by Rosa Hergan
Another winter draws to a close in the Western Balkans and little has changed when it comes to air pollution: cities were blanketed in thick smog for days on end, politicians mostly failed to introduce protective measures to combat air pollution, and the toll of preventable premature deaths caused by toxic air kept growing.
“In the Western Balkans, we live in a poisonous cloud,” reads the introductory line of the European Fund for the Balkans’s recently launched campaign against poor air quality in the region. Air pollution caused by coal plants alone causes approximately 3,900 premature deaths, 8,500 cases of bronchitis in children and other chronic illnesses, amounting to EUR 11,535 in health costs annually in the Western Balkans, according to a report by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), Sandbag, Climate Action Network Europe, CEE Bankwatch and Europe beyond Coal.
In 2019, the Western Balkans coal plants included in National Emissions Reduction Plans continued to emit six times the total sulphur dioxide (SO2) limit allowed under the Energy Community Treaty. Dust emissions from these power plants – in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia – also remain at 1.6 times the combined threshold. The global pandemic only exacerbated the notorious public health situation, as air pollution rendered citizens in the region more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections.
Citizens stand up for better air quality
Despite the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, this winter saw another series of protests and civil society mobilization against government inaction on air pollution.
In Serbia, several thousand citizens claimed the streets on January 10 in Belgrade under the slogan “Cities of Serbia without smog”. Five days later, the Secretariat for Environmental Protection of the city of Belgrade invited public comments on a draft proposal for the Air Quality Plan for the next 10 years. The non-governmental organization Renewables and Environment Regulatory Institute (RERI) criticized the 90 measures for failing to address the urgent need to stop air pollution in the capital and lacking reference to the negative impacts on public and environmental health as well as any measurable indicators to monitor the implementation process.
By the end of January, RERI filed a lawsuit against the state-owned electricity company (EPS) at the high court in Belgrade for not complying with the National Emissions Reduction Plan (NERP) and thus breaching international and national law on emissions from large combustion plants.. Pollution from the Kostolac B coal power plant emitted SO₂ levels ten times higher than the emission ceilings permitted in the NERP in 2019, despite having desulphurisation equipment installed.
In the meantime, the European Fund for the Balkans had started its joint campaign against air pollution in the Western Balkan with its regional partner organizations on January 21. It calls upon institutions to fulfill their commitments under the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, including “the regulating the cross border impact of air pollution, adopting strategies for the improvement of air quality, raising the capacity of air quality measuring systems, and the total elimination of coal subsidies.”
Twenty kilometres southwest from Tuzla, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than 50 citizens gathered on March 15 in the city of Lukavac to protest political inaction on air pollution and environmental protection. Lukavac city grapples with the high dust levels from the nearby coal power plant, as well as several chemicals factories in the city. In 2019, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NERP coal plants pumped out SO₂ 8.5 times as high as the country’s national ceiling, while the Gacko power plant emitted dust particles 5.18 times as much as permitted.
Next stop, infringement procedures
The Western Balkan governments’ notorious failure to comply with EU regulations has not gone unnoticed at the Energy Community Secretariat. In February, it issued warning letters to Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, stressing the lack of implementation of the NERPs in each country and alerting them of imminent infringement procedures. This was followed on 16 March by the Energy Community Secretariat initiating dispute settlement procedures against the countries for exceeding their emission limits in 2018 and 2019.
Photo by Flickr user IgorM2020, republished here under a Creative Commons licence.