Sixteen coal plants in the Western Balkans pollute as much as the entire EU fleet of 250 units, causing sickness and deaths across the continent. It’s high time to take action, write Viola von Cramon and Petros Kokkalis.
Pollution from 16 coal plants in the Western Balkans is responsible for 3,900 premature deaths and 8,000 cases of bronchitis in children every year across Europe, from Serbia to Greece and Germany. Air pollution knows no borders: it affects not only people in the Western Balkans but across Europe too.
People in the Western Balkans have been rising up to demand government action on air pollution. But, as the figures above indicate, this is not just their problem. Dealing with pollution in the region is a task for all of us in Europe, from national governments to EU institutions.
Western Balkan countries have signed up to the Energy Community Treaty, whose mission is to integrate energy markets in the region with the EU one and apply selected environmental legislation in the energy sector.
This means they have committed to reduce pollution from coal plants, with cuts in sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and dust pollution to be demonstrated already in 2018.
Yet new research by NGO CEE Bankwatch Network indicates that governments in the region are failing to deliver on their promises to abide by pollution control requirements for large combustion plants. The findings are startling.
Total sulphur dioxide emissions for Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia were more than six times higher in 2018 than the ceiling agreed with the Energy Community. One power plant in Serbia, Kostolac B, single-handedly emits more SO2 than the total allowed for the four countries together.
This is particularly ironic given that Kostolac B is actually the only plant in the region with desulphurisation equipment fitted in the last years, courtesy of the China Machinery and Engineering Corporation (CMEC), the company now entrusted to build a whole new unit at the Serbian coal complex.
For dust, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia exceeded the ceiling by over 60 per cent. Serbia’s and Kosovo’s contributions alone were enough to breach the overall ceiling. Kosovo B was the highest emitting plant for dust, producing around half of the total allowed for the four countries.
The Energy Community has been beating the drum about these countries’ failure to fulfil their promises, but to no avail.
Since the Energy Community Treaty entered into force in 2006, its Secretariat has investigated over 100 cases of non-compliance, yet even if it did find serious breaches, in many cases they have not yet been rectified by governments. This is because the Energy Community lacks sufficient enforcement power.
At the upcoming Ministerial Council of the Energy Community happening in Moldova Dec. 12-13, the European Commission must be vocal about Western Balkan countries breaking air pollution commitments while also doing more to strengthen the Energy Community’s enforcement mechanisms.
The environmental gap between the EU and Western Balkan power sectors is widening, and this cannot be allowed to continue in a common energy market. EU power plants – rightly – have to apply ever-tighter pollution control standards and pay for CO2 emissions, but the Western Balkan ones do not.
The EU needs to strengthen the Energy Community Treaty to enable it to tackle these imbalances.
To reduce air pollution, the dirtiest plants must be urgently fitted with emission reduction equipment. To provide maximum health protection, pollution control investments made now need to be in line with the highest standards applied across the EU, those included in the 2017 LCP BREF.
Continuous monitoring and transparency on both pollution levels and measures taken to reduce emissions are key to getting the best results and gaining public trust.
Experiences in our own countries, Germany and Greece, show that transforming the energy sector is one of the most difficult challenges a government can face. But, given the life-threatening nature of air pollution and the severity of the climate crisis, all governments have to realise they can no longer bet on fake solutions, such as “clean coal” or gas.
Some political leaders in the Western Balkans too have already started planning for a coal-free future. Montenegro has recently announced the cancellation of the Pljevlja II coal power plant project, while North Macedonia’s draft Energy Strategy shows that an early coal exit would be advantageous for the country.
An inclusive energy transition process in the region, leading towards a clear coal phaseout date and ensuring job creation and the preservation of cultural heritage, needs to start immediately.
The EU can and should support such an effort, for example by extending the EU Coal Regions in Transition Platform to the Energy Community countries or creating a Just Transition Fund for the region, similar to the one proposed to EU countries.
This is an opportunity for us to show that the EU institutions acknowledge the reforms of the Western Balkan countries, and appreciate those who are ready to do more. It is clear that the EU must keep its promise and continue with enlargement.
But even until we move beyond the current deadlock we have created for ourselves, we need to move forward in the areas – like energy – where a policy framework is in place and quick action can improve the lives of millions.