“When my daughters asked me why we can’t open the windows, I didn’t know what to tell them” confesses Andrija Petrovic, one of the initiators of the action to place surgical masks on the sculptures of war heroes in Valjevo, a small town in Serbia. According to the WHO, the coal based production of electricity in the Western Balkans create a cost between 2,9 and 8,5 billion euros a year, only on the basis of damaging the health of citizens. The Western Balkans still highly depends on coal power plants for their energy production. As a result, the region deals with high levels of emission of sulphur dioxide (SO2), dust and nitrous oxides (NOx) resulting in premature deaths, pollution, environmental degradation and political tensions. The coal industry has devastating affects on the climate crisis and undermines the sustainable development of the region. The consequences of these power plants exceed national borders and are even harmful to their EU neighboring states.
The 21th century is marked by progressive initiatives that accelerate the energy transition and decrease the emission of harmful toxins. EU member states have progressively been reevaluating the energy sector and implementing legislation to reduce greenhouse gases in the energy sector for example; by subsidizing renewable energy (such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydral, tidal, biomass), taxing CO2 emissions, cleaning up and closing down power stations, sequestrating CO2 and increasing overall energy efficiency.
The Western Balkans could do more to take advantage of the natural benefits that the region has regarding the production of renewable energy. The EU has set up the Energy Community Treaty, creating an internal market in electricity and natural gases between EU member states and the Western Balkans. The aim of the Treaty is to integrate the energy market of the participating states and articulates as one of the main objectives: “to improve energy efficiency and the environmental situation related to network energy and develop renewable energy sources”.
The region is exceeding the limits imposed by the EU but due to a lack of enforceable measures, the Treaty can’t tax or fine the coal power plants and states. Many of the countries in the Western Balkans are candidate states to the EU and they will have to adhere to EU standards in order to be officially granted membership since the energy transition and the diversification of the sector remain two of the bottlenecks in the successful integration of the candidate states. For many countries in the region, including the most polluting states Serbia and Bosnia & Hercegovina, this is a great incentive to modernize the industry towards sustainable solutions. But the incentive to revert to renewable energy is enforced by the worsening of the demographic situation, where people like Andrija Petrovic move abroad for better opportunities and a healthier life. The costs of health care, the excessive death rates and the migration of local knowledge make the recommendation of the EU even more urgent and important.
In coming decades, big changes will occur in the region, making way for the energy transition. This is an opportunity that could open doors for Dutch and EU investors, businesses and entrepreneurs in the energy sector. The Western Balkans has great natural potential for renewable energy since the region is gifted with mountains, lakes, strong winds and other beneficial circumstances for renewable energy. The increase of demand for expert knowledge, international investments and business opportunities is therefore inevitable. If the Western Balkans fail to participate in the energy transition, all war heroes’ monuments will have to wear their masks.