”Winter is the worstconfirms Goran Stojak. The fog bites your body. The nose stings, the eyes burn, the bronchial tubes whistle. We clearly feel the effects of the dust that penetrates us.” This solid fellow lives on the heights of the village of Divkovići, very close to the immense thermoelectric power station, the first block of which was put into service in 1963. In the small neighboring cemetery, the dates inscribed on the graves are cause for concern: few are over sixty. Goran Stojak sighs: “Here, most people are sick or stuck because their land is unsellable. The others are long gone”. He himself lost his father to cancer.
Bosnia, a country where breathing can kill
“Pollution causes many pathologies”, worries Maida Mulić, one of the heads of the Institute of Public Health. ”This is a serious problem for the entire local community”, she adds before citing cancers and cardiovascular diseases, the number of cases of allergies, chronic bronchitis and asthma which continue to increase. “This particularly affects vulnerable populations, starting with children.” In classrooms, the level of fine particles is up to eight times higher than the limit authorized by the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to the WHO, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the fifth country in the world where air pollution kills the most. In the canton of Tuzla, life expectancy is more than three years lower than the Bosnian average, while one in five deaths among adults over 30 is linked to excessive fine particle pollution. The coal-fired power station, the largest in the country, would be the main culprit. Experts from the European environmental network Bankwatch even assessed in 2018 that the total additional health costs generated by its operation exceeded 600 million euros.
Energy independence above all
This installation is one of the ten most polluting in Europe: its chimneys emit more than 51,000 tonnes of sulfur dioxide (SO2) annually. It’s not the only one: according to Bankwatch, the 18 coal-fired power stations in the Western Balkans pollute more than the 221 in the European Union. In 2021, for example, Serbia, a country of 7 million inhabitants, alone released more SO2 into the air than all EU countries combined, whose population is… 64 times greater.
However, the six countries of the Western Balkans, all candidates for integration, have been required to comply since January 1, 2018 with the pollution quotas set by the Energy Community, the European integrated market. Today, only Albania respects them because it does not have lignite resources and relies almost entirely on hydroelectricity. The Energy Community therefore ended up launching legal proceedings to order them to act.
However, this hardly seems to worry their leaders, who refuse to give up lignite, arguing that this poor quality coal, much lower than hard coal, guarantees their national energy security. A bit like nuclear power in France. “We must increase the share of renewables, but the current situation shows that our decision not to close our mines [de charbon] was intelligent”for example, welcomed the Serbian president at the end of 2021, in reaction to the explosion in global gas and oil prices.
In Serbia, coal still produces 70% of electricity and Belgrade can count on the support of Beijing to finance the maintenance of this sector. A new unit is due to open in the coming months at the Kostolac power plant using technology, workers and credits from China. Bosnia and Herzegovina turned to the same partner to achieve what the authorities proudly present as the “largest foreign investment since the end of the war” : the construction of block 7 in the Tuzla power plant. If this project is in trouble, it is officially not abandoned. Here too, more than two thirds of electricity still comes from lignite.
“My dream, that coal finally belongs to the past”
In Kosovo, the second country in the world most dependent on coal, the two old Obiliq (Obilić in Serbian) power stations provide more than 90% of the national electricity. From the windows of his office, Xhafer Gashi sees the immense chimneys and the plumes of smoke escaping from them every day. “My greatest dream would be for coal to finally belong to the past”asks the mayor of this town located on the outskirts of the capital Pristina.
In this most populated area of the small country, their pollution has a very heavy impact. Environmental NGOs have even made this macabre calculation: the exploitation of lignite would cost local residents five years of life. However, it is difficult to corroborate this estimate since no large-scale epidemiological study has ever been carried out on their health impact.
In Kosovo, however, the price of the kWh is enough to make many European consumers dream: barely 0.06 euros, more than three times less than the EU average. This very low price is due to the immense known reserves of lignite, the fifth largest in the world. Even if it is associated with Yugoslavia’s controversial past, this fossil fuel, renowned for its extreme pollution, has therefore remained at the heart of the energy strategy of the various governments that have succeeded one another since the end of the 1999 war.
Except that this extreme dependence ended up being costly: Kosovo has just gone through its most serious energy crisis, raising an immense wave of anger among the population. Due to breakdowns in its aging power plants, the country had to import more than 40% of its electricity at prices that had become prohibitive and daily cuts were imposed from fall 2021 to winter 2022.
“Even if they were perfectly operational, our lignite installations are no longer sufficient to cover our needs”insists Rinora Gojani, of the NGO Balkan Green Foundation. “It’s time to put the turbo on the diversification of the energy mix.” This is what is planned by the new Energy Strategy 2022-2031, but the government has had great difficulty getting it adopted. For the moment, only one wind turbine field has opened.
Europe must act more firmly
In the meantime, the pollution caused by these dilapidated installations is causing very heavy damage in the Western Balkans. Bankwatch estimates that more than 19,000 deaths could be attributed to them, between 2018 and 2020 alone, almost 60% of which in the EU, since the smoke knows no borders. “Europe must act more firmly”thunders Pippa Gallop, one of the experts of the environmental network.
The problem is that the energy crisis aggravated by the war in Ukraine has revived interest in coal within the European Union itself. Enough to mute criticism of the delay in the development of renewable energies among the candidate countries.
“In the Western Balkans where tensions remain high, the energy security provided by lignite still counts more than its environmental and health costs”, laments Dardan Abazi, analyst at INDEP in Pristina. Before concluding : “For leaders, the green transition remains perceived as a constraint imposed by Brussels and not a source of opportunities. Mentalities take time to evolve.”