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Country profile (Poland)

What distinguishes the country?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Poland is located in central Europe – almost entirely in the Baltic Sea drainage basin – at the border of the Atlantic (temperate) and continental (cold) climatic zones. Because of its geography, the western part of the country shares some of the characteristics of Germany, while the eastern one resembles some of the patterns observed in Belarus and the European part of Russia (maps of monthly precipitation and temperature In addition, the country includes a variety of landscapes, from northern lowlands, to southern uplands, culminating in the rocky mountain ranges of Karpaty and Sudety (map of regional division of Poland 

By European standards, Poland is a large country. Its area is 31.3 million hectares (fifth largest amongst the 27 EU Member States), and the population is 38.15 million (as of June 2009) which yields the density of population of more than 1.2 person per hectare. About 61.1 % of the population live in urban areas.

Density of population

Population density in 2009 (according to GUS: Population size and structure by territorial division as of June 30, 2009

In economic terms, Poles enjoy less wealth than the average EU citizen. The GDP per capita (in Purchasing Power Parity) was USD 17 294 in 2008, i.e. less than the EU average of 31 500, and less than in other new Member States which joined the Union in 2004. The composition of the Polish GDP has become typical for many middle income countries, with 65 % produced in the service sector, 23 % in industry, 8 % in construction, and 4 % in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Almost 80 % of the GDP is produced in the private sector.

In 1989, the Polish people triggered the transitions from centrally planned economies in Europe by forcing the communists to hold the first semi-free elections, where all the contested seats were lost by the establishment. In 1990, the Constitution was amended so that all subsequent elections were democratic. Meanwhile the governance structure was reformed and much of the authority – also in environmental management – was transferred to 16 administrative regions (voivodships), 379 counties (poviats) and 2478 municipalities. The President, whose term is five years, is the head of the state.

Environmental management responsibilities in Poland are divided between different governmental and self-governmental authorities at national and regional level (authorities). Currently, more and more operational responsibilities and tasks are being transferred from governmental administration to self-governmental authorities.

The general coordinator of environmental policy is the Minister of the Environment (MoE), responsible for the preparation and implementation of comprehensive solutions including developing legislation and strategies, indicating and defining the responsibilities of environmental protection authorities, transposing EU legislation into the Polish legal system and compliance reporting in general. MoE cooperates with other departments of governmental administration, in particular infrastructure, economy, agriculture and rural development as well as regional development in the field of implementation of environmental requirements. Most operational environmental instruments, such as plans, programmes and permits, are at present in the hands of self-governmental authorities.

What have been the major societal developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

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.


What are the main drivers of environmental pressures?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

In the former centrally planned economy, adverse impacts on the environment were linked to inefficiency. Production and consumption required much more resources than in a market economy at a similar level of economic development. This source of environmental disruption has largely disappeared now, and the environmental 'unfriendliness' of economic performance is now close to what can be observed elsewhere in the EU, except that the Polish economy depends to a larger extent on coal. In 2007, hard coal and lignite accounted for 49 % and 12 % respectively of the country's energy supply. Hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) contributed only 34 %. Consequently, industrial production and municipal energy consumption result in relatively higher emissions of SO2, particulate matter and CO2. Power plants contribute 75 % of SO2, 12 % of particulate matter, and 57 % of CO2. Agriculture contributes much less chemical input than in other developed economies. The application of NPK fertilisers is 122 kg per hectare, much less than in the 1980s.

More information about drivers of environmental pressures:

Freshwater - Drivers and Pressures (Poland)

Climate change mitigation - Drivers and Pressures (Poland)

Air pollution - Drivers and Pressures (Poland)

Waste - Drivers and Pressures (Poland)

What are the foreseen developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Projections for the next decade are highly uncertain. Both the birth and death rates are expected to remain low and close to each other, thus making a future population growth unlikely. Despite the 2008-2009 financial crisis, economic performance is expected to improve with a 5 % annual GDP growth rate adopted in some scenarios. Over a ten-year period, this implies an increase of 63 %. Decoupling economic growth from environmental pollution makes it possible to keep emission levels down. With most of the stationary industrial sources under control, the future of environmental quality depends on consumer behaviour. Two areas seem to be crucial in this respect. The first is car ownership. This has been growing very fast, but is still much below the EU level. If Poles wish to replicate western European patterns, then the emissions of nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide are likely to grow despite the fact that new cars will comply with stricter standards. The second is thermal insulation of buildings. Some government policies have been deployed to reduce energy consumption in the housing sector. If they are successful, then the pressure from municipal sources can be expected to decline, despite rising living standards.

Agriculture remains an important factor in the country's environmental performance. For historical reasons, small holdings with low chemical inputs prevail in Poland. Their economic efficiency is poor, but their overall impact on water quality and biodiversity preservation is positive. Nevertheless, there is a strong pressure to improve the commercial viability of this sector. Unfortunately, this tendency will be difficult to reconcile with environmental protection.

By all standards, the biological diversity preserved in Poland ranks among the highest in Europe. To some extent, this is caused by geophysical factors, such as location at the border of two climatic zones or along bird migration routes. At the same time, however, it reflects the country's history, and especially its diverse development patterns in the 19th century. On top of that, since 1918, there have been continued attempts to strengthen protection measures with respect to the most valuable ecosystems. There are now more than twenty national parks, several biosphere reserves, and over 300 Natura 2000 sites. The main challenge faced by the government is to meet the expectations of Poland becoming an economically important member of the EU and a strong trading partner in the global economy without losing the country's natural heritage.

References and links:

Lloyd Timberlake, ’Poland--The Most Polluted Country in the World?’ New Scientist, October 22, 1981, p. 219
Link to ’Ochrona Środowiska GUS 2008‘,

Link to data compiled by the Ministry of Economy,

Link to the government report ’Polska 2030‘:


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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