Poland, having territorial rights to slightly over 2% of the Baltic Sea, belongs to the group of nine countries of the Baltic Sea region. Almost 90% of Poland’s territory is situated in the basin of the country’s two largest rivers: the Vistula and the Oder. Poland’s landform consists mostly of lowlands: 91% of the country’s territory is less than 300 metres above sea level, 6% is uplands (between 300 and 500 metres above sea level), and 3% is mountainous land (over 500 metres above sea level).
Medium-fertile brown earths and luvisols constitute over 50% of Poland’s soil make-up, while acidic and infertile podzols and rusty soils account for 25%. The most fertile chernozems, black soils and fluvisols constitute 8% of Poland’s soil make-up. Minerals are the natural riches of Poland’s soil, which include fuels (mainly hard coal and lignite), chemical raw materials (e.g. rock salt), metallic raw materials (e.g. copper ores) and mineral resources (limestones and marls, crushed and broken stones, and also sands and gravels).
The largest part of Poland’s area (60%) is composed of utilised agricultural area (mainly arable lands, meadows, pastures and orchards), and a significant part are forests (30% of the country’s total area, which puts Poland below the EU average of 40%). Approximately 2% of Poland’s area is covered by water; residential areas, as well as recreational and rest areas and industrial lands, likewise account for 2% of the country’s land. Voivodships with the largest share of utilised agricultural area, accounting for about 70% of their total area, are Lubelskie and Łódzkie. Lubuskie Voivodship, on the other hand, has the least agricultural character, with just 40% of its area being agricultural land. At the same time, Lubuskie may boast the largest proportion of forests in Poland, which cover half of the total area of this voivodship. The least forested is Łódzkie Voivodship, where 22% of the land is woodland. Śląskie is Poland’s most urbanised voivodship, where residential areas and industrial lands account for 6% of the total area, whereas the least urbanised voivodships are Podlaskie and Lubelskie (residential areas and industrial lands constitute less than 1% of each of their total areas).
Poland’s renewable fresh water resourcesare relatively small. They are estimated at 61 bn m3. According to the UN, in order to guarantee water security, a country has to have at least 1,700 m3 of renewable fresh water per person a year. The figure for Poland, however, is below this minimum, reaching 1,600 m3, which at the same time is one of the smallest amounts in the EU. Only the Czech Republic, Malta and Cyprus struggle with even smaller fresh water resourcesthan Poland.
Poland is a country of high biodiversity, with a broad range of areas and items of special natural value under legal protection. There are 23 national parks, 1,506 nature reserves, 126 landscape parks, 389 protected landscape areas, over 8,000 ecological areas, and more than 35,000 monuments of nature in Poland. Over 10 mln ha of land is under legal protection in Poland. Its large share, including all the national parks, is a part of Natura 2000 sites, which cover 20% of Poland’s total land area. There are estimated 33,000 different animal species in Poland, 61 of which are threatened with extinction. Nearly 590 animal species are under strict protection. Most of them (72%) are birds, and the remaining include gray wolves, Eurasian lynxes, northern chamoises, brown bears and European bison (whose population in Poland is the largest in the world). Some plant species are also under protection. From over 3,000 species of land plants growing in Poland, 480 are threatened with extinction, out of which 400 are under strict protection.
|Raw material||Mineral resources [mln tonnes]||Place in the world in extraction|
|Hard coal||64.7||10 (2018)|
|Sand and gravel||20.2||13 (2020)|
|Copper and silver ores||3.2||9*(2020)|
Since 2010, the quality of Poland’s natural environment has improved in certain areas, although the country is still facing challenges related to counteracting its degradation. Over 62,000 ha of land (0.2% of Poland’s total area) remain devastated and degraded as a result of natural environmental processes and human activity, even though on average 2,000 ha of land have been reclaimed each year. The area covered by forests has slightly expanded since 2010 (30.2% compared to 29.7%) due to renewals and afforestation (which covered an area of 55,000-65,000 ha annually). Nevertheless, it is observed that over 20% of trees suffer from leaf and needle drop caused by leaf- and needle-feeding insects, and air or soil pollution (the process is called defoliation). The increase of the Forest Bird Index (FBI 34) suggests that the health condition of forest ecosystems has improved. The FBI 34 has risen by 31% since 2000, when the survey began (the trends in this respect remained positive also in the last decade). The last decade additionally saw an increase in the population of protected animal species considered as important in Poland. According to the estimates provided by the General Directorate for Environmental Protection, since 2010, the population of gray wolves has risen nearly fivefold and the number of brown bears more than doubled. The Eurasian lynx, northern chamois and European bison populations have also grown. However, in the same period, the Farmland Bird Index (FBI) decreased, in 2021 reaching its lowest point since the beginning of the research (i.e. 2000). This suggests a change in the condition of the Polish agricultural ecosystems.
The quality of surface waters is unsatisfactory. Among the factors which have a negative impact on water quality are substances (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus) which enter the waters from e.g. utilised agricultural area, industry , through wastewater or precipitation. Out of 5,600 uniform surface water bodies (i.e. separate elements of surface waters, e.g. lakes, rivers, dam reservoirs or coastal waters) examined by the Chief Inspectorate of Environmental Protection in the years 2014–2019, merely 170 were of good quality, while the condition of the rest was assessed as poor. The increasingly common inspection of bathing sites in Poland also confirms the unsatisfactory quality of waters. Out of 670 inland and coastal bathing sites examined in 2021, less than a half (nearly 300) could boast excellent quality (in 2011 it was 148 out of a total of 220 tested bathing sites). On the other hand, the quality of the water provided to residents has improved. For the past few years, less than 1% of people using water supply network received water which failed to meet the requirements imposed by the Minister of Health, while in 2010, 6% of recipients were supplied with water of an insufficient quality.
Despite the gradual improvement in the quality of Polish air, air pollution remains a serious problem, especially in terms of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 is considered one of the most hazardous pollutants to human health due to its small size allowing it to reach the deepest parts of the human lungs. It is estimated that in Poland in the years 2012-2018, PM2.5 caused 43,000–48,000 premature deaths annually (2019 was the first year in the history of the survey when this number decreased to below 40,000). The exposure to PM2.5 pollution in Poland has for years been at least twice as high as the norms indicated by the WHO. According to the organisation, until 2020, the concentration of PM2.5 in the air hazardous to human health was at a level exceeding 10 μg/m3, while in 2021 the norm became stricter and was set at no more than 5 μg/m3. The average annual air pollution caused by PM2.5 in Poland has been decreasing and reached 17 μg/m3 in 2021 (in 2010 it was 28 μg/m3). Poland is in the group of EU countries with the highest exposure to PM2.5 pollution; in the EU, the average concentration of these particles in the air decreased to 13 μg/m3 in 2019. The indicator of the average PM2.5 hazard in metropolitan areas reaches its highest levels in the southern parts of Poland, i.e. in Upper Silesian, Rybnicko-Jastrzębska and Cracow Agglomerations, where the average concentration of PM2.5 in the air was at the level of 23-24 μg/m3 in 2021. At the same time, it was significantly lower than 10 years before – in the first two of the above-mentioned agglomerations it decreased by 45%. The lowest average values of the PM2.5 indicator were recorded in Tri-City Agglomeration (12 μg/m3).