A two-day Ministerial Conference Innovative Solutions to Pollution in South East and Southern Europe has been organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Serbian Ministry of Environmental Protection in Belgrade, gathering ministers and high environmental representatives of countries from the region to discuss measures to reduce pollution and adopt Joint Regional Vision on Innovative Solutions to Pollution.
Three of the participants in the conference – Sokratis Famellos, Alternate Minister of Environment and Energy of Greece, Lily Riahi, Programme Manager at UNEP’s Cities Unit, and Biljana Filipović Đušić, Assistant Minister for Environmental Protection, spoke to Balkan Green Energy News about how sustainable resource management and the circular economy – the topics in the focus of the conference – can help reduce pollution, as well as about projects their countries and organizations are implementing or plan to implement.
BGEN: How important is sustainable resource management for the region?
Sokratis Famellos: Economy and environment are two sides of the same coin
The environment is the basis of development, and because of this it is connected not only with the quality of life, and of course with the sustainability of life, but also, in the Balkans and South-East Europe, with all kinds of goods production.
In Greece, it is connected with tourism, which depends on the good quality of marine water, drinking water, air, nature, soil. Therefore, we cannot disconnect the environment from resource management. The economy is not an enemy of the environment, and the environment is not an enemy of the economy.
We have to work together because if we separate these two, both the economy and environment will be destroyed. The economy and the environment are two sides of the same coin.
Lily Riahi: Citizens’ health a key driver for action
The global economy is growing, but the planet is not! So we have to be smarter in the way we grow, and especially in the way we grow our cities, as we expect an addition of another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050. Already 60% of our waste and 75% of resource use and GHG emissions come from cities, making them the best place to start promoting sustainable resource management.
Many cities in the Western Balkans face serious air and water pollution, both a direct result of unsustainable consumption and production patterns, making citizens’ health a key driver for action.
Cities like Skopje and Sarajevo are some of the world’s worst polluted capitals, with the highest concentration of harmful fine particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in the air, several times higher than what is deemed safe by WHO.
The mortality rate due to air pollution in the Western Balkans is more than double or triple the European average.
Buildings are not energy efficient, which means more fuel is needed for heating causing more pollution
A significant driver of resource use and cause of air pollution is unsustainable heating which often contributes more to pollution than transport in the cities of the Western Balkans. 30-60% of the population relies on individual stoves in houses burning coal and wood and fossil fuel burning boilers. Buildings are not energy efficient, which means more fuel is needed for heating causing more pollution. These trends have been further exacerbated by aging district heating infrastructure over the last three decades, leading to the switch to firewood and coal for heating in city apartment blocks.
But often the greatest opportunities lie in the greatest challenges. That’s where our work at UN Environment on circularity and modern District Energy in Cities comes in.
Biljana Filipović Đušić: 2030 Agenda provides clear guidelines
Sustainable resource management is a priority today for countries around the world, including the countries in this region.
The South-East European region faces the challenge of the protection of natural resources (land, water, air, biodiversity), while water, i.e. the sustainable use and protection of transboundary rivers, is a priority issue for the region, as pollution knows no borders.
Most major rivers are transboundary rivers. The problems concern the management of droughts, floods, and water quality. Countries in the region are working on putting in place institutional frameworks and regulations, and at the same time ensuring efficient water use and an adequate service provision. They also face difficulties over the worsened state of water supply and sewerage infrastructure.
In the EU, significant funds are set aside for the development of regional and cross-border cooperation. The EU’s financial support in the amount of EUR 100 million for Hungary to implement regional cooperation projects with neighbors is of great significance for Serbia. These projects should primarily ensure a sustainable joint use of natural and other resources in border areas and can be implemented in the entire Vojvodina and the entire territory of the Serbian capital Belgrade.
EUR 100 million of the EU support for Hungary for regional cooperation projects will also help Serbia
International treaties which Serbia has signed obligate the country to ensure sustainable resource management and the same is true of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which also provide us with clear guidelines on the direction we should take.
BGEN: How can circular economy help reduce pollution?
Sokratis Famellos: Linear economy is one of the roots of the crisis in last few decades
The linear economy is one of the roots of the crisis in the last few decades, with investments made only in consumption, not in recycling.
In Greece, even with a lot of improvement in infrastructure, we are now recycling only 20% of municipal solid waste, while the rest is dumped on landfills. It is a good example to understand what the linear economy is and what amount of resources we are losing. A new Greek development strategy has a special chapter on the circular economy. We are now implementing 4 measures:
- Regulatory framework change – to support reuse and recycling, and to reach a 50% share of recycled municipal solid waste.
- Financial tools – circularity will be a condition in all the financing procedures, not only for the EU, and state financing, but also for private financing.
- The science and economy bond – we created a virtual forum to connect best science solutions with companies.
- The administrative level – A ministerial secretariat has been established at the Ministry of Environment to run all the activities related to the circular economy.
Lily Riahi: District energy systems – great example of circular economy
As mentioned, one of the main drivers of air pollution in cities within the Western Balkans is unsustainable consumption and production in the heating sector. Applying the principles of circularity to the heating sector – recycling, reusing waste, and re-planning energy use to reduce consumption – can significantly reduce air pollution in the region.
Belgrade is working with UN Environment to modernize its district energy system
District energy systems are a great example of implementation of the circular economy as they allow the capture and reuse of waste heat and local energy sources available in all our communities to supply heating, hot water, and cooling of urban buildings. Cities ranging from Santiago to Vancouver are introducing district energy systems to harness heat from wastewater treatment plants, data centers, industry, municipal solid waste and to use local renewables like biomass, wind, solar and geothermal.
And that is exactly what many cities in the Western Balkans are now doing. Instead of digging up oil or gas and importing them to burn in our boilers, or using wood stoves, cities like Belgrade, Banja Luka and Skopje are re-animating their existing infrastructure – district energy systems – and upgrading them into assets that can promote circularity and address air pollution.
The City of Belgrade is now working with UN Environment to modernize its district energy system so that it can replace fossil fuels with recovered heat from the Nikola Tesla thermal power plant to provide for 55% of heat by 2025, waste to energy from its waste incinerator Vinča to fuel 7% of district energy system, as well as local solar, geothermal and biomass.
Biljana Filipović Đušić: Circular economy – a development opportunity for Serbia
The circular economy is the antithesis of the linear economy model applied so far, entailing an unchecked exploitation of natural resources.
The circular economy concept encompasses not only the EU’s latest commitments to intervene in the field of waste management, but also the protection of natural resources.
The main task along the path to a circular economy is to invest in better, healthier, and cleaner technologies and produce project documentation.
Serbia has only just set off on this journey, which is especially true of local governments, but it should be noted that the circular economy model represents an opportunity for development and environmental safety, green jobs, a new quality of water and air, healthy food, and a new quality of life for citizens.
It is estimated that Serbia could get 30,000 new jobs and boost economic competitiveness by introducing a circular economy, in what would make the country a regional development and investment leader.
BGEN: Name one project from your country/partner country and effects it had to reduce pollution?
Sokratis Famellos: EUR 1.2 billion wastewater treatment project for 350 villages
We are currently running an action plan to fulfill our EU obligation regarding wastewater treatment plants for settlements between 2,000 and 10,000 inhabitants.
The project is worth EUR 1.2 billion. There are 350 settlements, and 170 are already finished.
Lily Riahi: UN Environment to support Belgrade to eliminate use of heavy oil fuel
The District Energy in Cities Initiative, with the support of a network of 46 partners, CTCN, and the Korean District Heating Corporation, is working with the city of Belgrade to develop feasibility studies on the interconnection of the existing heating areas into a unified Belgrade district heating system to enable fuel-switch to renewables and the use of waste heat from different sources across the city such as municipal solid waste, thermal power plant, industry, and data centers. The studies will be completed and taken to market by the end of 2019.
The Initiative’s model encourages investment through partnering early in market development to prepare financially sound projects. In Belgrade, District Energy in Cities is working with relevant and diverse stakeholders from the outset – including EBRD, IFC, and KfW – to ensure that these plans and assessments conform with the requirement of finance providers.
Along with the studies, the Initiative is working with Belgrade to prepare a long-term city Action Plan of policies and investments that will enable the city to increase the use of local renewables and waste heat from less than 1% today to 65% by 2025.
Through these interventions, UN Environment will support Belgrade’s goals to use local and otherwise wasted heat sources to eliminate the use of heavy oil fuel for heating and to reduce natural gas from 89% to less than 26% of total primary energy used in the district heating system by 2025.
Biljana Filipović Đušić: Innovative ideas for reducing pollution
Serbia is the top recipient of the EU’s pre-accession grant funds in the entire Western Balkan region. Many projects implemented so far have been financed with EU donations. To name but three:
- The rehabilitation and expansion of the Subotica wastewater treatment facility,
- The ash handling system at the Nikola Tesla B thermal power plant, and
- The construction of the Raška wastewater treatment system (IPA 2013).
An innovation forum held last year was also very important, as it provided representatives of local governments, international institutions, and the civil sector, as well as individuals, with an opportunity to present innovative ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Of over 110 project proposals, we selected 12 for which we will seek investors so that these projects can be implemented in the next two years. The projects in question mostly refer to biomass, energy efficiency, decarbonization, and mobile solar panels.