A year ago devastating floods in Serbia exposed the country’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Until then the imperative to reduce harmful emissions of carbon was absent from the public debate and plans to develop the energy system largely based on coal. Will Serbian officials connect the dots and set ambitious climate goals as part of Serbia’s contribution to the Paris climate agreement expected to be announced this week?
This Op-Ed was published on Revolve.media on 10.6.2015
By Dragana Mileusnic, Energy policy coordinator for South East Europe at Climate Action Network Europe
In May 2014, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia were hit with unprecedented floods, the worst recorded in the last 120 years. The impacts were devastating. According to the Reliefweb data, over 80 people lost their lives. All throughout the region, houses were destroyed in floods and landslides which followed them. Energy and transport infrastructure was badly damaged. Altogether, economic costs exceeded one billion euros, which is a serious burden for such small and indebted countries as the Balkans.
The floods have exposed how fragile and insecure a highly centralized, coal-based energy system can be. If it wasn’t for the outstanding citizens’ solidarity and engagement, incentivized by the floods, Serbia could have lost more than half of its domestic electricity production, practically overnight. Major coal power plants, including the largest Nikola Tesla, were at a great risk of flooding as they were located in the most affected areas. Their future was hanging on a balance and only substantial efforts put in their defense saved the country’s energy system.
Moreover, several coal mines were hardly hit. Some of them were fully flooded, causing a sharp decrease in Serbia’s coal production. As a result, from mid-May to the end of July 2014 Serbia had to import both coal and electricity worth over 30 million euros.
The floods triggered first public discussions on climate change in the Balkans. A non-topic in the past, in the floods’ aftermath it was unavoidable to recognize its impacts in the region. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Balkans are very vulnerable to climate change and similar extreme weather conditions will happen more often in the future.
The political elites have made an important step forward. Shyly but surely, they have spoken out about climate change and its implications. Their actions to address it, unfortunately, remain unclear. There is little understanding that climate and energy are two sides of the same coin.
Serbia still plans to build new coal power plants and significantly increase its carbon emissions in the next decade. The government justifies this by claiming that coal use is key for maintaining cheap electricity and accelerating economic development. However, taking into account the fact that health costs from coal power plants in Serbia amount to €4.98 billion per year, cheap energy from coal appears to be nothing more than an expensive illusion. The underlying causes of the coal sector expansion plans are in fact pure short-sightedness of the governments andan overwhelming level of corruption in the energy sector.
This year’s decisions will shape the future of the energy system in the Balkans. The countries are obliged to start tuning their energy sectors with the EU climate policies if they want to enhance prospects of their EU accession. Meeting the environmental standards of the EU is a valuable opportunity. Data shows that every euro invested in reaching EU environmental standards in industrial pollution, brings €17 in environmental and health benefits. An increased share of renewable energy and a decline of the coal industry should also result from this year’s reform of the Energy Community Treaty which aims at bringing about integrated energy market between the EU and the Balkans.
Finally, the call to submit contributions to the global climate agreement in Paris, to be signed in December this year, means that the countries of the Balkans will need to do their share of the global effort to reduce CO2 emissions. Serbia is expected to announce its climate targets this week, during a high level conference on 11th June. If it is serious in its intent to join the EU before 2030, its national contribution needs to reflect a fair share of the EU 2030 target. This target is now at least 40% of emission reduction in comparison to 1990, with a prospect to be increased as part of the Paris efforts. The French ambassador in Belgrade has already announced that the EU candidate countries need to take comparable action.
Now is the time to move from words to deeds.