LONDON, April 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, the mayor of Warsaw, introduced bus lanes on one of the city’s main arteries to cut travel times by public transport and to encourage more people to use it, not everybody in the Polish capital was impressed.
“There was a lot of opposition,” Gronkiewicz-Waltz said.
“It’s not easy to convince people to use public transport if driving a car is still quite an entrenched habit.”
Eight years later, Warsaw’s residents - or Varsovians - have not only got used to bus lanes but thanks to the city’s growing network of bike lanes they can now also cycle around town using one of the 4,500 municipal bicycles available for hire.
Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who took office in 2006 as the first woman to hold the position, says she wants to tackle Warsaw’s pollution and make Poland’s capital and largest city climate-friendly as a legacy for future generations.
“Everybody wants to live in a healthy environment,” Gronkiewicz-Waltz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Polish. “In my case it’s also about my daughter and grandchildren - they are an additional motivation.”
Around the world, cities are increasingly at the forefront of action to curb climate change. Some have set ambitious emissions reduction goals, while others have pushed ahead with policies despite national-level foot dragging.
And increasingly, many of the cities leading on climate change – Paris, Washington, Sydney, Cape Town – are run by women.
In two years, the number of women leading large cities that are at the forefront of climate action has risen from four to 16, according to the C40 Cities network of more than 80 cities committed to addressing climate change.
But while Gronkiewicz-Waltz sometimes has to tell her husband off for not sorting rubbish properly, she doesn’t think women are better climate defenders than men.
“I don’t want to sound sexist,” she said. “Perhaps women pay more attention to green areas and cleanliness but men are sensitive, too.”
Changes happening in Warsaw are perhaps most visible on the banks of the Vistula, Poland’s biggest river.
One of is shores has been returned back to its natural state, allowing Varsovians to relax on a sandy beach, cycle, walk along its leafy banks and even enjoy cross-country skiing in the winter.
“It’s like being on holiday,” said Gronkiewicz-Waltz.
Following upgrading work, the city’s wastewater plant now generates nearly 50 percent of its power onsite, while later this year Varsovians will be able to test a new car sharing scheme - another initiative aimed at making the capital’s air cleaner.
Gronkiewicz-Waltz said many investments towards a greener environment in Warsaw have been possible thanks to funding from the European Union.
“Modernising old trams, SKM (rapid city trains) would certainly have been impossible without EU funds,” said Gronkiewicz-Waltz, a former central bank head.
She said while changing mindsets and cutting planet-warming emissions in coal-dependent Poland was a struggle, the country had emerged as a pioneer in the battle against climate change, in part thanks to support from young people.
“The difficulties were in changing some attitudes such as that a car is cool or that smog is not really all that harmful. Even the health minister was surprised that we should be fighting smog,” Gronkiewicz-Waltz said in a phone interview.
“But now I think we are pioneers and climate conscience in Poland is maybe even stronger than in some Western countries,”
"All this was perhaps a bit of a revolution in our civilisation, and maybe because of that it wasn't easy, but we've done it." (Reporting by Magdalena Mis @magdalenamis1; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)