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Irena Vujović, Serbian Minister Of Environmental Protection

Significant Investments In A Healthier Environment

We have at our disposal a budget of 8.3 billion dinars, which is a clear indicator that this will be a year of investment in environmental protection. But that’s not all – Serbia is strongly committed to basing its future economic growth and development on innovation, green energy and the creation of green jobs.

Although we were awaited by problems dating back decades and the general concern of the public regarding pollution, we didn’t sweep those problems under the carpet, but rather got to work to start solving them immediately, as soon as I took the helm of the ministry.

We began by identifying three priority areas – air pollution, the proper treatment of wastewater and solving the problem of illegal dumps. This year we’re planning to invest significant funds in projects related to those areas, and I expect that, once they are implemented, the ecological picture of Serbia will be much healthier – says Environmental Protection Minister Irena Vujović in this interview for CorD Magazine.

Caring the environment is, as she notes, is an obligation of her ministry, but also an obligation of society as a whole, and a positive result cannot be lacking if every actor contributes.

You’ve said that this year will be marked by major investments. What first steps have you taken in that regard?

The first steps have already been taken in each of the aforementioned areas and we are now moving forward. When it comes to air pollution, we’ve allocated funds to subsidise electric or hybrid vehicles, and secured 400 million dinars for local government projects aimed at improving air quality.

We plan to build wastewater treatment plants on the territories covered by 28 local governments, with an accompanying sewerage network.

The first steps have already been taken in terms of project design, while financing has been secured through the line of credit provided by the Council of Europe Development Bank, amounting to a total of 200 million euros.

We’ve also called on cities and municipalities to map the illegal dumps located on their territories, in order for us to help in their remediation. And what is particularly important, and represents a more enduring solution to this problem, are the regional centres where waste would be treated according to European standards. Plans include the building of eight such regional centres, and we are negotiating for 100 million euros to invest in these projects with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

When one takes into account that the Ministry I head has a budget for this year that amounts to 8.3 billion dinars, it is clear that this will be the year of investment in environmental protection. But that doesn’t mean we’ll stop there. We’re also planning new projects aimed at achieving the same goal, and that goal is a healthy environment.

We will support cities and municipalities in replacing heating boilers and household fires, as well as in implementing afforestation projects. I expect air pollution to be reduced by as soon as the next heating season

Citizens are increasingly highlighting the problem of huge air pollution in Serbia. What is the Ministry’s response; what can be done in the short term and what are your long-term plans?

We must solve the problem of air pollution together, through measures to mitigate the situation that will contribute to solving it. Reducing air pollution is something I insisted on from the moment I took over the ministry. I’m proud of my team, which responded quickly, and under the shortest possible deadlines we announced competitions for cities and municipalities to replace heating boilers and household fires, and to implement afforestation projects. I expect the effects of this investment to be visible by the next heating season.

Competitions for replacement heating boilers and household fires were announced for the first time, and through those two public calls we made 300 million dinars available to local self-governments. We have also secured another 100 million dinars for afforestation.

The local governments that reacted quickly and prepared projects are worthy of all praise. The contracts have already been signed, and it is now up to them to launch implementation.

In the next period, We also plan to announce competitions for eco parks in the period ahead, and I expect local governments to react with equal speed and responsibility, and for this competition to be successful.

This is our swift response to the problem of pollution, which is always more intense during the heating season, because fuel oil and coal are mostly used as fuel for heating in our country. Viewed over the long term, it is necessary to increasingly introduce gas and other “cleaner” sources of energy, but also to renew the technology installed in heating plants. When it comes to reducing pollution from road and public traffic, it is necessary to increase the extent to which vehicles that are in line with the latest European norms are represented, but also the number of electric and hybrid vehicles.

Serbia doesn’t have enough forests. What are the Ministry’s most important projects in this area?

Forests are our natural wealth, the main producers of oxygen and oases of beauty. We are cofinancing afforestation projects together with 38 local governments in Serbia, in a total amount of 100 million dinars.

What makes me particularly happy is the fact that significant funds will go to projects on the territory of Vojvodina, which is in dire need of greening projects. I believe this precise way is fitting for cities and municipalities, with the support of the state, to plant forests or conduct the greening of public areas on their territory, by forming parks and greening schoolyards, children’s playgrounds and the like.

I would remind readers that the International Day of Forests was marked worldwide on 21st March and provided an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves how necessary it is to strengthen society’s awareness of their importance and for each of us, as individuals, to contribute to the conservation of nature. The Ministry that I head is dedicated completely to that.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Mining and Energy agreed to form a joint working group that will contribute to closer and more operational cooperation on current projects, but also on the defining of common goals for attaining EU standards in the domain of environmental protection. What does that mean in practical terms?

The Ministry of Environmental Protection overlaps with other ministries in numerous areas, and we have particularly close common challenges and goals with the Ministry of Mining and Energy. The development of energy sources and the preservation of the environment are inextricably linked, and it is our common objective to move closer to European standards with every year, when it comes to issues of decarbonisation, energy transition and green energy. That’s why the formation of this working group is a solution that is expected to establish a constructive dialogue and a targeted approach to solving our shared problems.

I would also add that, with the adopting of the Law on Climate Change, we have created good foundations to prepare an integrated plan for energy and climate.

Statistics of the Republic Hydrometeorological Service of Serbia from 1951 until the end of 2019 show that 13 of the 15 warmest years in Serbia have been recorded since the year 2000, and it seems that the year ahead will again be among the warmest. How is Serbia coping the consequences of climate change?

Scientists believe that ever more common extreme weather conditions – such as heavy rains, flooding, droughts, a lack of snow in winter, ever more frequent heat waves and cold snaps, and wildfires – are actually consequences of climate change. Some analyses show that climate change is becoming increasingly evident in Serbia and is endangering the health, but also the earnings, of the population. In the period since 2000,Serbia has sustained damage related to climate change that exceeds seven billion euros. In the fight against climate change, we are all important actors, whether that’s citizens themselves, the economy, institutions, the nongovernmental sector and the academic community.

The first significant step was taken with the recent adoption of the umbrella Law on Climate Change. The adoption of this law provides us with an excellent starting point – for the first time as a society – to systemically, systematically and with joint force fight the challenges of climate change in continuity. This law prescribes a series of measures that will make society more resilient against altered climatic conditions over the long run.

The adoption of the Law on Climate Change provides us with an excellent starting point to – for the first time as a society – systemically, systematically and with joint force fight the challenges of climate change in continuity

The Law on Climate Change should contribute to establishing a system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. What are the main benefits of this law?

It is certain that Serbia is strongly determined to base its future economic growth and development on innovation, green energy and the creation of new, green jobs. The law is an important link in that sense. It will contribute to the establishing of a system for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time increasing the resilience of the entire society against the negative effects of climate change, especially sectors such as health, water management, forestry and agriculture.

The law will also provide a good base for the planned adaptation of all relevant sectors to a changed climate, and will establish reporting mechanisms with which will fulfil our obligations towards the international community, i.e. the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Paris Agreement.

What is very important is that the application of the Law will have a positive impact on economic growth and development, the increased competitiveness of our economy, attracting investments, especially in accordance with the standards and requirements of the European Union market.

How would you rate the implementation of climate agreements and activities that Serbia is included in, and to what extent is Serbia succeeding in fulfilling its obligations under the Paris Agreement?

Serbia has been a member of the Paris Agreement since mid- 2017, and the goal is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas to a level that will contribute to limiting global temperature rises to below 2°C. And ideally up to 1.5°C. According to scientists, that is the limit of safety, and climate change will become easier for us to adapt to if it is achieved.

The signatory countries, including Serbia, are obliged to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030. It was in 2015 that Serbia submitted its goal of reducing GHG emissions by 9.8% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030. The Law on Climate Change envisages the development of strategy documents, the implementation of which will help us achieve the established goals. Considering everything that’s already been done, Serbia is today on the right track to fulfilling its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

How challenging is it to implement projects under the conditions of a pandemic and has that influenced the dynamics of their implementation?

The pandemic is a challenge for every sector and impacts all of our lives. It is up to us to do everything we can under the given circumstances, to respect the measures, to get vaccinated, when the state has even allowed us to choose the vaccine manufacturer we want. And, of course, for us to keep working despite the virus, because that’s the only way to move forward. After only four months at the helm of the Ministry, I’m proud to be able to say that our projects did not suffer because of the virus, nor did other initiatives that are aimed at leaving an ecologically cleaner Serbia for our citizens and our children.

PRIORITIES

Combating air pollution, the proper treatment of wastewater and solving the problem of illegal dumps are currently the Ministry’s three most important priorities

STANDARDS

It is our common objective to move closer to European standards with every year, when it comes to issues of decarbonisation, energy transition and green energy

FINANCING

We are negotiating with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on investment to build eight regional centres that would treat waste according to European standards

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