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Smog and high concentrations of particulates in the Greek cities

24 December 2013 / 17:12:47  GRReporter
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The thick smoke over the cities in Greece and the fact that many households have reduced to a minimum their costs for heating fuel have driven the government, and the Ministry of Finance in particular, to reconsider the situation. It will be difficult to solve the problem through the heating benefits and the enforcement of the regulation to provide free electricity to the poor in the days of high concentrations of particulates in urban areas.

Yesterday, 41 members of New Democracy, i.e. one third of the parliamentary group of the party, requested from Minister of Finance Yiannis Stournaras that the reduced tax rate on heating fuel be returned. 24 hours earlier, Deputy Minister of Finance Christos Staikouras had said, "The intended reduction of the special consumption tax could have increased the consumption of heating fuel, positively affecting the environment and public health and, at the same time, it could have increased state revenues." Staikouras added, however, that "unfortunately, our partners had disagreed since they thought that the past winter season was not representative because of the warm weather, and probably the Troika was not ready to accept a third reduction in tax rates within the same year, following the 15% reduction of the special unified property tax and the reduction of VAT in the restaurant sector."

Staikouras’ communication combined with the lawmakers’ request gives rise to the question as to whether the government intends to proceed to the reduction of the tax rate on heating fuel within the winter period. Close associates of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras note that the "fronts" on which the government could act are limited, bearing in mind its unilateral actions related with VAT on restaurants, the issue of the forced sale of the mortgaged houses of bank debtors and the property tax. However, they do not exclude the possibility of the issue being discussed again in the future.

Yesterday's request related to the special consumption tax on heating fuel was another massive initiative of the members of New Democracy, similar to those associated with the same problem or with the property tax. As regards the political characteristics of this initiative, which is led by Euripides Stilianidis, it should be noted that it was signed mainly by deputies from the countryside. Only four out of the 41 deputies are from Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki.

The text of the request directly questions the arguments of the Ministry of Finance and the deputies refer to a piece of research conducted by the organisation for financial and industrial research. It shows that since 2009 the revenues (from the special consumption tax + VAT) have not significantly changed. In 2009, they amounted to 419 million euro and in 2013 to 495 million euro, which is an increase of 76 million euro. However, if we subtract the cost of heating benefits from this sum it turns out that the government revenues from heating fuel decreased by 4 million euro as compared with 2009! In terms of consumption, the same study notes that heating fuel consumption dramatically fell from 3,894,803 tons in 2009 to 868,415 tons in 2013.

Actions to deal with particulate matter pollution

The Ministries of Environment and Health are one step away from launching the regulation that provides for free electricity for persons entitled to heating benefits in the days of high concentrations of particulate matters in Thessaloniki and Ioannina, since these two cities reported particularly high concentrations of particulates in the atmosphere which, at one point, exceeded 150 micrograms per cubic metre.

Yesterday, Minister of Health Adonis Georgiadis said in a statement that the general ministerial decision to tackle the problem had been already signed and should be published in the Official Gazette. It provides for three stages of "readiness" and actions on the part of the state, depending on atmospheric conditions.

The first stage will be effective when the daily average concentration of particulates varies between 76 and 100 micrograms per cubic metre and provides for recommendations to the citizens to stop using fireplaces for two or three days. As explained by Minister Georgiadis, the recommendation refers to their "unnecessary use" rather than to the use of fireplaces by people who have no other source of heating.

The second stage will be effective when the daily average concentration of particulates varies between 100 and 150 micrograms per cubic metre and provides for the interruption of heating in public buildings and even for the suspension of the circulation of trucks.

The third stage (when the daily average concentration of particulates is higher than 150 micrograms per cubic metre) will enforce the regulation that provides for free electricity for those entitled to heating benefits, "in order to enable the people to use, during these days, electricity without paying for it instead of using stoves or fireplaces, etc.", the minister points out. According to him, the limit of 150 micrograms per cubic metre was exceeded four times last winter. Adonis Georgiadis argued that, due to weather conditions, the state of particulate matter pollution this year is better than that of last year.

So far, the Ministries of Environment and Health have issued, twice, recommendations to citizens "to limit the unnecessary use of fireplaces since, in this way, they contribute towards the health of all." The recommendations are issued on the basis of the forecasts of the National Weather Service for the presence of conditions that favour the concentration of atmospheric pollution.

In addition, the General Secretariat for Public Health has informed the vulnerable groups of the population on how they can deal with air pollution. In particular, the Secretariat recommends that people with respiratory and heart problems, children and adults aged over 65 years should limit their physical activity, especially if carried out in the open. It warns asthma sufferers that they will probably need to use their inhalers more frequently.

Asked whether the number of people with respiratory problems who have sought medical care in recent days has increased, the Minister of Health notes that, according to the information available to him, such a phenomenon has not been registered.


Tags: SmogPollutionParticulatesMinictry of Health
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