Monday, January 21, 2013

The Troika's Smog

Athens has been covered on and off these past couple of months by a thick smog produced by smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves. This is not strictly of course an Athenian phenomenon: all over Greece (and especially Northern Greece) towns and cities are enveloped this winter by an acrid smelling smog consisting of burning wood fumes and ashes, mingled with all sorts of toxic substances. As with most of the societal plagues brought on Greece these past few years, this too is a direct result of troikan austerity gone wild and a Greek government unable to protect its citizens.
The troika demanded and the Greek government acquiesced to, a tax increase on heating oil, the stuff that powers most central heating in Greek buildings, bringing its price at the same level as transportation gas. Already the price of a litre of gas at the pump in Greece was the highest in the EU, thanks to previous rounds of taxes on gas mandated by the troika. Gas prices went up by over 50% in Greece since 2009, mostly due to excise taxes. This, combined with a decline in real average income in the country of around 40-50%, led to a decrease in tax receipts from gas taxes of the order of 1.5 billion Euros.
Now apparently as heating oil has become a luxury that most people cannot afford (and with most of the population living in apartment buildings, if one resident in a block of flats cannot afford it, this means that the whole building does not buy heating oil and everyone is on their own to figure out a way to keep warm) consumption has reportedly dropped by as much as 80%. This means that alternatives to central heating must be found. Thus a lot of people turn to electric, grid powered heaters (your's truly included), that are now cheaper than oil and as many use fireplaces, and old wood stoves, occasionally with tragic consequences.
We are now discovering that picturesque and traditional methods of heating seen in villages don't scale. In fact I just realized how darn environmentally friendly heating oil is compared to burning things in a fireplace or a stove. And I do mean things: "People are burning furniture, plastic, construction materials and even their slippers" to heat themselves when it does get cold. This makes the toxic mix of deleterious fumes covering major cities, even more unhealthy:

"A group of scientists from seven research centres are taking smog readings in several cities through February 10th to assess the environmental impact from the increased use of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, the Athens network SKAI TV reported.
The scientists, together with the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, have warned that burning wood in the home releases 30 times more air pollution than using a well-maintained heating oil or gas-burning boiler.
They found that concentrations of particulates in the atmosphere from wood smoke increased 200 percent from December 2010 to the same period in 2012, stressing that the problem is especially acute at night, when demand for heating increases. The centre warned an increase in air pollution can lead to respiratory problems as well as aggravating allergies and disturb the neurological and reproductive systems.

The price of firewood has, naturally, doubled since last year, so the incentive to chop down trees in forests and parks is great. In fact both parks and national forests have suffered great losses:

As winter temperatures bite, that trend is dealing a serious blow to the environment, as hillsides are denuded of timber and smog from fires clouds the air in Athens and other cities, posing risks to public health.
The number of illegal logging cases jumped in 2012, said forestry groups, while the environment ministry has lodged more than 3,000 lawsuits and seized more than 13,000 tons of illegally cut trees.
Such woodcutting was last common in Greece during Germany's brutal occupation in the 1940s, underscoring how five years of recession and waves of austerity measures have spawned drastic measures
As one could have easily imagined in the first place, the measure flopped revenue-wise:

Oil suppliers claim of a 75-80% sales decrease for the period October-November-December 2012, when compared to the same period of 2011. Greek Fuel Suppliers Association estimates that the black hole in the state pockets are 400 million euro due to the sharp decrease in heating oil sales.
The Finance Minister, Yiannis Stournaras, an Economics Professor, Banker and former head of the Greek Industrialists' Economic Think Tank IOBE, was however adamant, having the perfect economics background to help him deny what is palpably (indeed chillingly) evident to every bloody citizen in the country: He has refused any extra aid to poor families, advising the freezing to "to be patient for another year" and wait out the cold. Really. And he also attributed the collapse of heating-oil revenues to "people having stockpiled heating oil from last year" despite the fact that it is consumption of heating oil that has declined by 80%. Obviously the economic cult he belongs to is loathe to price-in "externalities" such as health effects, fire hazards and illegal wood-cutting. The troika however seems happy with the results - and who are the victims of its policies to disagree? (although allegedly the troika demanded leveling the tax on heating and transport oil, to fight smuggling, but didn't state to what level - it was Stournaras who chose the highest of the two prices). Since people are turning to the power grid for heating BTW, a pinch of "energy liberalization" will see that this too becomes untenable, as electricity consumers will see a 9% hike on their bills (higher for smaller consumptions, smaller for larger ones!), pending a rumoured 20% increase spread over 2013. Already the Public Power Corporation is cutting off power to customers that can't pay at a rate of 30.000 connections a month! This means that ~300-500.000 households in Greece are living without electricity - literally powerless. Truly an achievement worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize...

The heating debacle is the perfect example of austerian madness as misanthrope feast. It has no point, it doesn't achieve its stated goals, and it has tremendously disastrous side-effects. It adds one more in the troika's long list of crimes against humanity in the European South and serves to demonstrate the imbecility of the current government and its experts...