Environmentalists' hearts surely rose when they read recently Greek air pollution levels had decreased by 40 percent from 2008 levels thanks to the ongoing recession there. Fewer people were using their cars or trucks, and, as a result, levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the air had plummeted.
But those gains have been reduced and then some. In fact, Greece recently has seen a massive increase in smog, which reminds us it is poverty that truly drives environmental damage.
Smog has been a particular problem this year in major cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki. But high smog levels have been reported all over Greece — including the Peloponnese and Attica. Yet this isn't the sort of smog we worry about in American cities. It's an older, cruder, almost forgotten form here, reminiscent of the days of London's pea-soupers. The Greek smog is a result of the increased burning of wood as household fuel, and it has massively increased levels of pollutants. The average level of particulate matter in London fell from around 160 micrograms per cubic meter to less than 20 between 1961 and 1998, so successful was the industrialized west at cleaning up its act. The current levels in Greece are reaching 300 micrograms per cubic meter.
There will be substantial health effects from this increase in pollution back to dangerous levels. A London "black fog" in 1952 killed 4,000 people. Current Greek smog levels are fast approaching that level of danger. Moreover, the effects of such a lasting smog would be borne more by the poorest. As Greek commentator Nikos Konstandaras describes the smog:
"This new plague appears to be democratic, spreading out all over Athens's coastal basin, over the center and suburbs, over rich and poor, over young and old, natives and immigrants… But the veneer of universality is thin — again it is the poor who suffer most: They live on lower floors, where the toxins congregate, they are forced to burn whatever they find, huddling around open fires and buckets of embers. They will not be able to send vulnerable family members to the countryside."
Not only is the smog destructive of the atmosphere, it is destructive of forests. Greeks have been forced by the high prices of home heating oil — of which a large proportion is government-imposed taxes — to use wood for fuel, and much of that wood is gathered illegally. The Greek environment ministry estimates more than 13,000 tons of wood was harvested illegally in 2012.
What we are seeing is Greece retreating back up the slope of what is known as the Environmental Kuznets curve. This model theorizes that, as a civilization starts to use natural resources, it increases its impact on the environment until it reaches a stage where it becomes more efficient to reduce its impact, This is why the richest societies generally also are the cleanest. Wealthier is healthier for the environment. That's exactly what we saw in the decreases in smog levels in the west over the last century.
Greece is regressing. As it becomes poorer, its environment suffers more. The Greek financial crisis has been a disaster in many more ways than first thought. Two particular factors have combined here. The massive overspending by the Greek state could not be corrected by devaluation as Greece is part of the Eurozone. This has led to a massive wealth contraction within Greece, which has meant people do not have as much to spend on fuel. Secondly, the Greek government, as part of its austerity program, has relied heavily on raising taxes on energy — home heating fuel and electricity especially. The result has been the increased reliance on wood and the looming environmental disaster.
If you ever needed an illustration of why affordable energy is important for the environment, Greece provides it. Poverty, on the other hand, is one of the worst enemies the environment can have.