There is a striking disparity between Eastern and Western Europe- a revitalised Iron Curtain has emerged. Statistics show that Eastern European and Balkan countries suffer the highest air-pollution related deaths in Europe.
Multiple efforts to map European pollution confirm the same thing: the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Bloc states are mired in air pollution. Research drawn from the European Air Quality Index and Berkeley Earth’s real time air quality map also visualise this bleak picture. On the ground, a whopping 33 of Europe’s most polluted towns reside in Poland, while Macedonia’s Tetovo and Skopje lay unenviable claim to being the continent’s two most polluted cities in 2018.
Many of Eastern Europe’s economies, as well as their histories and geographic circumstances, fuel pollution. Construction and mining still play much larger roles in the economy, and highly pollutant brown coal (lignite) is also cheap and abundant. Sixteen aging brown coal plants in the former Yugoslavia create as much pollution as all 296 European Union power plants combined. Additionally, coal and wood burning stoves at home and inefficient pollutant vehicles on the roads intensify the problem.
The geography, though beautiful, aids pollution. In Skopje and Sarajevo, the mountains trap polluted air in densely populated valleys. Pollution reaches its peak in winter, when coal fired stations and wood and coal stoves churn out pollution from chimneys industrial and domestic.
The situation is harsh enough that many in Macedonia – particularly in Skopje and Tetovo, are seeking individual respite at great personal costs. Home air purifiers have become particularly popular, but an average air purifier costs around 400 euros – near to the average monthly salary.
There has been growing discontent with Balkan governments over pollution. Many demonstrations have taken place in the last few years in Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia, to name a few. The protests have likely been fuelled by an increase in the accessibility of information. Macedonian software engineer and entrepreneur Gorjan Jovanovski created MojVozduh or MyAir, which draws directly from public data around Macedonia; users can see the Air Quality Index around them. The app has been downloaded near 100,000 times, which is an astonishing feat for a country with 2 million inhabitants.
But though the economic and human costs of pollution in in the region are high and public pressure considerable, there have been few major efforts by those governments to tackle pollution.
Brown coal has an understandable appeal for energy in the region: it is abundant, cheap, there’s a large workforce that knows how to use it, and it makes the user largely energy independent from either their immediate neighbours, or from far-flung gas producers. Each potential solution is also, not without issue.
Hydroelectricity is already widely used in the region. However, it is vulnerable to environmental problems. Albania is almost totally dependant on hydroelectricity, and during water shortages it has to import coal generated electricity from its neighbours. As climate change accelerates, more hydropower may not be a wise course of action.
Gas imports are another option, and many Balkan governments have shown an interest. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), when completed, will send gas from Azerbaijan through northern Greece and southern Albania towards Italy. Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania are in discussions to build the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline, which would tap into the TAP and send gas north along the Adriatic. Gas, however, would make the Balkans more energy dependant, both in costs and transit.
On renewables, there have been some dips into the market but little planned effort to establish renewable energy as a serious part of the region’s energy sector. Though European investors have shown interest, helping to build several wind farms in Montenegro and Serbia, most government interest has so far been directed at: more coal.
With plans across the region for new coal fired stations – these would be at least moderately more efficient than their predecessors, but with brown coal it can only be so efficient. With a life span of 40-50 years, it could lock the region into another half century of brown coal use.
As part of their bids to join the EU, ex-Yugoslav republics have pledged to reduce emission levels and some progress is anticipated, with pressure, to come close to the expected European standards. But even if the new plants meet EU Best Available Technology (BAT) standards, the cost of emission is expected to rise as the EU tightens its emissions-trading scheme. Thus, making the continued use of high emitting power sources uneconomical.