Photo: Belgrade, April 2021. Credit: Nenad Stefanović
In the past few months, Serbia has been covered by a veil of smog, making breathing and living difficult. According to daily statistics provided by AirVisual, which uses the methodology established by the US AQI index, Belgrade, Smederevo, and many other Serbian cities have topped the index of 300, meaning that the air and pollution were hazardous for health of all. At the time of writing of this blog, the quality of air in Belgrade is at an index of 152, meaning that it is considered as unhealthy and that actions such as exercising outside or even opening your window are not recommended. Moreover, this past weekend, thousands of people and more than 85 NGOs came together at an “Ecological uprising” demanding action from the government of Serbia in order to protect their basic human right of having a safe environment. This was a demonstration of how people in Serbia have started taking this problem very seriously and have created a sort of a critical mass calling for swift action and change. Civil society organizations have been very active and vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction with the state of the environment and the lack of regulation which ensures the right of citizens to a healthy environment mandated by Article 74 of the Constitution. Hence, this topic which has gained momentum has to be further examined and discussed in order to see what Serbia is doing and how that fits in their path towards becoming a full EU member.
It is quite clear that the issue of air pollution is horizontal and cross-cutting. Let us first start by looking at the health of the society. According to the State of Global Air 2020 report, air pollution is considered the fourth leading risk and cause of premature death in the world, accounting to 12% of all deaths, with more than 6.7 million deaths in 2019. The same report indicates that due to the large amount of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 particles in the air, over 3,600 people die prematurely in Serbia, more than half of whom are from Belgrade. Other, more recent research on the impact of polluted air on health of Serbian citizens, estimates that 6,394 people die prematurely every year as a result of breathing extremely polluted air. Therefore, as Serbia is already suffering from the “white plague” and diminishing population, this additional mortality would simply further reduce capacities of becoming a productive EU member state, compromising its membership.
When looking at the budget allocations, Serbia currently allocates 0.5% of GDP to the protection of the environment. However, as Chapter 27, titled Environment and Climate Change, whose legislation accounts for a third of the acquis, is one of the most expensive ones for implementing, these budget allocations need to be significantly increased. In order to meet the priorities of the EU, the precondition is that these budget allocations need to increase to more than 1% of GDP, or about 500 million euros per annum. The EU has already invested close to 700 million euros which have been put into environmental management since 2000 benefitting over one million citizens directly through the provision of better water and waste management services, cleaner air, safer chemicals, and others. Considering the level of EU’s assistance to Serbia regarding these issues, the EU has every right to be very critical of Serbia’s inaction for non-action in these sectors.
On top of that Serbia is, in fact, at a monetary loss and putting itself in a worse position by implementing projects without any regard for the environmental hazards it brings with them. Many of these projects and initiatives have been funded by third actors, such as China, hence strengthening their already strong foothold in the country. Ling Long Tires, for example, has been involved in building a tire factory in the city of Zrenjanin. According to the Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI), this factory is being built without proper permits, but more importantly without a conducted environmental impact study and public discourse about the same. Not only are this type of production and the activities done within the factory are considered to be “dirty” and unsustainable, but the Government funding of such activity is illegal and thus impacting the wobbly state of the rule of law in Serbia.
While this is just one example of how the existing rules and laws have been bended or surpassed in the industrial sector, many other examples of such industries have also been affecting the environment. Železara Smederevo, RTB Bor, but also Rio Tinto and the small hydropower energy plants, have all made their strong impact on the state of clean air and overall ecosystems, and have been included in the list of reasons of why fulfilling the obligations under the Chapter 27 is ever-more distant. In sum, all of these examples indicate that the environmental questions in Serbia come second to the short-term economic gain.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environmental Protection of Serbia has still not developed an updated Strategy to deal with environmental degradation, climate change and the air quality. The last adopted Strategy for tackling climate change and its related problems was adopted in January 2010, meaning that for 11 years now Serbia has not looked at environmental degradation seriously. The government officials need to swiftly assemble and discuss how they will go about regulating these important issues and prepare themselves for the taunting implementation of the acquis. The Strategy does not set out a goal of allowing continuous deterioration of the quality of air on a yearly basis, even though this is continuously happening. Therefore, the lack of a more comprehensive Strategy is supplemented by the fact that the same needs to be updated in order to put this deterioration trend to a halt.
At this present stage, it is becoming increasingly clear that Serbia and its officials lack determination to commit to reducing air pollution and tacking the horrendous state of the environment – areas which are of paramount importance for joining the EU. In fact, the Energy Community has already taken legal action against Serbia for its noncompliance with the Large Combustion Plants Directive in 2018 and 2019, meaning that Serbia polluted more than they complied to. This should serve as a wake-up call for decision-makers as this legal action can be a strong precedent for future legal actions. Therefore, if the practice of environmental neglect continues to take place in Serbia, it could be expected that the EU will become less inclined to tolerate the degradation of the quality of air and will not comply with the polluting practices of the Serbian industry, particularly considering their negative cross-border effect.
For Serbia to even have a chance to open (and close) Chapter 27, and potentially become an EU member by 2030, it needs to buckle down and start working on improving air quality and diminishing emissions. This becomes all the more important considering the already mentioned decreasing population rates and increasing premature mortality. Although they have not been perceived as such by the officials, civil society organisations remain the Government’s key ally, when it comes to fostering sustainable practices which would increase compliance of industry to internationally set pollution standards.