Sustainable economic development should be achieved without compromising the environment. It should therefore seek to make prudent use of natural resources and reduce both pollutant emissions and waste production. Poland has seen positive changes in this regard over the last decade, although to a lesser degree than the EU average. Poland's real gross domestic product increased by 46% in the years 2010-2021, and economic growth was accompanied by a more effective use of material resources and water and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases. The last decade, however, was exceptional. In the year 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, causing unprecedented limitations of social and economic activity in many countries. In Poland, this caused a short-lived, although serious, deterioration in the macroeconomic performance, and may have also affected the extent to which the economy influenced the environment.
Economy’s resources consumption is illustrated by two measures: the domestic material consumption (DMC) and the material footprint (MF). These metrics consider the use of the same types of resources (biomass, metals, minerals and fossil fuels), albeit from a different perspective. DMC measures the total amount of materials actually consumed by a given economy, while MF refers to the virtual amount of materials necessary for the ultimate satisfaction of that economy’s needs. MF, therefore, covers the entire production and supply chain and takes into consideration those materials which were used to produce and transport imported goods. If DMC is higher than MF, it means that the materials sourced by an economy are also exported for consumption purposes to other countries. If the opposite is true, it indicates that materials are imported by an economy and consumption within that economy requires obtaining raw materials from other economies.
In Poland, DMC and MF are generally similar (in the last decade, the average annual DMC amounted to approximately 660 mln tonnes, and MF to about 655 mln tonnes). On a per capita basis, both figures are higher than the EU average; according to the latest available data, both the annual DMC and MF per capita in Poland were approximately 18 tonnes each, while in the EU they did not exceed 15 tonnes per capita. The Polish economy consumes raw materials with variable intensity, although mostly with an upward trend. Compared to 2010, DMC was 10% higher in 2021, while MF was 18% higher in 2019. What contributed to the growth in Poland’s DMC was the increase in the use of metals and minerals (by 21%) and biomass (by 7%), with a simultaneous reduction in the use of high-emission fossil fuels (by 7%).
The GDP to DMC ratio indicates that materials are used less productively by the Polish economy than by most other EU economies. In 2021, 1 kg of raw materials produced a GDP value of 1.4 PPS (in the EU an average of 2.3 PPS), ranking Poland 22nd in the EU in terms of the efficiency of materials consumption. Among EU countries, the highest resources productivity was achieved by the Netherlands, where 1 kg of resources allowed the production of GDP worth 5.7 PPS, while the lowest was recorded in Bulgaria and Romania, in both of which it reached 0.8 PPS each.
In 2010-2020, the Polish economy annually used between 60 mln and 73 mln tonnes of energy (expressed in units of equivalent oil). Poland’s per capita use of energy was slightly lower than the EU average, e.g. in 2020 it was 1.9 toe compared to 2.0 toe in the EU (and in 2010, 1.7 toe compared to 2.3 toe, respectively). However, on average, energy was used slightly less effectively in Poland than in the EU. In 2020, 1 kg of equivalent oil allowed the production of GDP worth 8.6 PPS (6.0 PPS in 2010), whereas the average for the EU was GDP worth 9.7 PPS (and 6.8 PPS in 2010).
Energy in Poland is used to the largest extent by households and transport (in 2020, each of these sectors was responsible for almost 1/3 of the total energy consumed finally by the Polish economy). Industry (23%) and services (11%) are also relatively highly energy-intensive sectors. Compared to the beginning of the decade, Polish households slightly reduced the use of energy (in 2020 it was 4% lower than in 2010); its use by the services sector also decreased (by 14%). However, energy consumption in transport and industry increased significantly (by 27% and 18%, respectively).
Energy in Poland is produced mainly from fossil fuels. The use of renewable energy sources (RES) is steadily increasing, but still remains below the EU average. In 2020, RES were responsible for 16% of the total amount of energy consumed in Poland (compared to 9% in 2010), whereas in the EU it was 22% (and 12% in 2010). Heating and cooling is the sector which uses the largest amount of energy produced from renewable sources in Poland. In 2010-2020, the sector’s share of energy from RES in its final gross energy consumption grew from 12% to 22%. In the electricity sector as well, the consumption of energy from renewable sources increased in this period – from 6% to 16%. Only the transport sector did not intensify its consumption of energy from renewable sources, which remained relatively low (7%).
As regards renewable energy sources, they were responsible for 18% of all the electricity produced in Poland in 2020 (compared to 7% in 2010), which was still over two-fold less than the EU average. The renewable energy source used most frequently in Poland is wind, which generated 10% of all the electricity produced in the country in 2020 (compared to 1% in 2010). Biomass and biogas are used in Poland on a much smaller scale (5% of all energy produced in 2020), and likewise water and photovoltaic cells (1% each). The level of production of electricity from renewable energy sources varies among EU countries. It is largest in Denmark and Austria (where in 2020 renewable energy sources generated 82% and 76% of electricity, respectively), and smallest in Malta (11%). EU countries also differ in their selection of the main renewable energy sources, e.g. in Denmark it is wind (in 2020, wind accounted for 57% of Denmark’s electricity), in Austria, Latvia, Sweden and Croatia water (58%-42%), and in Estonia biomass and biogas (31%).
Poland is one of those EU economies where the demand for water is relatively high. In 2020, this country was able to generate GDP worth 95 PPS from 1 m3 of water (and GDP worth 52 PPS in 2010). To compare, in the same period in Greece and Bulgaria (EU states with the lowest productivity of water), 1 m3 of water generated GDP worth 20 PPS, and in Denmark, Latvia and the Czech Republic (where the productivity of water is the highest in the EU) GDP worth over 200 PPS.
The largest share of water used for the needs of the economy and population is consumed by industry (over 70% annually), and the remaining amount goes to the exploitation of the water supply network (below 20%), and serves filling and completing fishponds (approximately 10%). The overall yearly consumption of water decreased in Poland in over a decade: in 2021, it totalled 8.8 bn m3, whereas in 2010 it was 10.3 bn m3. More specifically, the amount of water used for industrial purposes decreased from 7.7 bn m3 to 6.4 bn m3, and likewise did the volume of water necessary for filling and completing fishponds (from 1.1 bn m3 to 0.8 bn m3). However, the amount of water consumed through the exploitation of the water supply network slightly increased (from 1.5 bn m3 to 1.6 bn m3).
Water from the exploitation of the water supply network goes mainly to households (80%), and the rest of it is used for production and other purposes, e.g. related to services. The yearly consumption of water per household member totalled in Poland on average 34 m3 in 2021, which marked an increase from 2010 (31 m3). However, inhabitants of Poland use relatively small amounts of water compared to residents of other EU countries. In 2020, a statistical inhabitant of Greece used the largest amount of water (107 m3), whereas their counterpart in Lithuania the smallest, i.e. 27 m3. In Poland, city residents use in general more water than inhabitants of rural areas. Still, while households in cities did not increase their water consumption from 2010 (35 m3 per person annually), the use of water by residents of rural areas significantly grew in that period (from 25 m3 per inhabitant in 2010 to 31 m3 in 2021). One of the reasons behind this change was the expansion of water supply network in rural areas.