Air pollution from coal-fired power plants in Balkans kills around 19,000 people, study finds

According to a report published on September 7 by the CEE Bankwatch Network and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, around 19,000 people have died in the past three years as a result of air pollution from coal-fired power plants. of the Western Balkans. .

The report, Comply or Close, launched to mark International Clean Air Day for Blue Skies, finds that nearly 12,000 of those deaths were due to violations of legally binding pollution limits. More than half of these preventable deaths occurred in the EU, which imports 8% of the electricity produced by these heavily polluting power plants, CEE Bankwatch said in a statement.

According to the report, air pollution from coal-fired power plants in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro affects not only residents of their own countries, but also those in neighboring countries of the EU, notably in Romania, Hungary and Greece.

“This report lays bare the human toll of the continuing breaches of coal-based electricity in the Western Balkans. Governments in the region must immediately begin a swift and fair transition to sustainable energy systems, with the support of the EU ”, CEE Bankwatch Network Southeast Europe Energy Advisor Pippa gallop noted.

The Large Combustion Plant Directive – an EU directive aimed at reducing emissions of hazardous substances, adapted for countries party to the Energy Community Treaty – legally obliges these countries to control air pollution in their homes. power plants since 2018, the press release says. Yet, as the report finds, in 2020 the 18 coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans emitted two and a half times more sulfur dioxide (SO2) than the 221 coal-fired power plants in the EU combined.

The new report reveals how coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans have not only flouted countries’ legal obligations, but have also taken a heavy toll on the lives of people in the region and beyond.

According to the analysis, 3,700 people died in the Western Balkans and 7,000 in the EU alone due to coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans which exceeded pollution limits between 2018 and 2020. It is estimated that around a thousand more people have died in other areas from suffocation. air pollution from the same power plants.

In the three years since air pollution limits became mandatory under the Energy Community Treaty, the coal-fired power plants of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo have emitted SO2 at levels at least six times above the legal limit.

In Serbia alone, coal-fired power stations subject to the national emission reduction plan emitted more SO2 in 2020 than the entire fleet of coal-fired power stations in the EU, said CEE Bankwatch.

In the same year, the Ugljevik power plant in Bosnia and Herzegovina was the region’s worst polluter, single-handedly exceeding the combined SO2 cap for the four countries. The unit, like the Serbian Kostolac B, is equipped with a desulphurization system, but it has not been put into operation. Worse yet, an additional 700 MW of new lignite capacity is still planned at the Ugljevik plant.

According to CEE Bankwatch, the four countries with national emission reduction plans – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia – are currently facing litigation for failure to meet the pollution limits of the plans in 2018. and 2019. Another dispute settlement case was opened against Montenegro in April 2021 after the Pljevlja power plant continued to operate beyond its 20,000-hour quota under the ‘lifetime exemption. limited ”of the Large Combustion Plants Directive.

“Those governments in the Western Balkans that have not yet done so must set a date for an urgent coal phase-out,” coordinator of the Balkan air pollution campaign of the CEE Bankwatch network. Davor Pehchevski said, adding: “For power plants that cannot be shut down immediately, governments must limit their hours of operation until emissions standards are met, in order to save lives.”

He argued that in parallel, investments in energy efficiency measures and renewable energies must be urgently scaled up and that plans for a just transition for coal workers and communities must be developed with all stakeholders. relevant stakeholders, especially affected communities.

According to the report, the electricity produced by these coal-fired power plants and traded with the EU in 2020 – although it represents only a tiny fraction of the EU’s electricity consumption – produced as much SO2 as half of the EU’s coal-fired power stations combined.

Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst at the Energy and Clean Air Research Center, pointed out that the report shows that when the EU exchanges electricity with its neighbors in the Western Balkans, it bears both the impacts and part of the responsibility of uncontrollable air pollution resulting from it. “The EU must also help the countries of the Western Balkans to move beyond coal by taxing imports of electricity from fossil fuels and by ensuring the effective application of the Treaty establishing the Energy Community”, said she argued.

Ioana Ciuta, energy coordinator for the Western Balkans at CEE Bankwatch Network, argued that governments in the Western Balkans cannot dream of EU membership while ignoring pollution control rules. He concluded that “to avoid this kind of blatant non-compliance, the application of the Energy Community Treaty must be a priority. The European Commission and EU governments must introduce effective sanctions ”.

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