Poland has taken enormous steps in the past 2 decades to clean up its environment and to undo the decades of environmental degradation experienced under Communism. The Communist authorities placed a primacy on heavy industries like shipbuilding and steel production, spoiling parts of the Baltic seacoast, soiling rivers, and laying waste to thousands of square miles in the area of Upper Silesia, around Katowice. So enamored were they of glorifying the industrial proletariat that they even built an enormous steel mill complex, Nowa Huta, on the doorsteps of Kraków. The point there seems to have been to try to win over the bourgeois Cracovians to the Communist cause, but the result was exactly the opposite. The acrid smoke and acid rain coated buildings and damaged centuries-old monuments and statuary, not to mention the devastating impact on human health.
The good news is that all that belongs to the past. Nearly from the start of the collapse of Communism in 1989, Polish authorities have taken steps to reduce the environmental impact of heavy industries. The Nowa Huta complex is now a shadow of its former self, and many of the smelters, coking plants, and mills in the surrounding region have been shuttered or cleaned up. You might still catch the sharp whiff of a nearby steel mill on your travels (particularly in Upper Silesia), but nothing remotely like it was just 20 years ago.
Part of the impetus for change has been Poland's entry into the European Union and new legal restraints placed on emissions of greenhouse gases and particle pollution. Part, too, is simply the rising living standards and a new appreciation among the population for clean rivers and healthy forests. Poles, at heart, are inveterate hikers, bikers, and kayakers, and that awareness is only likely to grow.
That doesn't mean there are not problem areas. The rise in incomes has brought with it unique challenges. Car-ownership rates are now at an all-time high, and whereas modern cars burn much more cleanly than those old "Polski Fiat" clunkers favored under Communism (and which you still see motoring around occasionally), the sheer increase in cars on the road has mitigated some of the progress in combating air pollution. Prosperity, too, has led to significant land-use challenges. While population levels in Poland's big cities have leveled off, each year, thousands of people move to the fringes of big cities in new suburban developments. Cities like Warsaw and Kraków are now ringed by the single-family housing and shopping/office complexes familiar to anyone in the U.S. and Western Europe. That may be fine for the people who live there, but the result annually is a huge loss of open land and increased pressure on the country's creaking road network.
As a short-term visitor to the country, your environmental impact is likely to be small. Still, there are steps you can take to reinforce the country's growing green awareness. If you're just planning on hitting the big cities, for example, there's no need to drive your own car. Poland's train and bus networks are comprehensive, and the time you save driving will be minimal. Also, plan to incorporate into your itinerary activities like hiking, biking, and canoeing that reinforce this trend and put money into the hands of operators who promote it. Even the minimal fee (5 z) you pay to enter one of the country's national parks goes some way toward protecting these lands for future generations.
Animal-rights issues are making slow progress in Poland, a largely agrarian country that still depends on animals, in some cases, for farm labor. Some may take issue with the horse-drawn carriages that line up along Kraków's main square, the Rynek Gówny, where the horses stand in the hot sun and occasionally suffer the whips of their masters.
For information on animal-friendly issues throughout the world, visit Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org).
General Resources for Green Travel
The following websites provide valuable wide-ranging information on sustainable travel:
- Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.
- In the U.K., Tourism Concern (www.tourismconcern.org.uk) works to reduce social and environmental problems connected to tourism. The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO; www.aito.co.uk) is a group of specialist operators leading the field in making holidays sustainable.
- Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Cool Climate (http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu) provide info on "carbon offsetting," or offsetting the greenhouse gas emitted during flights.
- Greenhotels (www.greenhotels.com) recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Environmentally Friendly Hotels (www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com) offers more green accommodation ratings. The Hotel Association of Canada (www.hacgreenhotels.com) has a Green Key Eco-Rating Program, which audits the environmental performance of Canadian hotels, motels, and resorts.
- Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a list of questions to help you determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program. For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.