Author: Danko Kalkan, Green Finance and Environmental Management Expert
From an environmental point of view, Serbia is one of the most endangered countries in Europe. What are its four biggest ecological problems and what steps it needs to take in order to catch up with the developed world in terms of sustainable development?
In the field of environmental protection, Serbia is lagging behind a large number of countries in Europe and the world. This is mainly due to its air pollution, neglected water resources, and inadequate waste management, as well as the threat of climate change impacts in the near future.
Even though air pollution has justifiably been in the public spotlight recently, the endangered water resources should by no means be overlooked. The fact is that Serbia is currently treating less than a fifth of all wastewater it generates. For example, Belgrade is the only European capital without wastewater treatment facilities, and such water is released into the Danube and the Sava rivers untreated.
Solid waste management is another area where Serbia is straggling on the path of green growth. More than 100 municipal landfills lack conditions to control the emission of gases into the air or the seepage of toxic substances into the land and groundwater. So, these landfills are not much different from illegal dumping sites, which pose a particular problem in Serbia because there are thousands of them. The construction of regional sanitary landfills is progressing slowly, and only a third of the planned sites are operational.
Finally, Serbia, as Professor Vladimir Đurđević has pointed out, is located in a region where climate change is more evident than in other parts of the world. The region covers the 15% of the global territory where the average temperature has already risen by 2ºC compared with pre-industrial levels. Moreover, by the end of the 21st century, the average temperature in Serbia can be expected to rise by more than 4ºC against the pre-industrial baseline.
These challenges can have long-term impacts, not only on the environment and human health but also on the economy and society as a whole. It is, therefore, necessary to take the following steps as soon as possible:
I Acknowledge that there are serious environmental problems
Delaying the acknowledgment of the existence of serious environmental problems and missing the opportunities to make environmental protection a priority in Serbia are the main flaws of our system. In practice, the abovementioned challenges are almost always relativized by using erroneous, populist, and unscientific arguments. Proposed solutions are not based on assessed effects, which leads to the adoption of purely populist measures that prevent serious discussion. In such circumstances, problems are growing and piling up. Therefore, the first step towards addressing environmental challenges would be to acknowledge that real problems exist and that they are not small or easily surmountable.
II Send a clear signal about the direction in which the country should go
If the costs of investing in and using clean energy sources are the same or even lower than the costs of fossil fuels, why are plans still being made for investments in dirty technologies? It is clear that, for objective reasons, it is not possible to switch to alternative energy sources overnight, but in Serbia, it seems as if there is not even a trace of a serious intention to change the course any time soon. The impression is that the sole reason for investing in renewables is meeting international obligations. The state must again consider the path the country is to take – will it be a future with limited and increasingly expensive fossil fuels or a future with a transition towards renewable energy sources.
III Raise awareness of environmental problems and solutions at all levels
Unfortunately, economic policymakers in most developing countries have embraced a misguided and counterproductive mantra that cleaning up the environment has to wait until better (wealthier) times (read more: Sustainable development must not hinge on economic growth alone). Due to relying on this theory, but also a large number of other social problems piled up in less developed countries, people do not put environmental protection at the top of the list of their everyday priorities. The situation in Serbia is precisely like that. In order to change this state of affairs, it is necessary to work day in day out on raising awareness of the importance of ecology and green solutions, regardless of the stage of economic development.
IV Open Chapter 27 and set up a fund for harmonization with EU standards
For several years now, Serbia has been delaying the opening of the most complex and the most expensive chapter in membership negotiations with the EU – Chapter 27 – which deals with environmental protection. Meeting the requirements of this chapter will enable Serbia to harmonize its environmental protection legislation and standards with those of the EU. Fulfilling these requirements calls for investing about EUR 15 billion in the near future. This amount of money says a lot about the size of the problems, and that is why it is necessary to open this chapter as soon as possible and set up a fund that would enable financing the implementation of all necessary measures.
V Create a green agenda
Serbia needs a sweeping green plan, similar to the European Green Deal. Without such a plan, the country will continue to lag behind the developed world. This document must define action plans and goals in the areas of energy efficiency, circular economy, and waste management, sustainable transport, sustainable agriculture, climate neutrality, biodiversity conservation, etc.
VI Invest heavily into knowledge
Environmental problems are complex, requiring a multidisciplinary approach. For instance, resolving air pollution requires participation of climatologists and meteorologists, but also engineers to provide technical solutions and green technologies, urban planners, landscape architects, economists, etc. It is therefore necessary to constantly build a base of experts by creating adequate educational profiles.
VII Ensure continuity and expertise in institutions
Due to various priorities, the Ministry of Environmental Protection often has a conflict of interest with other government ministries, which diminishes its real power and influence over processes. By setting environmental protection as its priority, the ministry would gain more influence. Moreover, the ministry itself must be a base of experts capable of responding to the complex contemporary environmental challenges.
VIII Streamline procedures for investing in a green economy
This is particularly important when it comes to investing in renewable energy sources, where the permitting procedure is complex. Also, it is necessary to provide intensive training for local government authorities and prospective investors in order to make the entire process more efficient.
IX Encourage local activism
Local environmental organizations have the best knowledge of local environmental problems and needs. For that reason, it is necessary to encourage association and the active participation of such groups in discussions around the use of common local resources.
X Increase the financial sector’s engagement
Banks should be more engaged in financing energy efficiency and renewable energy measures, as well as other measures that help reduce resource use, improve waste management, etc. Additionally, banks must assess more adequately the environmental and social impacts of their clients’ business. It is necessary to limit financial support to business activities that threaten the ecological balance, the health and safety of employees, and the resilience of communities.