We haven’t responded to many of the challenges confronting sustainable development in Serbia. Still, there is one thing that has improved. And that is environmental awareness and the culture of sustainability, especially among the smaller, younger and particularly educated sections of the population. If we work on that even more, new generations will be much more responsible towards their heritage than we’ve been.
In the ongoing discussions of the current juncture pertaining to various projects that have a strong environmental impact, we get the impression that the Serbian public is drastically polarised and perceives environmental protection and economic development as diametrically opposed extreme poles without a “middle ground”. Do we need to better select projects, or to set different public policies regulating economic development, or to deal with the better provision of information? To find answers to these and other questions, we spoke with Petar Đukić, a professor at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy and an expert in the field of sustainable development.
“Polarisation didn’t arise from the ecological perception of reality, but rather from the shaken integrity of the government and trust in it, but also due to the crisis of all social values caused by the destruction of institutions that had collapsed already. It is similar across almost the whole world. Institutions only function if you are certain that people’s will and power will not be above institutions and laws. Thence arises also this polarisation, which leads nowhere,” says our interlocutor.
To what extent are the debates that we have on this topic in Serbia indigenous and specific to our circumstances, and to what extent do they represent an echo of the very serious debates on economic progress and sustainability that are currently being held at the world level?
Current debates addressing the climate are gaining an increasingly global tone (the impact of UN action, from Rio 1992 to Glasgow 2021), but for us also an essential European one (EU Green Agenda and Green Plan for the Balkans 2020), and finally a national-regional tone, which we still need to establish, if we think positively of everyone in the region.
Here in the Balkans, we’re individually too weak, powerless and small, and the regional effects of climate change are too strong for us to have our own national climate change response strategies and mechanisms. We need purposeful joint action, devoid of any kind of national, ideological our great-state prejudice. This are issues that rise above all ideologies, and even “national” politics.
As an economist, how do you view the idea that our understanding of economic growth as the continuous production of an ever-increasing volume and number of goods and services must change completely?
I’m not a supporter of the “must” category. At the end of the day, we all see that in life nothing is a “must” except death. Precisely in order for the life of the Planet not to be extinguished prematurely, from a cosmic perspective, people should do as much as they can (and together they can do a lot) to prevent its accelerated extinction.
If you only apply the “polluter-user pays” principle, whether in the form of taxes, charges or penalty costs, you will get better economic behaviour among the people around the society
Now, how much can people do? They can do a lot more than they’ve shown and done to date. Specifically, if you apply the “polluter-user pays” principle, whether in the form of taxes, charges or penalty costs, you will get better economic behaviour among the people around the society. Today there are current fees for the use of water, natural materials and materials from the land, but they are not high enough – not even around the world, let alone in our country.
How come companies are showing so much interest in natural resources?
This kind of an offensive on resources stems from several relevant factors: first, natural materials, and with them mineral fuels, have not lost their importance as the raw materials required for industrial development, like it seemed they would during the last decades of the 20th century.
Large and small companies, as well as states and regional economies like that of the EU, are aware of that fact. Second, demand for natural resources is currently rising sharply due to the perception of a rapid increase in global economic activity following the recession caused by the pandemic. Third, additional fuel for searching for and redistributing natural resources around the world provides information on the ultra-ecological future of industries and technologies, especially following the information that emerged from the Panel on Climate Change and after the global conferences addressing the climate and environment.
Transitioning to new economic-technological structures and carbon-zero technologies is neither a simple nor a short-term thing. Therefore (and this is the reasoning of companies and many “industrialised nations”), it is not bad to continue utilising what we can in the old way, and under the given prices and conditions, before new, increasingly restrictive environmental standards enter into force.
Finally, there is the regional-national aspect. If some project cannot make it through the standards, laws and ecological culture of one’s own country, then it still can in some other country where labour, capital, knowledge, and even natural resources, have a much lower price tag.
To what extent are global policies related to the introduction of circular economy principles reflected in our institutional framework and operationalised at a practical level?
The circular economy is just a complete notion; a model like the previous one on sustainable development (encompassing much more than the economy), and later the “green economy”, and now the latest ones like “bioeconomy” and even “climate economy”. These terms are almost the same in terms of content, differing only in terms of the focus of analyses. If you primarily have in mind closing the cycle of useful energy and fully utilised waste when designing an industrial process, i.e., a procedure that doesn’t contribute to disturbing the ecosystem in any way, without harmful emissions or depleting resources, then that’s a circular economy (an ecologically encircled economic system). And if the priority of your product and process design is to have a favourable impact on the climate, i.e., to contribute positively to climate action, it is called “climate economy”. Those who would like to copy nature in their processes and reproduction (an economy that has no leftovers, such as the complete exchange of matter and energy between the Sun, Earth, plants, animals, fungi and bacteria) then it is “bioeconomy”.
All of these new terms are welcome, though I personally prefer to have one. And that one is sustainable development, because it relates not only to the economy, but rather also to society, politics, social institutions, culture etc. Sustainable development exceeds the goals of any sector-specific strategy and policy, which is why we need a strategy for how to further develop as a whole. We had a sustainable development strategy, which unfortunately “expired” in 2017, without an adequate replacement. The climate strategy, the draft of which is currently being finetuned, is not a sufficient substitute for sustainable development.
To what extent is the academic community included in the shaping of these policies, both at the general level and at the level of consulting and seeking expert opinions regarding major projects that are launched and have a fundamental impact on economic and social development processes?
The academic community in our country, like any other section of the public and profession, is deeply divided, according to seams of interest. Those who are involved to a greater extent in official projects (with some exceptions) mostly try to explain that something being promoted by the government must be done by you, because that is the best solution. The other part has the opposite stance. A pronounced example of that is the expert assessment of the architecture and infrastructure of Belgrade, the Belgrade metro, the opening of mines in Serbia, new settlements and projects beginning with the Belgrade gondola, masts and monuments, all the way to the residential complex on the Makis field near Belgrade source of communal water. There is no discussion regarding which of these is risky and how much, which of them is acceptable or unacceptable, and regarding alternative solutions. It must be recognised, however, that academic independence and the honourable influence of experts are still silent and (rarely) speak up, like the announcements and statements of 90% of lecturers at the Faculty of Civil Engineering regarding the poor and harmful choice of metro rail lines for Belgrade.
None of the few remaining mines of metallic and non-metallic raw materials operating in our country are environmentally friendly or able to be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also discuss sustainable (not “green”) mining
Based on that and this kind of professional academic courage, I expect us to reach a rebellion and a presenting of the joint stance of experts from the Faculty of Transportation, the Jaroslav Černi Water Institute, the Hydrology Department of the Faculty of Mining, Civil Engineering and other faculties regarding public projects, regardless of any government structure.
Do we, as a public, have the opportunity to hear all the arguments that would help us make decisions?
We don’t, for multiple reasons. First and foremost, because (every) government tries maximally to block such debates and arguments, through the granting of short deadlines or by reducing public debates to online conferences, for example under the direction of the Chamber of Commerce, as a parastate body. The second reason is that professional associations and scientific societies try, to a great extent, not to offend the authorities, so they avoid open and critical discussions of public projects, confining themselves to the theory and not venturing into the domain of development policies. Finally, interests are a wonder, with many scholars or prestigious cultural workers having been bought off or threatened to be deprived of their privileges, directorship positions or the benefits of managing state projects etc.
To what extent do we have well-established taxation and other instruments at the level of companies that would encourage the business sector to seek solutions for their businesses that take into account issues of sustainability?
The state should duly review and adjust the mineral resource rent tax, pollution taxes and other fees in accordance with new scientific discoveries, monitoring the state of resources and the advancement of raising awareness.
In Serbia’s contemporary mining sector, you have the greatest environmental and developmental damages, i.e., health damages, and even long-term social damages from the operations of Kolubara and Kostolac within the EPS framework. The second most harmful mining-industrial activity is the existing mining of copper and some gold in Bor (Chinese company Zijin Copper), the Smederevo Steelworks (we won’t mention individual fireboxes and traffic at present). Finally, there are only a few remaining mines of metallic and non-metallic raw materials. None of these mines are environmentally friendly or able to be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also discuss sustainable (not “green”) mining.
Nonetheless, a huge fuss has arisen (only partially justified by research) and the much more important (opening) of the lithium and boron mines. There is no dialogue, with both sides pushing their own agenda. This definitely won’t bring a stop to mining around the world and in Serbia, just as it won’t be possible to launch sustainable mining with the help of party pressures and the instrumentalising of a referendum. The most dangerous thing would be to force the launch of mining against the will of the people, and for people to carry out some obstructions, as is happening around the world.
Every government sometimes gets into a public interest conflict, but scientists and experts should never permit that to happen to them. They have no right to passivity and silence
Here in the Balkans, we’re individually too weak, powerless and small, and the regional effects of climate change are too strong for us to have our own national strategies
Global policies are insufficiently integrated into our institutional frameworks, which ensures they’re not sufficiently operable at a practical level