from the high acidification of Polish soil. As regards mineral fertilisers, it is important to apply them in amounts beneficial to the crops and safe for the environment, ensuring an optimal balance of nutrients in the soil (i.e. a proper difference between their inflow and outflow). The concentration of nitrogen in Polish soils conformed to the norm (i.e. 30-70 kg per hectare of agricultural land) within the last decade. The concentration of phosphorus, however, reached 3 kg per hectare on average, exceeding the recommended amount close to 0 kg.
Farms affect the environment also through the use of plant protection products. In Poland, approximately 2 kg of pesticides per hectare of cropland are used each year, which is a rather low amount compared to the Netherlands, Cyprus and Ireland, which apply such products to the greatest extent. They use 7 kg to 11 kg of plant protection products per hectare, whereas countries at the other end of the scale, such as Romania and Sweden, use the lowest amount of plant protection products, i.e. below 1 kg per hectare.
Some farms are oriented towards production based on organic methods. The possibility of receiving EU subsidies contributed in the years 2004-2013 to the significant increase in the number of farms holding an organic farm certificate or being in the process of receiving one (to 27 thousand). As a consequence, the total area of organic farms also expanded, reaching 670 thousand hectares in the whole Poland. In the later years, however, these figures fell: in 2020, 19 thousand organic farms operated in Poland, which constituted 1.4% of all farms, and their total area also shrank.
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