There is no longer a place in the Western Balkans for coal-fired power plants and the polluting industry

Photo-illustration: Pixabay

Coal combustion is the largest single source of air pollution in the Western Balkans, with thermal power plants playing a major role. The companies that manage them and the countries of the region do not comply with the law on harmful gas emissions. The same applies to other large combustion plants – industrial plants with the highest energy consumption, and they are most responsible for pollution in industrial activities in addition to electricity production. With coal-fired power plants, it will not be possible to achieve carbon neutrality for half a century. Also, the industry is in danger of financial collapse if it does not start adopting cleaner technologies quickly.

What is the path to cleaner air in the Western Balkans? One of the biggest polluters is the electricity sector, more specifically coal-fired power plants. If we look only at the industry, in addition to the activity of electricity production, plants whose work requires large amounts of energy in air pollution. These are steel mills, cement plants, refineries and other hotbeds of pollution at the local and wider level.

Coal is also used in heavy industry and for heating in heating plants, smaller boiler rooms and households, so that switching to cleaner fuels would eliminate the biggest single cause of air pollution.

Some of the electricity produced from coal has remained largely stable with no signs of decline over the five-year period. Despite declining domestic demand in 2020, production from coal-fired power plants has increased from 4 per cent to 11 per cent in the Western Balkans, accounting for 63 per cent of total electricity production..

Citizens are not willing to give billions of euros to the coal industry

Moreover, projects are still underway for the construction and reconstruction of coal-fired power plants, with the expansion of coal mines. Even if the old facilities were shut down when the new ones were put into operation, extreme air pollution would continue, which would prolong the dependence on coal for decades.

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Ivan Aleksić)

In 2019, the countries of the region paid 72.7 million euros in direct subsidies to electricity producers from coal. This amount is relatively small when compared to state guarantees for loans, worth as much as 2.15 billion euros. We are talking about the money of all citizens, and such decisions are made without the participation of the public.

During the production of electricity from coal and other industrial activities, sulfur oxides (SO) are releasedx) and especially sulfur dioxide (SO2), then powdered substances, which are also called suspended or PM particles, nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds – NMVOC, and heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

They all endanger health and the environment. For example, sulfur emissions into the air lead to an increase in soil acidity and thus endanger agriculture. The share of material transport is not included in the air pollution that originates from industry.

Regulations and laws do not apply

A large part of the acquis communautaire in the field of environment has already entered the national legislation of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia and Northern Macedonia. However, due to the non-acceptance of responsibilities in the entire chain from the authorities to the operators of industrial plants and the lack of enforcement mechanisms, the permitted levels of air pollutants are still being exceeded. Governments continue to view coal as a strategic resource. Companies from that sector, almost all of which are state-owned, are tolerating violations and delaying the introduction of environmental protection measures. At the same time, private, mostly foreign investors in the energy-intensive industry are allowed to operate unhindered despite non-compliance with pollution standards and regulations. Many countries in the region exceeded maximum levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in 2020 and powdered matter or PM particles allowed in national emission reduction plans (NERPs). Against all countries in the region except Albania Proceedings have been initiated for breaches of the Energy Community Treaty and breaches of the Large Fireplaces Directive.

Pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans also has a transboundary impact. Nearly 19,000 deaths occurred in total from 2018 to 2020 in the European region due to total emissions from coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans. Of these, more than 50 percent (10,800) were in EU countries, almost 30 percent (6,500) in the Western Balkans, and the rest in neighboring countries..

No compromise until carbon neutrality in 2050

The countries of the region are determined to join the EU, which means the implementation of all regulations there for environmental protection and the goal of net emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) will be reduced to zero by 2050 at the latest. Since coal-fired power plants are the largest source of this greenhouse gas in the Western Balkans, it is hard to imagine that these plants can survive.

The EU has similar ambitions for other industries, so it encourages the development of technologies for the use of electricity and hydrogen, while capturing and storing CO2. There are even experimental programs for the production of fuels and other carbon dioxide materials.

Most member states have set a deadline for rejecting coal, and thermal power plants that use that fuel are rapidly shutting down. In the region, for example Tuzla 4 in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as certain boilers of the Kolubara A3 thermal power plant have an opt-out period until March 2022. The Kakanj Thermal Power Plant in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the Morava Thermal Power Plant in Serbia, have until the end of spring 2022. And several boilers Kolubara A3 and A5 have a deadline until the end of 2023, as well as TPP Tuzla 310. In addition to increasingly stringent environmental regulations, the owners of these and other fossil fuel plants are burdened with costs in the name of carbon dioxide emissions permits. The price of these certificates on the stock exchange has been reaching new record highs for months.

Photo illustration: Unsplash (Eduardo Jaeger)

Expensive fuel filters with no future

Moreover, messages are coming from the European Commission that the oil and petrochemical sectors have no future, and that fossil gas will only play the role of a transitional fuel. The EU also plans to introduce a CO tax soon2 for foreign goods and services, which would probably automatically drown many export-oriented polluters in our region. It is not excluded that all the mentioned mechanisms will be further strengthened and that a ladder will be raised to mitigate global warming and its consequences.

Apart from the fact that in the Western Balkans there are delays in the projects of reconstruction, installation of filters and installation of desulphurization plants in thermal power plants, so that air pollution continues and endangers public health, these expensive interventions will raise the cost of closing them.11. It seems more and more inevitable. It should also be said that all the said equipment for environmental protection works on electricity, and it is logical that it will be produced by the same coal-fired thermal power plant, so the consumption of that fossil fuel increases.

The role of citizens and civil society

In order to combat air pollution in industry, it is most important that the competent institutions have zero tolerance for violations of environmental laws and standards.. Civil society can contribute by strengthening its capacity to initiate legal proceedings, which will improve judicial practice.

Legal interventions should be accompanied by awareness-raising campaigns to gain support. They also have an important role in alerting the authorities and conducting media campaigns, and according to the Aarhus Convention, they have the right to participate in decision-making in the analysis of the impact of existing and planned industrial plants on the environment. International citizens and environmental organizations can help their citizens in this.

Local communities affected by pollution from nearby industry are especially important in triggering the authorities to respond. International financial institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank, as well as private creditors, can be a serious factor, if they condition the approval of loans in compliance with environmental regulations.

Photo-illustration: Pixabay

We are stronger together

An independent judiciary and fines could be introduced within the Energy Community, an international organization that mediates in expanding the EU energy market to countries including the Western Balkans. Such a move requires the support of the administration in Brussels, but also of civil society and countries in the region.

The entire Western Balkans is struggling with more or less the same challenges, including industrial pollution. That is why joint performances of activist groups before the European Union, the Energy Community and international organizations are more effective than individual ones.

Fulfilling the obligations from the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, which the countries of the region took over when they signed the Sofia Declaration in November 2020, opens access to grants and other EU financial instruments for a fair transition.

Even without all this, coal mines and thermal power plants would not be able to survive on the market if they did not receive the mentioned subsidies. This money would have to be redirected to social programs and retraining of workers, rehabilitation and conversion of plants and mines, and development of projects for the production of energy from renewable sources. In that way, the electric power system would be transformed with a minimal blow to society, energy security and public finances.

Coal mines occupy a huge area and can be used to install solar power plants that will replace the capacity to produce electricity.

In any case, the society is extremely endangered due to air pollution, and without the application of the law on environmental protection, more serious improvement is not possible. Industrial producers, both large and small, must turn to cleaner technologies, otherwise they will not be able to survive.

The Western Balkans, among other things, have agreed to harmonize with the emissions trading system – the EU ETS. Costs for carbon emissions permits are increasingly weakening the sustainability of coal-fired power generation. Therefore, it can be expected to abandon the renovation and construction of thermal power plants and faster closure of existing ones, which would then drastically reduce air pollution.

Source: RERI

Source: Energetski portal Srbije by

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