Country profile - Societal developments (Poland)
The 60-year period 1950-2010 can be divided into halves, with 1980 marking the mid-point. The two halves are quite different. In terms of population, the first half was characterised by a very fast growth from 25.0 million to 35.6 million. The growth was propelled by a very high birth rate – declining from 3.1 % to 1.9 % – outweighing the rather high death rate (declining slowly from 1.2 % to 1.0 %). Infant mortality decreased from 111 per 1000 live births to 25, which nevertheless was still very high by European standards. In 1980, the life expectancy was 66 for men and 74 for women. In terms of economics, the country increased its GDP by a factor of almost 10. In per capita terms it corresponded to a factor of 7, which also looks impressive. Nevertheless, this successful picture needs to be qualified. First, the country was almost completely ruined after World War II, and thus the starting point was very low. Transport and municipal infrastructure was severely damaged. Forests were devastated. In 1950, they covered only 22.2 % of the country, i.e. much less than before the war. Second, the quality of statistics was problematic. Indices of physical production seem to be more reliable. Many industrial products recorded high growth indeed, but agricultural production only doubled.
Environmental quality was neglected. In 1980, Poland was referred to as one of the worst polluted countries in the world. While this opinion was exaggerated, emission levels were horrifying indeed. Air pollution from major stationary sources achieved an unbelievable level of 2.7 million tonnes of SO2 and 2.3 million tonnes of particulate matter per annum (estimates of the total SO2 pointed to 4 million tonnes). Of the 4.7 billion m3 sewage requiring treatment, 2.0 billion m3 were discharged without any treatment. As a result, the river water quality was poor: as much as 36 % was classified as 'unsuitable for any (even industrial) use'.
The second period, 1980-2010, consists of two phases. In the 1980s, all the negative environmental trends continued. Air and water pollution stayed at a very high level, while some indices kept growing. Economic performance deteriorated steadily until the end of the centrally planned system in 1989. Some indices continued falling until 1991. Transition to a market economy triggered improvements in economic performance and stopped environmental disruption. Air pollution declined sharply. SO2 emissions are now about 25 % of what they were in the 1980s. Emissions of particulate matter shrank to 20 %. Less than 10 % of sewage requiring treatment is discharged without any treatment. At the same time, economic performance improved. Between 1990 and 2008, GDP per capita doubled and the average standard of living improved considerably. Life expectancy increased to 71 for men and to 79 for women. Infant mortality dropped to 7 per every 1000 live births. Accession to the European Union in 2004 reinforced these positive trends. Simultaneously, the transformation period has brought a decrease of the demographic trends observed until the 1980s and unfavourable changes in age group structure of the population. Due to the decrease in fertility rates (up to 2007) and increase of life expectancy in 1990-2007, the share of people under 14 years old decreased two-fold, while the share of people above 65 years old increased by 3 %. At the same time, changes concerning households have been observed – in 2002-2008, the number of households increased by 7 % while the average number of people in households fell from 3.16 in 2000 to 3.00 in 2008.
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This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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