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Goran Trivan, Serbian Minister Of Environmental Protection

We Don’t Rush – We Work Thoughtfully

In order to be ready to commence negotiations on Chapter 27, you must perfectly know the state of the environment in your country. As illustrated by the example of finding illegal waste storage, there are many more challenges ahead of us than we think. That’s why I’m opposed to the opening of this negotiating chapter, which already cost some new EU member states a lot

The establishment of the Ministry of Environmental Protection is a clear sign that Serbia is strategically defined towards EU membership and dedicated to improving natural resources. Serbia looks to the EU as a partner in the implementation of this important task, says Minister Goran Trivan.

Considering talk about the possibility of Serbia entering the EU in 2025, is it realistic to expect the country to be able to fulfil its obligations under Chapter 27 by that deadline?

– High environmental standards mean a healthier life for our citizens, regardless of whether we’re part of the European Union or not. We are dealing fundamentally with the process of transposing European directives into our legislation because that is one of the most extensive groups of regulations that our country needs to harmonise itself with on its path to the EU.

The draft negotiating position for Chapter 27 will be completed by the end of June this year, after which comes coordination with Brussels, and 2025 is the year by which Serbia must adopt European regulations in this area, except those requiring additional financial investment.

Given that several member states did not resolve these issues before joining, do you think Serbia could expect some milder treatment when it comes to this domain?

– In the process of negotiating membership with the EU, it is crucial that we overview and present the real situation and explain requests for transition periods well. We are currently drafting specific implementation plans for directives which will require additional financial investment and additional time for amassing the necessary funds and establishing infrastructure.

These documents will include a financial assessment of the costs of implementing directives and analysis of the available sources of funding, both national and international. The priority in the period ahead is to negotiate transition periods that will be most acceptable for Serbia.

What I brought to the ministry with me is a stance that we don’t rush into the opening of the negotiating chapter. We can only launch negotiations once we have a strategy that we have agreed with EU representatives. I don’t want to make the same mistakes that some countries in the region have made, nor for us to get into the situation where others know the situation in our country better than we do.

In the process of negotiating membership with the EU, it is crucial that we overview and present the real situation and explain requests for transition periods well

After the December meeting with European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Velle, I am an optimist, because at the end of that long meeting he told us that he was impressed by what we have done so far and what we are planning, with the advice that we not rush. The Commissioner promised us support and assistance in defining the strategy, which will ease negotiations. We will, thus, do everything from the administrative side and negotiate Chapter 27, while the key to that negotiation is gaining the longest possible deadlines for those most complicated things, in order for us not to subsequently pay penalties for failing to apply that which we obliged ourselves to apply.

How does the Ministry’s assess Serbia’s exposure to climate change?

– Serbia belongs to a region that has, evidently, already been hit by climate change. The total cost of material damage in Serbia caused by extreme climatic and weather conditions between 2000 and 2015 exceeds five billion euros, while more than 70 per cent of losses is associated with drought and high temperatures. In cooperation with renowned national scientific and professional institutions, the Ministry has carried out the analysis of the impact of climate change on the water sector, forestry, agriculture, plant and animal life etc.

We want to show that environmental issues are related directly to other development issues and that it pays to invest in environmental protection, as that reduces the exposure of domestic agricultural production to the effects of climate change, which are already seeing reduced agricultural yields that are reflected on GDP.

In addition to that, we are creating opportunities for the development of the green economy, which will enable the creation of new jobs and contribute to overall economic development. The adoption of the Law on Climate Change in Serbia, which lies ahead in the coming months, will enable the drafting of an action plan as the basis for tangible actions and measures in the fight against climate change and harmonisation with new climatic conditions in Serbia.

One of the key assets in that fight will be forestation, as the most effective, simplest and cheapest measure.

What are key lessons for Serbia arising from the conclusions of the Conference on Climate Change – COP 23?

– The conclusions of the Conference confirmed our commitment and justification for the involvement of a large number of stakeholders, especially non-governmental organisations, in the decision-making process relevant to climate change. Cooperation with the civil sector is extremely important to us. That’s why we organised meetings with NGOs, both before and after the Conference, and it is certain that such a trend will continue in the future.

Goran TrivanEach of our draft laws will be presented to civil society organisations, which will have the opportunity to say what they think, because many of these organisations deal fundamentally with the environment, have a significant number of excellent experts in different areas of the environment and nature protection.

I consider this to be of crucial importance to the success of our ecological policy. It is in our interest for our laws to be as good as possible, to be implementable, and how better do that than to hear all possible opinions, even if we do not agree on all issues. Already with the launch of the public debate on the Law on Climate Change, which we are organising with Aarhus Centers, we are confirming the Ministry’s commitment to dialogue.

Serbia is one of the countries with a far lower percentage of a forested area than average, and due to unplanned deforestation, among other things, the country faces major flood risks. Is Serbia now more resilient to the kinds of floods that hit us in 2014?

– Serbia is considered a medium forested country. It has around 30 per cent of the forested area, which is close to the world standard, though markedly lower than the European standard. Our plan is for around 40 per cent of our country to be forested by 2040.

In combating climate change, apart from limiting greenhouse gas emissions and some other measures, the most important thing, as I said, is afforestation. I will repeat that this is the cheapest, most efficient and simplest way to combat climate change, and we showed this in Belgrade, where 750 hectares of forests have been planted. A significant segment in the prevention of torrential floods is the greening of riverbank areas and embankments.

Trees, or forests and forest land, significantly “absorb” water, in some situations up to almost 100 per cent, thereby preventing torrential floods. The floods showed that we weren’t led by the logic that a country that invests in its own resilience before a natural disaster occurs subsequently has little damage, fewer consequences and lower remediation and reconstruction costs. The price of such solutions is now higher, but still lower than the consequences that can be brought by flooding and all environmental neglect.

It is important to us that we have the support of citizens, who – following our action – reported several dozen locations which they suspect of containing hazardous waste

According to the ministry’s assessment, how much hazardous waste has remained in former industrial plants and does the government have a strategy to address this issue, especially after the discovery of large quantities of illegally stored waste?

– Serbia, like any other country, generates certain amounts of hazardous waste each year. Every company is obliged to report such waste to the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the statistics on annually reported hazardous waste, there are somewhere between 150,000 and 230,000 tonnes, depending on the level of economic activity, although I have reason to doubt that all hazardous waste is registered.

Part of this hazardous waste is processed in domestic capacities that are very scarce and poor, the part is exported in accordance with the law, to be treated abroad, and a third part is missing. And that’s why we’ve launched an action, together with the Security Information Agency and the Prosecutor’s Office, to detect illegally deposited hazardous waste.

Environmental safety is one of the vital issues from the aspect of Serbia’s overall security, and with such unsavoury and criminal storage of thousands of tonnes of carcinogenic waste certain companies and individuals have committed a crime against the environment, our children and their future.

I believe it’s possible to find a compromise between our need to live cleanly and the economy’s need to function

It is important to us that we have the support of citizens, who – following our action – reported several dozen locations which they suspect of containing hazardous waste. The second issue is the so-called historical waste. Historical waste is actually industrial waste that includes a little communal waste, a little hazardous waste and all sorts…This relates to waste accumulated on the premises of around 70 companies that no longer operate or are under bankruptcy proceedings, or which are empty facilities where nobody sits, left to the mercy and harshness of the weather.

That’s why I say that these are potentially dangerous sites, possible “ecological bombs” because all of that pollutes the environment. The Government of Serbia and the Ministry of Environmental Protection, having taken into consideration the importance of urgently resolving this problem, have begun carrying out analysis that will highlight the locations, exact quantities and composition of historical hazardous waste, after which its removal in accordance with the law will start.

Significant financial resources are needed to resolve this problem, but there is no cost for permanently resolving this problem. The Ministry has already planned to earmark 100 million dinars for this year and immediately after analysis of the sites and quantities is completed we will begin removing and properly disposing of this waste, which will continue until we dispose of all historically hazardous waste. The Ministry is also working on the preparation of a project for the construction of a facility to treat hazardous waste in Serbia.

Considering that Serbia needs to invest about five billion euros that it doesn’t have in the processing of wastewater, what other solutions are possible to resolve this problem over the long term? Should the private sector expect higher taxes?

– Wastewater is the Ministry’s number one priority. In Serbia, there are three to five wastewater treatment systems that function well, while it is necessary for there to be around 300 of them. However, this problem cannot be solved overnight. Even if we now had five billion euros on our account, we don’t have the required project-technical documentation.

All wastewater must be purified, which is the only way to protect our rivers, groundwater, land and the environment as a whole. Our focus must be on the processing of wastewater: municipal, surface and industrial. The reason is clear – our pollution induces water. That then pollutes land and groundwater, which further causes the pollution of food and drinking water, and that leads to diseases that not only affect us but also the entire ecosystem. And what don’t we throw into the water?! That won’t be possible anymore.

All companies that operate in Serbia will have to apply the laws adopted to protect the environment. We are aware that they are not all in a position to invest millions of euros in wastewater or air treatment plants, but it’s certain that they will have to work fast on that. I believe it’s possible to find a compromise between our need to live cleanly and the economy’s need to function.

Local governments should play an important role in applying for funding from domestic and international sources. How capable are they of developing appropriate projects and managing this kind of investment?

– Local self-governments play a very important role, primarily in defining problems in their areas and preparing technical project documentation. Most municipalities don’t have prepared projects, and that’s a condition for obtaining funds from any source.

The Ministry carries out activities in the support of local self-government units through the financing of the compiling of missing technical project documentation, in accordance with its list of priorities, but also through the provision of necessary technical assistance in terms of allocating experts who help in the implementation of projects at the local level. That’s why a special part of the Ministry was established to deal with projects and help local self-governments in particular because we need to build their capacities and strengthen them for the preparation and implementation of projects.

Waste management in the developed world also implies waste generating money, but this is not yet the case in Serbia. However, local governments, who until recently refused to allow regional dumps to be located on their territory, now want them, because they have realised that managing such a landfill site not only protects the environment but is also a lucrative business that generates profits.