Abandoning fossil fuels to clear the air in the Balkans

Photo says I want to breathe!
Photo says I want to breathe!

Delegations from countries all over the world gathered at the UNFCCC Bonn climate change negotiations last week to do one thing – agree on a text they can all agree on. You can imagine there was a lot of promise on cutting emissions, and while some are perfectly clear on how they plan to do this, others seem to be lacking a clue.

According to a slew of scientific data, the world is already in trouble, with global temperatures at a constant rise and extreme weather conditions becoming more obvious. As the entire region was hit with heavy rain and tragic mass flooding in 2014, questions of deep concern have been raised regarding the consequences of climate change in the Balkans.

On October 19, 2015, people in Skopje took to the streets to protest again, this time to demand better and safer streets for bikes and pedestrians. In 2014 and early 2015, people in Macedonia protested frequently, demanding cleaner air. In 2011, mandatory testing of air within EU accession efforts, the country’s capital proved to be one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are two Balkan countries that have already submitted the INDCs or documents containing promises to cut down on national emissions in order to keep global temperatures from rising above 2°C.

The Macedonian INDCs are fairly optimistic, tackling three different scenarios which promise to cut emissions by 30-37%. The Bosnian INDCs promise a cut in emissions by 23%. Both countries have their scenarios, but the numbers are too vague and just don’t add up with the coal plants remaining open and old diesel cars still in use and pretty affordable.

So another thing these two countries have in common is that their capitals are breathing the most polluted air in Europe. Sarajevo and Skopje proudly stand among the top ten on the European continent.

The main sources of air pollution in these countries are diesel cars and coal plant emissions. With PM10 particles often going seven times over the allowed upper limit set by the World Health Organization, it shouldn’t be strange that 870,000 people, out of which 282,660 are children 0-6 years old, with upper respiratory problems have been registered in hospitals around Skopje, according to the Macedonian Institute for public health. While only one of the two coal plants in Macedonia is responsible for 447 deaths a year.

Coal plants and the transport sector account for approximately 90% of the national greenhouse gas emissions in both countries causing the rise in global temperatures. It is about time we accept responsibility and stop using being poor as an excuse not to phase out fossil fuels. We cannot lower the price of old diesel cars and use a public transportation that runs on diesel and just say that’s the best we can do.

What Macedonia and Bosnia should be doing is looking at countries with good strategies in promoting sustainable means for transport and look to using the full potential of renewable energy sources in their countries. More developed countries with strong economies, like Norway and the Netherlands, where people are more likely to be able to afford more than one car, build narrow roads in their cities and offer more than enough space for anyone walking or using a bike.

Sadly, the newest road infrastructure in cities across Bosnia and Macedonia is all about offering comfort for cars, broadening the streets leaving no room for bikes. Bikes are becoming a popular means of transport for many Macedonians and this should be a good thing, but traffic accidents where people biking on the road got killed by cars also increased.

“Since when has clean air become a luxury” – read one of the protest signs

Originally published for Oximity

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