Blackening Our Sky

Air pollution in cities like Sofia leads to thousands of deaths every year. While media blame the crisis on consumer habits, the real problem is decades of real estate speculation and unplanned capitalist development.

People walk down the Vitosha Boulevard shopping street as the St Nedelya Eastern Orthodox church stands behind on December 7, 2013 in Sofia, Bulgaria. Sean Gallup / Getty

Late last year, air pollution in Sofia reached alarming proportions. Air quality meters in some parts of the Bulgarian capital reported that concentrations of fine particulate matter stood at between ten and twenty times the maximum considered safe. Though air pollution is a longstanding problem in the southeastern European country, the recent spike appears to mark something different.

So far scientists have been unable to provide a definitive explanation of where the pollution is coming from. Lacking for answers, there has been a wave of DIY attempts at solutions to the crisis, from air purifiers to masks. Low public trust in government-operated air quality readers — driven by officials’ refusal to respond to requests for more detailed data — has also fueled a movement of “citizen science” and pollution maps and apps created by “civil society.”

Yet these are fundamentally individual responses to what is, ultimately, a collective and structural problem. Pollution is a political question, which boils down to who pays the price for the consequences of economic development.

Indeed, this issue also reflects wider transformations. Bulgaria underwent a chaotic transition to capitalism in the early 1990s that saw the collapse of most productive industry, tumbling living standards, and the onset of a Wild West economy. Unplanned, short-sighted economic development produced a deeply unequal and, in parts, dysfunctional society. While a wealthy few benefit from this, the majority of Bulgarians are left to deal with the sometimes deadly consequences — including toxic air.


Without doubt, when it comes to air quality, the Bulgarian capital’s geography works against it. The city is nested in a valley surrounded by mountains that hold back breezes and trap warm air, along with emissions and pollution, close to the ground. But Sofia is not the only city built in such a setting, and these effects can be mitigated with intelligent urban planning.

This had seemed possible in Sofia’s earliest phases of development. Planners designed a series of vast open spaces connecting the city to the nearby Vitosha mountain, with the aim of ensuring an uninterrupted supply of fresh mountain air. Sofia invested in large public parks facing Vitosha and prohibited the construction of buildings higher than one-and-a-half stories in the villages adjacent to the city. So, what went wrong?

Much of the answer lies in the last three decades. Industrialization had come relatively late to Bulgaria, only really taking off under Communist Party rule after World War II. Though socialist industry was often dirty and environmental protection did not count particularly high among the government’s priorities, development was conducted in a relatively planned manner and most citizens’ living standards gradually rose. At the same time, Sofia’s population more than doubled between 1945 and 1985.

After 1989, however, with the state in disarray, a fledgling civil society was caught up in the craze for the new and the struggle to survive. Now, any semblance of planning fell by the wayside. A boom in suburbanization around Sofia gradually integrated surrounding villages into the city and transformed them into spaces for the decadent and imposing homes of Bulgaria’s new upper class.

A view of Vitosha is highly coveted on the real estate market — neighborhoods that offer such a vista count among the most expensive and desirable. Partly for this reason, the city’s haphazard development in the 1990s and 2000s included the erection of a number of commercial skyscrapers blocking the flow of fresh mountain air, such as the auspiciously titled Capital Fort, a twenty-eight-story “business center” that doubles as Bulgaria’s tallest building.

Bans on privatization and construction in public parks were gradually lifted or bypassed by semi-legal means. And the culprits were not only offices and shopping malls. Citing “terrorism” concerns, the US Embassy recently closed its centrally located offices, acquired forty acres of the city’s South Park (no relation to the TV series) facing Vitosha, and built a gigantic fortified structure on it.

This urban blight did not take place in a vacuum. Rather, it was facilitated by the process of “restitution” — the state’s decision to return land and property nationalized by the Communists to their pre-war owners (a path followed by all post-socialist governments in Eastern Europe). Designed to revitalize Bulgaria’s emaciated and traditionally small pre-war bourgeoisie as well as create opportunities for the rise of a new capitalist class, restitution was fraught with contradictions, violence, and illegality. This would also have damaging effects for the environment.

Belching Out Smoke

The liquidation of the country’s socialist-era industrial base put Sofia in a double bind. Without much left in the way of a productive economy, the city’s elite resorted to a development strategy heavily reliant on real estate, boosted by the thousands flocking to the city from the economic devastation in the provinces. In a few short decades, the greater Sofia area swelled from slightly under one million inhabitants in 1975 to perhaps two million today. Official figures place the population at a little over 1.5 million, but the large number of unregistered residents and informal settlements makes it impossible to say for sure.

Without doubt, the property bubble is feeding an unbearable amount of dust into the air. But Sofia’s cars match (and probably even surpass) the effect coming from building alone. Urban planning in Sofia has been notoriously car-friendly since the 1990s, overseeing the dismantling of public transit and the expansion of roads and highways to replace it. Instead of boosting public transit as a cheap, environmentally and socially friendly alternative to automobiles, in 2016 the city enforced a 60 percent percent price hike on single-use public transit tickets.

The government used European Union funds to expand the subway system but simultaneously closed multiple tram lines. Sofia’s improvised system of bicycle lanes are the laughing stock of the internet, and it recently replaced its automatic pedestrian traffic lights with “smart” traffic lights that ensure (and thus privilege) uninterrupted flows of car traffic.

Liberal critics may write this off as products of a political class unattuned to the need for environmental sustainability and smart urban planning. But the toxic emissions choking Sofia’s citizens are directly linked to the political economy of the European Union and Bulgaria’s position at the lower end of the continent’s social ladder.

Europe’s Dumping Ground

For years Western European governments promoted diesel fuel as an affordable way to meet the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol emissions targets. The resulting popularity of diesel cars generated a host of problems, toxic air among them. While more efficient than gasoline, diesel engines belch carcinogenic, particulate-heavy smoke that worsens air pollution — a public health threat that the World Health Organization estimates claims seven million lives annually. In recent years, the number of Bulgarians who die prematurely due to air pollution has recently topped 14,000 a year. These findings sparked the current wave of opposition to diesel cars, including outright bans on diesels in some European cities.

This rapid U-turn in diesel policy demonstrates that technological “solutions” to problems generated by capitalism are no real fix, but merely displace them onto poorer countries and more vulnerable populations. In this particularly ironic case, the government’s attempt to reduce harmful emissions seems to have ultimately made pollution worse.

As Western European countries and Germany in particular move to phase out diesel engines, Eastern Europe (overwhelmingly dependent on secondhand cars) has become the obvious dumping ground for used diesel vehicles. While German cities seek to remove diesel cars from their streets altogether, this year they outnumbered gas-fueled cars in Bulgaria for the first time. Given that the average age of an automobile on the country’s roads is over twenty years, even gasoline cars are far from air-friendly. And at 600 cars per 1,000 people, automobile density in Sofia is almost twice that of Vienna.

Privatization Makes Things Worse

Another factor contributing to Sofia’s air quality crisis is the privatization and liberalization of the country’s central heating system in the 1990s. Under socialism, Bulgaria built giant power plants to provide its cities with cheap central heating. This system was far from perfect, with citizens often bribing officials to connect their homes before their neighbors. But the relative corruption and inefficiency of the state-owned system pale in comparison to the disaster wrought by market reforms. Privatized central heating soon became prohibitively expensive for the average Bulgarian household and led to a wave of service cancellations in the 1990s and 2000s.

Low- and middle-income Bulgarians transitioned to more “private” ways of heating their homes, either through electric appliances (which triggered the biggest utilities bill protests ever in 2013), or by burning wood, coal, and other types of so-called “hard fuels.” Today, over half of Bulgarian households are heated with wood or coal. It goes without saying that these antiquated technologies are exceedingly dirty and have a terrible effect on local air quality.

In a way Sofia has de-modernized and “ruralized” since 1989. An estimated one-ninth (or 55,000) of the city’s homes are heated this way. The municipal administration responded to the problem by subsidizing the purchase of individual stoves rather than central heating bills. Most recently, in a pathetic PR stunt the mayor of Sofia Yordanka Fandakova demonstrated her concern by getting a private company to install a grand total of ten (10!) chimney filters in local residences.

Meanwhile the city council just authorized the controversial upgrade of one of Sofia’s power plants into an RDF (refuse-derived fuel) incinerator — i.e., burning trash to generate electricity. Experts are divided over just how much pollution having a garbage incinerator close to the city center will produce. Protests against the planned development erupt regularly, while experts and the city government assure the public that it will not produce that much pollution. Given how polluted Sofia already is, however, even “not that much” is cause for alarm.

Thanks to the wonders of capitalism Sofia’s toxic air has created its own economic opportunities, as sales of domestic air purifiers and face masks shoot through the roof. Concerned citizens thus seek individual technical solutions to what is, in fact, an inherently collective problem. Such responses may work for some people some of the time. Yet they do nothing to address the underlying political issues, allowing the problem to grow even bigger.

Blaming the Poor Instead of Soaking the Rich

When discussing the air quality problem, Bulgaria’s middle classes and liberal media establishment gloss over car emissions and instead blame the poor for polluting the air with their coal stoves. (At least those of them who can afford to keep their homes warm at all, which is only 60 percent of the population). These accusations take on particularly sinister overtones when the country’s Roma community is the subject of criticism. According to the popular narrative, Roma not only burn wood to heat their homes but also old car tires and other waste products. This kind of rhetoric is dangerous, as it risks turning anger over legitimate environmental concerns into protests against the Roma minority — of which there is no shortage in Bulgaria these days.

The government also prefers to deflect blame from itself onto the poor, and recently proposed criminalizing wood-fueled heating altogether to address the crisis. But its actions speak louder than words: during the same week it installed ten chimney filters, the city government also introduced the “green ticket” — an extraordinary meаsure that drastically lowers public transit fares on days when smog is particularly bad. Though it still refuses to admit it outright, the government’s actions concede that car exhaust is a major factor in the pollution crisis.

Like seemingly everything in Bulgarian life, even this belated admission is colored by the balance of class forces in society. It is fairly easy for the government to blame and punish the financially pressed owners of secondhand imported cars rather than take on the real estate barons or make substantial investments in public transit. Instead, the state introduced new taxes on older vehicles to incentivize drivers to switch to newer, cleaner models. The law ended up sparking a new wave of mass protests not unlike the French “yellow vests.”

No Choice

Such punitive attempts to mitigate air pollution will not make up for the stagnation and unaffordability of public transit, the lack of investment in the central heating system, or the absence of subsidies for more environmentally friendly ways to heat people’s houses. Nor do they even recognize the problem of Sofia’s real estate-dependent growth model.

Bulgaria’s poverty and its peripheral status in global capitalism have facilitated an ongoing assault on public spaces and services, privileged suburbanization and real estate bubbles, and thus conspired to make the already dire air situation in Sofia and other cities even worse. And how could things be otherwise?

Over ten years since joining the EU, Bulgaria still lags far behind its Western neighbors. Earning on average less than a fifth of their German counterparts, Bulgarian workers simply do not have the money to afford more environmentally sustainable heating options. People do not burn coal at home because they do not care about the environment, but because they do not have a choice.

Even if the Bulgarian state reversed its transportation policies, the country’s status as a low-wage supplier for wealthier markets places it at a permanent disadvantage. The kind of Green New Deal that both Bulgaria and all of Europe desperately need cannot be financed without also addressing the distribution of wealth across the continent.

The solution, then, has to take place not only at the national but also the European and international levels. This demands higher taxes on the rich to finance green infrastructure and investment. Today, the German government speaks of expanding renewable energy production, implementing more environmentally friendly urban transit systems, and cracking down on polluting vehicles. Yet this will remain cheap talk as long as their outdated, decidedly environmentally unfriendly leftovers are exported to Bulgaria and other countries in the east of the EU.