The lives of millions of people in the Balkans are negatively affected by political divisions, the scars of the last wars, and economies still lagging. Energy – particularly the production of electricity – is also one of the critical issues for the region’s present and future, with immediate consequences for neighbouring countries that are already part of the EU.
A new report this month suggested that authorities in the Western Balkans should focus on a fast transition from the production of electricity from coal, common in most countries in the region, towards sustainable energy systems. In the study ‘Comply or Close’, CEE Bankwatch Network and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said that almost 20.000 people have died over the past three years in the Balkans and the EU as a result of air pollution from coal-fired power plants active in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro.
In the region, there are currently 18 coal-powered power plants which, according to several studies, emit together two and half times as much sulphur dioxide as all 221 coal power stations in the EU together. And electricity generated by coal plants in the Balkans and traded with the EU produced as much SO2 as half of the EU’s coal power plants combined.
Countries in the Western Balkans are still not part of the European Union but are obliged to comply with the so-called EU ‘Large Combustion Plants Directive’. The directive, binding for the Energy Community parties, aims to reduce air pollution from power plants. However, according to the study, Balkan power plants in the past three years have continued emitting SO2 levels six times higher than the legal limits. Moreover, they failed to comply with the pollution limits set by international and national regulations.
While street protests against pollution are becoming common in the region, public health consequences are also dire. The modelling used for the report shows that nearly 19.000 deaths occurred from 2018 to 2020 due to the total emissions of coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans. Out of the total, more than 50 per cent were registered in EU countries, in particular in Romania, Greece and Hungary, almost 30 per cent in the Western Balkans and the remainder in other countries. The total emissions of coal power plants resulted in costs between 25.3 billion and 51.8 billion euros both in the Balkans and the EU.
Some countries in the region recently pledged to phase out coal in the next decade. North Macedonia could be the first in the Balkans to abandon coal by 2028, followed by Montenegro in 2035, while Serbia excluded to abandon coal for now. However, the report stressed that the phaseout should be quicker, and the EU should help the Balkans move beyond coal. “Those Western Balkan governments which have not yet done so, must set a date for an urgent coal phaseout”, said Davor Pehchevski, Balkan Air Pollution Campaign Coordinator at CEE Bankwatch Network.
China could indirectly facilitate the phaseout. The Chinese President Xi Jinping announced this month that Beijing “will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad”. The announcement could have an impact also in the Balkans, a region where China used loans and investments in energy and transport to reinforce its strategic presence. Several Chinese companies are constructing or modernising thermal power plants in the region, such as Kostolac B in Serbia and Ugljevik 3 and unit 7 at the Tuzla coal-fired plant, in Bosnia, this being one of the most significant investments in the country since the war. In the past years, Western Balkan countries have scaled up the expansion of coal power with a total of 2.3 GW of projects in which Chinese banks and state-run companies are involved.
Journalist based in the Balkans since 2005, he covers Central- and Eastern Europe for a wide range of media outlets, including the Italian national news agency ANSA, and the dailies La Stampa and Il Piccolo.