Health experts from HEAL demand more attention and action on the public health threat of biomass burning in the Western Balkans, stressing that the practice is the source of half of all PM particles.
The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) launched a briefing exploring the public health threat of wood-burning in the Western Balkans, and said it is one of the main factors in air pollution in the region, after the production of electricity from coal.
Burning of biomass is often portrayed as natural or climate friendly. Actually, because of the air pollution released, it causes serious health problems, such as stroke, heart diseases, lung cancer and pulmonary diseases and contributes to climate change, according to the report, called The health perspective of wood burning in the Western Balkans region.
With 42% of homes in the Western Balkans using wood for heating, the health impacts are considerable.
The World Health Organization and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that in 2010. household air pollution caused more than 19,000 temporary deaths and USD 27.7 billion in costs in the region, excluding Kosovo*, for which there is no data.
Wood burning pollutes both indoor, outdoor air
According to the Smarter Stoves Partnership project, wood and coal are used for residential heating in 3 million stoves. The Western Balkan region is significantly more reliant on biomass for the purpose of heating households than the EU is, led by Bosnia and Herzegovina (62.9%) and Kosovo (60.5%).
Matković: The Western Balkans urgently need to transition to energy-efficient, non-polluting and healthy household heating
“No matter what we burn, we create pollution – that also goes for burning wood. It is really quite simple: burning wood pollutes the air we breathe, both indoor and outdoor. It makes people sick, aggravates chronic diseases and even leads to numerous unnecessary early deaths. From a health-perspective, the Western Balkans urgently need to transition to energy-efficient, non-polluting and healthy household heating”, the alliance’s Senior Health and Energy Officer Vlatka Matković said.
Energy poverty challenges
Many households in the region keep biomass stoves as a reserve option, in case economic hardship pushes them into energy poverty. In Kosovo*, 40% of the population is struggling to keep homes warm, followed by 37% in Albania, 33% in North Macedonia and 10% in both Montenegro and in Serbia, while the average share in the EU is 8%.
Kosovo* and Albania have the biggest shares of population suffering from energy poverty
On the road to a healthy energy future, energy poverty is a major challenge for the Western Balkans that cannot be ignored, the authors underscored. Many households are burning any type of solid fuel, such as discarded furniture, wood scraps, coal and waste.
“Many households in the Western Balkan region rely on wood to keep warm or are struggling to heat their homes in the first place, which makes this transition a bigger challenge than elsewhere – but that means policymakers should be all the more decisive to start it now and run it intelligently, making the health of people in the region the priority,” Matković added.
Black carbon threat from household stoves
Biomass burning is a major contributor to air pollution in many areas of the Western Balkan region, after coal power generation, accounting for around 50% of particulate matter (PM) pollution, according to the document. It also causes emissions of black carbon (BC), carbon monoxide (CO), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including methane (CH4), and other cancerogenic matter.
Black carbon is thought to be a major contributor to the toxicity of PM2.5. Greater BC exposure has been linked to premature mortality, poor cardiovascular health, and low birth weight, independent of particle mass.
The European Environmental Agency estimated that air pollution caused more than 30.000 premature deaths in 2019 in the six countries of the Western Balkans.
The briefing also puts forward an initial analysis on the opportunities and challenges around improving woodburning technology. While there is some evidence that using a newer wood stove, using an ecologically certified stove, or burning solely dry wood can lead to lower household air pollution, the changes can be canceled out by the overall increase in the use of biomass burning for heating, which increases air pollution locally.
“Investing money in replacing stoves is likely not to deliver on pollution reduction or anticipated health and climate co-benefits. Instead we need to put money into energy savings and insulating people’s houses, to both improve people’s health and elevate energy poverty, reducing energy bills,” Vlatka Matković asserted.