Pandemic, Climate Change and EU Engagement In the Region

After the Crisis, the Time Will Come to Rebuild Better

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The COVID-19 crisis further emphasises the importance of the Western Balkans’ embracing values set by the European Green Deal, and making a shift in its economic model towards the principles of the circular economy and new pathways to job creation. It is with this in mind that the EU has invested around 400 million euros in environment sector so far in supporting Serbia over the past 19 years

We welcomed this year’s Earth Day in our homes, isolated and worried about how our world will look following the COVID-19 crisis. There is, however, some certainty: we will, more than ever, need a healthy planet with healthy people.

While we are suffering and mourning our losses, this crisis is testing the limits of our system. After the crisis, the time will come to rebuild better. A new Ipsos poll conducted in 14 countries shows support for government actions to prioritise climate change in post-Covid-19 economic recovery, with 65% agreeing that this is important. Now, perhaps more than ever is the time for ambitious plans.

The European Green Deal, which aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, will set out actions in the fields of climate, energy, the circular economy, construction, mobility, agriculture, sustainable food chains, biodiversity and de-pollution. The engagement of the Western Balkans I achieving these goals will help the economy and create jobs.

Carbon reduction commitments, based on clean energy supply and smart mobility solutions, are in the best interest of the citizens of the region, especially younger generations, as is the energy efficiency of buildings and industrial plants.

A complete paradigm shift is needed in the region’s economic development model, integrating circular economy principles, where the use of natural resources is reduced and recycling and reuse are improved. There is a huge opportunity for the Western Balkans to take a step forward to innovative green technologies.

The region faces waste management challenges, with more waste to manage, packaging, demolition and construction waste, but low recycling. Few waste management facilities meet modern standards, and most of the waste ends up in illegal dumps or unsanitary landfills. The region faces an urgent need to improve waste collection and separation and to increase industrial recycling.

Air pollution affects both the public health and the economies of the region and beyond. The main causes are known: outdated energy production methods, household and small unit heating, transport… Recent studies show that the percentage of deaths due to air pollution is higher in Western Balkans than in the EU. This is linked to 16 coal power plants operating in the region, which pollute more than 250 coal plants operating in the EU. Indoor smoking and related health risks create an additional burden.

The Western Balkans’ biodiversity and habitats are unique in Europe and shelter a large number of endangered species. The future is in protecting these ecosystems while promoting green economic activities. As the region’s economic growth makes headway, its biodiversity and habitats need to be actively encouraged and restored.

“We need to protect, restore and fund the green recovery and transition, for the sake of the health and well-being of all citizens” ~ Sem Fabrizi, Ambassador of the European Union to Serbia

According to Sem Fabrizi, Ambassador of the European Union to Serbia, “all of our projects are designed and implemented to achieve a positive impact on the environment and citizen’s quality of life. In Serbia, over the past 19 years, the EU has invested around 400 million euros in environmental protection. We are talking of grants and not loans.”

On 21st January 2020, the Government adopted the Negotiating Position for Chapter 27, as the result of a colossal three-year work, continuously supported by the EU and its member states, such as Sweden. This document officially recognises many key policy decisions, prepared implementation plans for EU Directives and a Multi-annual Investment and Financing Plan. Key for Serbia is the adoption of the climate law and strategy and revision of the Nationally Determined Contributions, with the notable support of the UNDP.

In the sector of air quality, the EU has installed 28 automatic monitoring stations and will invest in more. We financed an ash disposal system and filtration system at Nikola Tesla power plant, and in Obrenovac emissions of matter particulates into the air was reduced as much as sixfold. In February 2020, when air pollution in Serbia exceeded all prescribed levels, the EU offered support and advice to Serbia, coordinating its actions with the international community, and hosting public and TV debates.

The first national Air quality strategy is under preparation. In Subotica, the EU has built a modern Regional Waste Management Centre worth over 20 million euros. In Duboko we co-financed a regional landfill that serves nine municipalities, which can treat 80 tonnes of waste, resulting in reduced threats to the environment and public health. In Šabac, the EU has invested in waste removal and disposal, wastewater treatment and a flood defence system. We’ve also helped to develop a management system for hazardous medical waste at the national level.

When it comes to water management, Serbia is in dire need of investment. The EU has supported the construction of wastewater treatment plants in Subotica, Šabac, Leskovac, Kula and Vrbas, as well as the upgrading of water supply systems in Požarevac, Inđija and many other places. The first-ever River Basin Management Plan for Serbia is currently being prepared by a pool of national and international experts.

The EU supports the protection of biodiversity through its Natura 2000 project, to protect core areas for species or habitat types listed in the Habitats and Birds Directives. In Serbia, 89 habitat types, 150 animal species from the Habitats Directive annexes, and 116 bird species from the Annex I of the Birds Directive have been found.

The EU is raising awareness of environmental issues with all stakeholders, and engaging citizens by urging them to be agents of change through campaigns such as “Look around, Let’s Move”, the tree planting campaign launched with the EXIT Foundation, support for Green Fest and others, and the organisation of public discussions and debates. Taking environmental actions and adopting small changes can create huge collective change! The EU Delegation also has its own Green plan: reduce the use of paper and electricity, refrain from using single-use plastic etc.

To quote EU Delegation Head Fabrizi: “Together with the government, civil society, and the public and private sectors, we will continue to raise citizens’ environmental awareness. We will not stop investing for the benefit of Serbian citizens. We need to protect, restore, and fund the green recovery and transition, for the sake of the health and well-being of all citizens.”

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