It all started in Krakow, Poland. The medieval city is known for its beauty, but also for poor air quality from coal heating. In 2012, a group of local residents joined together and founded the organisation Krakow Smog Alert to push for change — and the campaign got results. In 2013, the city approved a law banning boilers and stoves that burn coal and wood. This ban came into effect in 2019 and, despite several appeals, Poland’s Supreme Administrative Court upheld it.

Unfortunately, it is not only Krakow that suffers the consequences of burning coal to heat homes. About 85% of all coal used for heating buildings in Europe is burned in Poland and, in many of the country’s regions, coal is the main heating fuel for households. Data by the World Health Organization from 2018 shows that 36 of Europe’s 50 most polluted cities are in Poland.

Poland’s ambitious endeavour

But big changes are underway that could set the stage for other countries in Europe and beyond. Krakow inspired 11 out of 16 Polish regions to impose emission standards for heating appliances in single-family homes, with each setting its own implementation date. After the deadlines, which range from January 2022 to January 2027, it will become illegal to use heating appliances that are not compliant with the standards.

Observance of the law is not an easy task, especially for those on low incomes who cannot afford a new heating system. It is also important that those buildings receiving new heating systems are energy efficient. It makes little sense to install cleaner heating technologies in inefficient buildings.

Recognising the need for financial assistance to homeowners and the critical role of energy efficiency, the Polish government has committed to a ten year, €25 billion building retrofit programme. The scheme makes dedicated funding available to everyone and, in particular, to those most in need.

If delivered according to plan, this will be one of the most radical and ambitious building energy efficiency and heating system upgrade programmes anywhere in Europe, both in terms of scale and the regulatory force behind it. Citizens will see huge benefits in terms of air quality and health. The programme will stimulate a market transformation previously unseen, leading to new supply chains and businesses providing clean heating alternatives. Importantly, it will also significantly reduce carbon emissions.

The broader context

Most existing bans of inefficient and dirty heating systems in Europe focus just on new buildings, mandated through energy and emission standards in national building codes. But there is a small number of countries, including Poland, promoting cleaner heat across existing housing as well and imposing outright bans on high-carbon heating systems.

Norway has banned oil-fired heating systems in all buildings, new and existing, from 2020. Oil, like coal, boilers will need to be replaced everywhere. A softer approach involves only prohibiting the replacement of heating systems with specific technologies. As of 2016, Denmark had banned the installation of oil-fired boilers in existing buildings in areas where district heating or natural gas is available. The German government announced a ban on installing oil heating systems by 2026, if a low-carbon alternative is technically feasible.

Why is strictly outlawing inefficient and dirty heating systems so important? Many countries have prioritised providing subsidies for clean heat, but with mixed results. Even if financially attractive, purely voluntary programmes often fail to disburse the funds they have been allocated. One example is the UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive. At its inception in 2014, it was expected that 1.3 million clean heating systems, including heat pumps, solar thermal and biomass, would be installed by 2021. At the beginning of 2020, only 75,000 new heating systems had been supported by the programme due to a lack of demand. A regulatory standard requiring the replacement of existing heating systems can address this problem.

Pushing from coal to gas or oil to gas, however, will ultimately lead to stranded assets in the form of gas boilers and pipelines. But net zero targets mean we will need to phase out gas heat systems within a couple of decades. While the health and greenhouse gas reduction benefits of gas as a “heating bridge” might well be worth it, regulation and financial support programmes should ideally incentivise the adoption of net-zero-compatible technologies now. To some extent, this will happen in Poland with heat pump deployment.

It takes time

Before the coal boiler ban was announced, there was almost no heat pump industry in Poland. Now the rate of annual installations is rising exponentially and is expected to increase by as much as 75% in 2020, say industry experts. Once it became clear there would be demand for new types of heating systems, the market followed. This combination of forcing demand and enabling the required investments through financial programmes creates a powerful dynamic. If executed well, it can have dramatic impacts.

There are many precedents of using regulation for ruling out inefficient and dirty forms of heating, not least the UK Clean Air Act, which banned certain particularly dirty forms of heating in response to London’s “Great Smog” of 1952.

This approach cannot be imposed from the top down or overnight. The experience in Poland shows the importance of public debate, awareness raising, consensus building and high-level political commitment to create the space for such a monumental undertaking. Poland has taken the first steps toward a truly transformational programme. If successful, it will be an inspiration for the European energy transition.

A version of this article originally appeared on FORESIGHT Climate & Energy.