European Western Balkans

Bad results after opening Cluster 4: Environment in Serbia awaits abandonment of coal and staff increase

Photo: Belgrade Open School (BOS)

At the Intergovernmental Conference held on December 14 last year in Brussels, Cluster 4 in EU accession negotiations was opened, which Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić then assessed as an important turning point and a great success for the country, and an additional motivation for further improvements. A year later, unfortunately, we are witnessing that the opening of the Green Agenda cluster and sustainable connectivity have had almost no effect on Serbia’s progress in the field of environmental protection and climate change. On all important issues, Serbia has been mostly stalling for a year and wasting precious time, EWB interlocutors agree.

In its report on Serbia for 2022, the European Commission begins the section on Chapter 27 with a message about the necessity of adopting regulations and strategic documents that will trace the country’s path towards the goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This also means the accelerated abandonment of coal and the development of energy capacities based on renewable sources.

The adoption of a unanimous strategic decision on the decarbonization of the energy sector is exactly what many other documents related to climate and air protection are waiting for, while the Ministry of Energy remains undetermined. Without the closure of thermal power plants, there will be no reduction in emissions, and it is impossible to implement the Air Protection Program by 2030, which represents the most significant event regarding Chapter 27 this year. Ultimately, without decarbonization, Serbia is unable to respect its laws and international obligations.

In addition, increasing the number of personnel and investments at the central and local level, implementing and more intensively enforcing regulations, increasing transparency, and reducing corruption are crucial for all environmental factors – improving the quality of air, water, and soil, reducing the amount and increasing the degree of waste recycling, protecting plant and animal habitats and species.

Air quality is monitored by a decreasing number of experts

In the Annual Report of the European Commission on Serbia for 2022, among the key recommendations for Chapter 27 is “enhancing the administrative and financial capacity of central and local authorities, in particular in the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and environmental inspectorates”.

“If you look at the key recommendations in previous reports, you see that this is repeated for the eleventh time in a row. This matter entered the Negotiating Position of Serbia, in the annexes of which it is stated that the Agency should strengthen analytical work in the field of environmental protection by strengthening human capacities and should have 146 employees. SEPA now has 56 actual employees, and three years ago it had 75. The number decreased due to natural attrition, and the management tried to replace it by hiring people on a temporary contract, which, of course, did not work. It is very serious because there has been no progress for a long time,” says Dejan Lekić, who performed the duty of the National Focal Point for cooperation with the European Environment Agency (EEA) and its observation and information network (Eionet) in the period from 2007 to 2021 in the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency.

The European Commission highlights again that the Agency lacks appropriate personnel solutions in the part related to air quality. It also recommends the adoption of the EU air quality index, which points to the fact that Serbia tolerates higher concentrations of certain pollutants in the air compared to the EU.

A significant development when it comes to planned documentation took place after the publication of the EC’s annual report – on December 8 the Government of Serbia adopted the Air Protection Program in the Republic of Serbia for the period from 2022 to 2030, the first of its kind in the country.

Lekić reminds that the adoption of the plan is delayed by a year, and the fact that it was adopted after the adoption of the budget for 2023 greatly complicates its implementation in the next year. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that its adoption is very significant and that all Serbia needs to do now in order to make the air cleaner is to follow the steps and fulfill one by one the goals outlined in it.

Most of the waste ends up in landfills

At the beginning of the year, Serbia adopted the Waste Management Program for the period from 2022 – 2031 and the action plan until 2024, notes the European Commission.

“Serbia has 10 regional sanitary landfills, which received 19 percent of generated municipal waste in 2020. Additional economic instruments for special waste streams should be developed urgently. In Serbia, the recycling rate in 2020 was 15.5 percent, but less than 2 percent comes from households. Although it has closed several more non-conditional landfills, it should continue to close them more systemically, in addition to increasing investments in waste reduction, sorting, and recycling,” the EC emphasizes.

In the “Shadow Report” of Coalition 27 called “One step forward, two steps back”, it was stated that 11 sanitary communal landfills were active in Serbia in 2021, along with the Vinča landfill, which was in trial operation. Most of the collected municipal waste ends up in unsanitary communal landfills – of which there are 138 according to reports from 144 local governments. In addition, according to estimates, in Serbia, there are more than 3,000 illegal landfills “caused by the lack of coverage of the entire territory by the municipal waste collection system and the inability of existing mechanisms to prevent illegal dumping of waste”. That’s why Coalition 27 notes the importance of preventing the creation of new illegal landfills – through the expansion of municipal waste collection to 100 percent and increased inspection supervision.

“The practice of mixing hazardous household waste with non-hazardous waste is still widespread, and there are no indications that this behavior will be sanctioned in the near future, regardless of the Law that strictly prohibits it”, is another warning from the Coalition’s report on Chapter 27.

“Backward progress” – without nature protection, there is no entry into the EU

Among the authors of the aforementioned “Shadow Report” is Goran Sekulić, former assistant director at the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia, now a program associate of WWF Adriatic, who has been dealing with the issue of establishing and managing protected areas for years.

“In the progress report, which we called “One step forward, two steps back”, we assessed that practically there is no significant progress, there are only small things in which progress was made. After the opening of the cluster, there were no further activities. The negotiating platform is outdated and must be revised, and we have not even seen an initiative by the Ministry of Environmental Protection to do something about it. The cluster was simply opened and left like that,” says Sekulić and explains that Serbia does not have enough capacity in the field of environmental protection, especially at the local level, and one of the consequences is the absence of projects that would enable the withdrawal of funds from the European Union that are now available.

During the last three years, progress has been made within the project financed by the EU, unrelated to the opening of the cluster, which refers to the development of proposals for the ecological network of Serbia Natura 2000, which should cover all habitats and all important species in Serbia.

“Certain data was collected, mapping, training were done, the methodology was developed, an information system was built… There are already proposals for part of the area that will enter Natura in 2020. We hope that the EU will continue to support that process, but it is very important to ensure funding from the budget. Nature protection is key to joining the EU,” says Sekulić.

We are not protecting the birds properly

The European Commission underlines that Serbia must also solve the legal gaps that allow the hunting of non-game birds, especially hawks and turtle doves, as well as fully incorporate the EU standards on prohibited ways of catching and killing wild animals into all legal regulations.

“We still have non-compliance with the Birds Directive.” We have not prescribed the restrictions well enough – when it is allowed to hunt and when it is not. There is a list of primary species, but the Directive generally protects birds. You cannot have a single species without any protection, and the number of species must not be regulated by illegal means – poisons, baits, etc. cannot be used,” explains our interlocutor.

“Dirty” water treatment project

In the report of the European Commission, problems with polluted drinking water were noted, especially the presence of arsenic and non-compliance with EU standards in this field, thus the need for a more rigorous approach to the problem of river pollution was emphasized.

“Improving local management, especially in terms of operation and maintenance of water and wastewater facilities, is still a priority,” the EC report stated, moreover, the need for greater transparency in the planning and selection of environmental investments was further emphasized.

This refers to the fact that in 2021, without calling for a tender, Serbia agreed on a sewerage and wastewater program worth 3.2 billion euros with the Chinese corporation China Road and Bridge Corporation, which began implementing it in several municipalities. At the same time, as the EC notes, the public has very little information about that program, and not a single official document has been disclosed.

The program director of the Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI) Mirko Popović says that there are indications that the program has major shortcomings.

“We are still investigating, we do not have all the necessary data, but there are indications that Serbia will not do the work in accordance with the technologies that are the most favorable for the environment and at the same time economically more favorable than some others. Recently opened competition and analysis of solutions lead to choosing the most favorable solution and excluding the possibility of corruption”, says Popović.

Thermal power plants are still key polluters

When it comes to industrial pollution, Popović believes that in terms of all the major problems, Serbia has done very little in the past reporting period and that only cosmetic steps have been taken toward cleaner air.

“During that time, at the end of last year, the Government adopted amendments to the Law on Integrated Prevention and Pollution Control, where polluters were given a grace period of another three years – the deadline for issuing integrated permits was extended, thus also the deadline for obligations.” This is about encouraging the biggest polluters, the thermal power plants, the mining complex in Bor”, says Popović.

In Serbia, sulfur dioxide emissions last year were still far above the values set by the National Emissions Reduction Plan (NERP), and the Serbian thermal power plant Kostolac B is still considered the biggest sulfur dioxide polluter in Europe. Due to these exceedances of legally prescribed values, RERI sued EPS to the Court of Appeal, which in November issued a first-instance verdict ordering EPS to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in thermal power plants due to their danger to human health and the environment.

“I said last time that the opening of the cluster was a reward for bad students, that it came undeservedly, and it turned out to be true. If it was supposed to be an incentive, there was no positive response to it in Serbia,” our interlocutor assesses.

It is suggested that reporting on the accession process should contextualize issues such as air pollution and environmental pollution under Chapter 23.

“Contextualizing those issues within Chapter 23 is something I would expect and would like to see in a future report. We are talking about a serious, massive violation of the human rights of the citizens of Serbia. We should also look at the fact that Serbia is violating international agreements such as the Energy Community Treaty. Violation of international agreements is per se the collapse of the rule of law,” he said.

The fight against the climate and the fate of integration depend on the energy strategy

Serbia submitted in August 2022, one year belated, the updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement. It committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 33.3 percent by 2030, thus increasing its ambitions from the previous 9.8 percent.

“That is the only good thing that has been done about the climate in the period covered by the report. What was raised as a complaint was the lack of adoption of the Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan (INEKP). When the document was put up for public discussion at the beginning of the year for the first time, it was abandoned due to the start of the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis. Then it was presented during the summer, but it was still not adopted,” says climatologist  Vladimir Đurđević.

The INKP, he explains, should describe in detail what Serbia’s plans are, and what exactly it needs to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are three scenarios, and the most ambitious one predicts a reduction of harmful gasses by more than 40 percent by 2030.

He states that it is not the only prepared document that directly or indirectly concerns the climate which is awaiting adoption. This includes the National Plan for Low-Carbon Development and the National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change.

There is a good chance, he says, that one of the reasons for waiting is that the Ministry of Energy cannot agree within itself on the issue of Serbia’s energy strategy.

“The Ministry of Energy must decide what the country’s energy strategy is – what will be the share of sun, wind, hydropower, coal, geothermal energy, biomass, nuclear energy, in production in the next 30 years. Just opening a cluster on climate change doesn’t mean much, it won’t speed up the process. Without a strategic decision and without shutting down the thermal power plants, the emission reduction will be zero,” said Đurđević.

Consequently, without abandoning coal, it is impossible to expect the necessary improvement of air quality, as well as serious alignment with the European Union when it comes to this area.

This article is published within the project “Supporting media freedom in Serbia in relation to the EU accession process”, implemented in cooperation with EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the EUROPEUM Institute or those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.


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