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27th Sep 2021

Western Balkan coal plants causing thousands of deaths

  • In 2020, the 18 coal stations in the western Balkans emitted two and half times as much polluting sulphur dioxide as all the 221 others in the EU (Photo: AdamCohn)
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Air pollution from coal-powered plants in the western Balkans has caused 19,000 deaths over the past three years, a new report from the CEE Bankwatch Network and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air revealed on Tuesday (7 September).

Nearly 12,000 of those deaths (3,700 in the western Balkans themselves, and 7,000 in the EU) are attributed to emissions caps being exceeded by coal plants located in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro.

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The most-hit countries have been Italy and Serbia, both registering around 600 deaths linked to emissions excesses, the report finds. They are followed by Hungary (390), Romania (360) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (280).

Meanwhile, other public health impacts include cases of low birth weight, chronic bronchitis, asthma symptoms, and cardiovascular and respiratory hospital admissions.

Overall, health costs associated with west Balkan coal plants breaching pollution rules were estimated at between €6bn and €12.1bn in 2020.

Since the EU is a net importer of electricity from the western Balkans, "[it] plays a significant role in sustaining coal-based electricity in the region," reads the report.

Overall, the imports from the western Balkans make up less than one percent of the EU's total electricity consumption.

However, the emissions of polluting sulphur dioxide (SO2) related to these imports account for as much as half of the SO2 emissions produced from all power plants in the EU in 2020.

Since 2018, EU and western Balkans countries have been obliged to reduce air pollution from power plants - under rules adopted by the Energy Community, an organisation that brings together EU member states and other neighbouring countries in the energy field.

However, some coal-fired power plants in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo have registered SO2 emissions at levels at least six times the legal limit.

Currently, all four countries face dispute settlement cases for breaching emissions ceilings in 2018 and 2019.

While last year was expected to result in a drop in emissions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, polluting sulphur dioxide emissions from monitored coal plants in the region increased, compared to previous years.

The report highlights that, in 2020, the 18 coal stations in the western Balkans emitted two and half times as much polluting sulphur dioxide as all 221 in the EU.

With the EU tightening rules to become climate-neutral by 2050, pressure is mounting over the western Balkans to begin a transition to more sustainable energy systems.

"Western Balkan governments cannot dream of EU membership while ignoring pollution control rules," said Ioana Ciuta from CEE Bankwatch Network.

However, Brussels is also expected to play its part as "it bears both the impacts and part of the responsibility for the resulting out-of-control air pollution," said Lauri Myllyvirta from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

The report calls on the EU to strengthen rules adopted under the Energy Community, by introducing effective penalties and help countries in the western Balkans to phase out coal by, for example, taxing fossil-fuel-based electricity imports.

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