At the end of 2019 Von der Leyen’ Commission has launched its European Green Deal as its new growth strategy. Within this ambitious initiative that will impact the European Union and its neighbourhood, at what stage are the Western Balkans on their path towards environmental protection?
Environmental issues have become nowadays matters of national importance for many countries, strictly connected to economic and social development. Movements like Fridays for Future have placed under the spotlight a issue that now more than ever is shaping Governments’ Agenda. Last December the European Commission has presented its flagship policy, aware that to maximise the impact of the European Green Deal  for the whole continent, it should take into account the Western Balkans , ensuring equal opportunities and weight: that’s how the “Green Agenda for the Western Balkans” came to life .
This is not the first attempt to align Western Balkans energetic and environmental standards to the European Union ones: in 2015 the Energy Community was established as the main tool to integrate the energy sectors of non-EU countries into the single European energy market. Over the years, third countries took over key EU acquis communautaire, making the energy systems of the Western Balkans partly integrated with those of the Union. But in the last two years, the EU stepped up its ambitious decarbonization policy, while the region stood still. The gap between them in terms of energy and environmental policy is serious, despite the enormous potential of the six countries in terms of developing hydro-energy and solar energy capacity.
How far along have they been?
The priority of the Energy Community is to assist the Western Balkan countries in their transition to a sustainable, low-carbon future. Actions to help the green transition have been supported throughout the year also by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which since 2006 has invested more than €3 billion in greening the region. Together with the EU (which has provided more than €185 million in grants to support energy efficiency and renewable energy) and other funding, such as the Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF) and Green Economy Financing Facility (GEFF), they are very active in engaging with national governments to reform policy frameworks.
Major weaknesses are now being identified in outdated, inefficient and sub-standard coal power plants, a highly polluting diesel and petrol car fleet and many household heating systems powered by fossil fuels. Despite European directives stipulating the reduction of toxic emissions coal-fired plants, Balkans are failing to hit the targets (i.e. Tuzla and Plevlja) with total sulphur dioxide emissions from the major 16 plants in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia estimated six times higher than in 2018.
Those emissions have made the Balkans a pollution hotspot in Europe , with Belgrade and Sarajevo topping the rankings of the most polluted cities several times over the past few months . The long-term impact of air pollution can lead to serious illnesses, besides the already happening premature deaths and respiratory diseases .
However, positive climate-related efforts have been witnessed: almost every coal plants project has been dropped, except for those in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which should be financed by Chinese funds. North Macedonia has approved a national strategy that will make it the first country to consider a coal-phase out before 2030, together with the realization of solar plants on top of a coal mine site in Oslomej. Recently in Kosovo ContourGlobal abandoned its plans to build a new coal power plant .
Room for improvement?
Nevertheless, a lot still to be improved: besides their upgrades, Western Balkans countries are still heavily dependent on old coal-fired power plants and carbon intensity is more than six times higher than the European Union average. Achieving energy efficiency remains a key challenge in a region where energy usage is up to 2.5 times higher than the average for OECD countries.
Even though it is considered one of the core areas for the EU, the most treacherous obstacle is represented by the lack of interest in environmental issues from political authorities. Governments consider this matter a topic within the competence of environment ministry exclusively, as well as a threat to their traditional economy. The consequence is a lack of cooperation between the different ministries (energy, agriculture, water management, environment, tourism, etc.) in developing a sustainable cross-sectorial strategy.
Likewise, green parties in the region are struggling to come out from the grassroots activism to make a bigger impact on national politics because the electorate care about concerns like healthcare and social security rather than environmental issues. The only exception is in North Macedonia, where the liberal Democratic Renewal of Macedonia (DOM) has been since 2008 a minor player in the ruling coalition. “In those countries, we need to rely on civic society since we have no real partners on the political scene”, has said Michal Berg, Committee member of European Greens.
According to this new consciousness, this was supposed to be the right time for all those involved to work towards the integration and it is undoubtedly clear that EU accession process with the Western Balkans requires more climate action now, even in light of what stated in the Zagreb Declaration . A feedback from the European Union is requested as soon as possible, especially since actors like the US, Russia and China rarely miss an opportunity to impair the “European perspective” with their investments, which often contrast EU’s quest for a sustainable development. Sadly, the COVID-19 crisis has compelled the European Union to focus on specific needs, and the Commission’s effort to deliver a Green Agenda for the Western Balkans for now had to be put on hold, until a more convenient time within 2020.
(We also spoke about the potential benefits and costs of The European Green Deal for Central and Eastern Europe in our second episode of the Directors’ Cut. Check it out here)
 European Green Deal, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/european-green-deal-communication_en.pdf
 Green Agenda for the Western Balkans – time to plan for a resilient and protective future, available at: https://bankwatch.org/blog/green-agenda-for-the-western-balkans-time-to-plan-for-a-resilient-and-protective-future
 Air Pollution and Human Health: The Case of the Western Balkans (UN Environment), available at: https://www.developmentaid.org/api/frontend/cms/uploadedImages/2019/06/Air-Quality-and-Human-Health-Report_Case-of-Western-Balkans_preliminary_results.pdf
 Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map, available at: https://aqicn.org/map/europe/
 Chronic coal pollution (HEAL), available at: https://www.env-health.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Chronic-Coal-Pollution-report.pdf
 ContourGlobal Abandons Coal In Kosovo And Switch To Renewables, Forbes, available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/emanuelabarbiroglio/2020/03/20/contourglobal-abandons-coal-in-kosovo-and-switch-to-renewables/#10437b174b2e
 Zagreb Declaration (6th May 2020), available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/43776/zagreb-declaration-en-06052020.pdf