Emergency measures unveiled to combat smog over Greek cities

A set of emergency measures were announced on Thursday by the government to combat the smog from fireplaces that appeared over a number of Greek cities over the past few days and poses a threat to public health.

The combination of unfavorable weather conditions and the large number of people burning wood to stay warm because it is the cheapest or only form of heating they have has created severe air pollution over Athens, Thessaloniki and a number of other cities. Health warnings from numerous experts prompted the government to issue a new set of guidelines, which were published in the Government Gazette yesterday, for days when the concentration of particulate matter suspended in the air exceeds 150 micrograms per cubic meter.

Among the government’s recommendations are that nursery, primary and secondary schools should be closed, that homeowners should stop burning wood, that heating oil- or natural gas-fired central heating systems should have their thermostats set to 18 Celsius and that all outdoor exercise should be avoided.

Beyond recommendations, the government is also introducing certain bans during days when air pollution is high. For example, heating systems in most public buildings will be switched off, industrial activity will have to be reduced by 30 percent, diesel-powered cars and trucks will not be allowed on the roads in the affected areas, school buses will also be barred from circulating, while taxis will have to adopt the odd/even license plate system used in central Athens.

The ministerial decision, signed by the ministers of finance, interior development, administrative reform, health, environment, transport, public order and merchant marine, also commits the government to offering free electricity to needy households for twice the amount of days that the restrictive measures are in place.

The smog problem has largely arisen due to the high cost of heating oil, which most Greek households used until last year. But since 2012, when the tax on heating oil was raised to the same as that on vehicle fuel to combat smuggling, use of the fuel has dropped by around 70 percent. Greeks have sought out cheaper alternatives instead.

Earlier this week 41 New Democracy MPs, about a third of the party’s total lawmakers, tabled a question in Parliament about the possibility of dropping the tax on heating oil.

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, flanked by Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis and Environment Minister Yiannis Maniatis, took the unusual step of holding a news conference on Christmas Day to insist that there is no chance of a change in heating oil tax.

“We are aware of the problem but it cannot be solved by reducing the price [of heating oil],” said Stournaras. “If we reduce the price, smuggling would increase.”

Stournaras added that Greece is close to achieving its target for revenues from fuel sales this year. The goal was to collect 6.8 billion euros and the government is on course to gather almost 6.5 billion. He also insisted that the drop in heating oil consumption was only in a small part (about 15 percent) due to the cost of the fuel and the recession. He said 32 percent is due to people stocking up on heating oil before the tax rise and 23.9 percent on the fact last winter was milder than previous years.

Maniatis emphasized that the government is offering heating oil subsidies for less well-off families. He said that up to 5 million people could claim these subsidies but that many had not applied for the cash bonus so far.

Georgiadis said that the number of cases being reported by lung clinics was up by 10 percent but he suggested this was normal for December.

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