Killing me softly: air pollution in the Western Balkans


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Aleksandra Tomanić
Aleksandra Tomanić

Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB)

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

Western Balkan countries have the lowest air quality in Europe. Cities from the region figure regularly and prominently among the global top ten most polluted cities on Earth. According to the European Environmental Agency, 30,000 lives are lost every year as a direct consequence of excessive air pollution.

Air pollution is linked to numerous diseases, ranging from those affecting the heart and respiratory system, strokes, neurological and endocrine imbalances, to diabetes, infertility and cancer. The smaller the particle, the easier and deeper it can penetrate the body. Air pollution is also among the causes of the tremendously increasing infertility and sterility rates in women and men across the Western Balkans. Pollution leads to lower healthy egg cell count and thus to a decline in fertility. It also renders in vitro fertilisation less successful. In men, particulate matter pollution reaches the testicles and causes lower sperm production levels, less sperm mobility and programmed cell death, which leads to more miscarriages.

The sources of pollution are diverse: thermal power plants, heating plants, industrial facilities of all sizes, individual household heating, construction, landfills… The biggest polluters are old and inefficient coal power plants that operate far from any environmental standard. Tragically, the 16 thermal power plants in the Western Balkans, with a joint capacity of 8 GW, emit more sulphur dioxide than all 250 coal power plants in the EU, with a combined capacity of 156 GW. It is clear that importing even small amounts of electricity from the Western Balkans is not the smartest of all decisions.

Almost the entire Western Balkans region is equally affected, especially during the heating season and when there is no wind to carry the toxic air cloud elsewhere. And when there is wind, it is merely exchanging this toxic cloud among the countries of the region and neighbouring EU member states. Often, the air is visible and has a taste. Then, at least, this common enemy is recognisable to everyone.

The main question that remains is why a substantial shift in action is not taking place when national and international legal frameworks exist

The devastating track record on health and life expectancy of citizens demands that decision-makers refocus their policies and take urgent steps to reduce air pollution. There are many international, regional and national frameworks that would allow swift action.

As the Western Balkans countries are EU candidate and potential candidate countries, the EU acquis provides a good starting point. The negotiating chapter on the environment and climate change, now categorised under Cluster 4 on the green agenda and sustainable connectivity, is one of the fastest-growing acquis areas.

The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans was adopted by all six countries at the Berlin Process Summit in 2020. Its five pillars cover some of the most important issues that will eventually lead to healthier air, such as aligning with the EU’s ambition to become carbon-neutral by 2050, regulating the cross-border impact of air pollution, adopting strategies for the improvement of air quality and raising the capacity of air quality measuring systems. But too little has happened since then.

Apart from the Green Agenda, all Western Balkan countries have been members of the Energy Community since 2006. The Energy Community Secretariat has initiated procedures against four of the six Western Balkan countries for failing to bring emissions produced by their coal-fired power plants in compliance with international rules. Some countries even exceed set limits by six times.

Genuine regional cooperation, beyond regular summits, family pictures and lip service, is a necessity for the transformation of the energy sector and the environmental protection system, which would improve both the economy and public health. The main question that remains is why a substantial shift in action is not taking place when national and international legal frameworks exist.

Knowledge about air pollution is crucial

Statistical sources, although based on varying methodologies, all find that billions of euros are spent in the health sector to treat the consequences of air pollution. With smart, forward-looking and responsible policymaking and planning, not only could these costs be avoided, but tens of thousands of citizens be saved – from disease or death. And still, most government budgets do not reflect the enormous costs of tackling the consequences of air pollution and years of life lost, while some authorities even continue to financially support projects in the coal sector.

Citizens are mainly left alone to attempt the impossible and protect themselves from polluted air. Various national and regional campaigns have at least contributed to raising awareness. Knowledge about air pollution is crucial, so that citizens can make their decision-makers accountable, given that air quality is literally becoming a matter of life and death.

Monitoring mechanisms are slowly improving, mainly due to non-governmental actors. A proper monitoring network, as well as state-level measures, that warn communities when air pollution levels become excessive and alarm citizens to avoid any outdoor activity are urgent and necessary first steps. It would at least show that the problem has been acknowledged and that public health is being taken seriously.

The tragedy of the (Western) Balkans is that their decision-makers are stuck in 19th-century policies of nation-state building, fostering nationalism and discussing territories, while many challenges of this century remain unaddressed. Complete policy failure threatens people’s lives.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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