Environmental Protection – it Matters to us all

Author: Stefan Šipka

Citizens are faced with numerous economic problems, such as unemployment, low salaries and pensions, and high prices of goods and services. Hence, topics such as the environment generally receive less attention and are perceived as something to be dealt with only after “burning” topics are resolved. However, are these issues so separate? Is a healthy environment just a luxury to be addressed only after other vital issues have been resolved? Or are they perhaps interconnected more than they seem at a first glance? Emissions of toxic substances, for instance from power plants and vehicles, adversely affect human health. Of course, this is bad per se; however, it also causes economic costs such as reduced labour productivity and additional health expenditures. One can also take the example of the recent catastrophic floods that are associated with an insufficient level of forestation, the poor condition of the riverbeds and the impacts of climate change. These and many other examples show that environmental pollution can adversely affect the health, the economy, and the quality of life in Serbia. Conversely, environmental protection may gradually lead to improved health, access to new technologies, sufficient quantities of quality resources for the economy, new jobs, and could also improve the international reputation of our country. It is also clear that these improvements can only positively impact our daily lives.Individuals, their associations and companies can certainly do a lot on their own (rational use of water and electricity, not throwing waste on the street, etc.). However, many problems can only be solved jointly, because of their scale and complexity (e.g., industrial pollution, climate change) or because the number of irresponsible individuals is too large.
Environmental protection is therefore undoubtedly a significant political as well as policy issue. It implies that there is a political will and adequate knowledge to define common “rules of the game” that we must all respect in accordance with defined rights and obligations of each actor. When creating environmental policy, coordination within the public administration is needed as well as the access to relevant data and participation of all stakeholders (e.g., civil society, business sector) in decision-making. I would like to point out that careful management of environmental policy is also necessary within the context of the EU integration process (more precisely, the current EU accession process), since the EU standards in this area are too high in relation to the current state of the environment in Serbia. This can be seen clearly in the calculations which show that, in order to comply with existing EU standards, Serbia will need at least 10 billion euros! At the same time, this figure should not be perceived as a cost, but rather as an investment that brings long-term benefits rather than deprivation, both in financial terms as well as in the broader sense. Besides, the process includes negotiations with the EU on specific issues, among which negotiations on transitional periods for compliance with EU regulations in the field of the environment (within the Negotiation Chapter 27) should be particularly emphasized. Here again, we are returning to the money-related issues, because Serbia currently does not allocate sufficient funds for environmental protection. It is questionable how adequately the existing resources are being used. The situation is particularly alarming on the local level because the existing legal frameworks assign а lot of competence to municipalities with regard to environmental protection. This makes sense from the perspective bringing decision-making process closer to citizens, on the other hand, the capacity municipal administrations (financial, human, technical) in the field of environmental protection is often modest and insufficient to effectively respond to all the challenges that the local self-governments are facing with. In addition to this, resources that municipalities and cities already have are inadequately used. For instance, in the subsequent years, more income has been generated from reimbursements for the environment than has been spent. The issue of purposeful spending of collected funds is very topical as well. Finally, financial issues gain further importance if one bears in mind that, after reaching full membership, Serbia has a legal obligation to comply with EU environmental standards (or in the case of transitional periods – after the expiration of the terms that have been negotiated). After that, the non-compliance with EU legislation can lead to serious costs (due to anticipated financial penalties) for the state, municipalities and, ultimately, citizens themselves. Considering the arguments mentioned above, the importance of the transitional periods becomes more vivid, since, through them, Serbia can prepare for harmonization of its standards with the EU standards under more favorable conditions. Nonetheless, obtaining pertinent deadlines makes sense provided there is a continuous work to resolve the existing environment-related problems (including financial matters).

The abovementioned challenges should not discourage us. On the contrary, Serbia can be a country with a high quality of life, however, to achieve this, we need to be aware not only of our everyday problems, but also need to make time for reflection and long-term care for the wider environment around us. This includes public participation in the decision-making process which should serve the public interest, for which there already is a number of procedures and legal and institutional arrangements, such as the environmental assessments of proposed development projects and strategic documents (EIA and SEA). Citizens (i.e. taxpayers) through civil society organizations (cooperation or membership in CSOs) can contribute to a more transparent and inclusive design and implementation of the budget, especially at the local level, and contribute to successful environment-related financial management. Citizens and their associations also have an impact on policy-making in a broader sense, starting with the discussions on drafting legal documents to giving suggestions and monitoring the process of Serbia’s EU accession, including pertinent negotiations.

The competent authorities are expected to support public participation and through their commitment ensure responsible environmental management and successful negotiations on accession to the European Union, thus contributing to improved quality of life for present and future generations. Such behaviour of the decision makers can be ensured, precisely via responsible and active citizens.