Campaigners demand EU action against Western Balkan heavy polluters

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Most Western Balkan countries have failed to fulfil the first requirement to meet European Union industrial emissions standards despite commitments governments made in 2005, environmental campaigners warned on Tuesday.

Total sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions in EU aspirants Serbia, Bosnia, North Macedonia and Kosovo in 2018 were six times higher than the 98 696 tonne ceiling set by the bloc, according to a report to be presented to the European Parliament by central and eastern European advocacy group CEE Bank watch Network.

In Serbia, the Kostolac B1 and B2 coal-power plants alone emitted more SO2 than permitted in total for the four countries by the Energy Community, a body which transposes EU energy standards to the bloc’s neighbours.

The campaigners demanded the EU impose a tax on carbon dioxide or a border carbon tax to ensure the region’s heavy polluters stop using a lack of investment in pollution control as a market advantage when exporting power to the bloc.

Bank watch said the EU should also give more powers to the Energy Community, strengthen its dispute settlement mechanism and ensure adequate penalties in cases of non-compliance.

“We want the European institutions to take this problem more seriously. But on this particular issue, we have clear evidence and action needs to be taken now,” Pippa Gallop, the report co-author, told Reuters.

The most polluting coal, lignite, is widely available in the region, providing the major and cheapest energy source. Power plants produce pollution across the EU and beyond that incurs healthcare costs of up to $12.68 billion a year, an earlier Bank watch report showed.

The group urged the Western Balkans to double down on efforts to invest in desulphurisation equipment.

Since 2016, when pollution from the region’s 16 coal power plants was estimated to have caused around 3 900 premature deaths, several have increased their emissions of SO2, dust and nitrogen oxides (NOX).

The report showed the four countries exceeded a ceiling of 11 018 tonnes of dust emissions in 2018 by more than 60%, although NOX emissions were lower than permitted for the region.

The region plans to add 2.7 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power capacity in the next decade, mainly financed by Chinese banks. Environmental advocacy groups have argued that most plants would not meet the EU’s pollution control rules.

Governments say expanding coal power generation meets rising demand and ensures energy security, arguing that new coal plants would emit less greenhouse gases.

“Investing in pollution control is not just a legal obligation. It is a duty for any government that cares about its people. It is time for all of us to step up our work to hold the Western Balkans governments accountable,” the report read.