Pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkan countries caused nearly 19,000 deaths in Europe over the past three years, according to estimates in a new report.
Half of those deaths occurred in European Union countries including Italy, Romania and Hungary, The report by CEE Bankwatch Network and the Clean Air and Energy Research Center.
Pollution comes from power plants that exceed their legal pollution limits, or legal operating hours limits, in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro.
The authors argue that, along with healthcare costs, the EU also bears “part of the responsibility” as it is a net importer of electricity from this region.
While the electricity you import represents only a small fraction of your total electricity use, the electricity production at these plants can be extremely polluting.
According to the report, power generation in these countries is around 300 times more SO2 intensive than in the EU.
SO2, or sulfur dioxide, is a major air pollutant that has a significant impact on human health.
Electricity from the Western Balkans accounts for only 0.3% of the EU’s electricity consumption, but because its production is so SO2-intensive, SO2 emissions from this 0.3% are equivalent to half of the emissions SO2 totals from all power plants in the country. EU in 2020.
Tens of thousands of preventable deaths
In the Comply or Close report, the researchers used a methodology based on scientific studies to calculate the increased risk of death when air pollution increased by a certain amount.
When projecting what would happen if an area’s coal power emissions were removed, they combined this with population data and country-level data to calculate the number of fatalities attributable to emissions from coal plants.
The report found that nearly 19,000 deaths occurred between 2018 and 2020 due to coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans. More than half of them, 10,800, were in EU countries.
About 30 percent, 6,500, were in Western Balkan countries and the rest in neighboring countries outside the EU.
“Those Western Balkan governments that have not yet done so should set a date for an urgent phase-out of coal,” said Davor Pehchevski, Coordinator of the Balkan Air Pollution Campaign at CEE Bankwatch Network. “For power plants that cannot be shut down immediately, governments must limit their hours of operation until emissions standards are met, to save lives.”
“In parallel, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy measures must be intensified urgently, and plans for a just transition for coal workers and communities should be developed together with all relevant stakeholders, especially affected communities.”
Pollution in the middle of a pandemic
The authors argue that emissions could have been expected to have decreased during the coronavirus pandemic, due to the decline in economic activity.
This was “far from the case,” the report says, and many of the plants in the five Western Balkan countries included in the study show increased emissions.
These plants are included in the National Emission Reduction Plans (NERP) of these countries, a plan that allows them to continue operating the plants built before 1992 until 2027 – under strict conditions.
These conditions include an annual ceiling on the amount of different pollutants, as well as a limit of 20,000 hours of operation per year.
In 2018 and 2019, according to the report, the coal plants that were included in the NERPs emitted around six times more sulfur dioxide (SO2) than allowed, but in 2020 they emitted 6.4 times more.
Plants emitted about 1.6 times more dust than allowed in the three years between 2018 and 2020, and absolute emissions even increased slightly.
“The governments of the Western Balkans cannot dream of being members of the EU while ignoring the pollution control rules. To avoid this type of flagrant non-compliance, implementation of the Energy Community Treaty must be a priority. The European Commission and EU governments must introduce effective sanctions, ”said Ioana Ciuta, Energy Coordinator for the Western Balkans at CEE Bankwatch Network.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism