Several environmentalist groups urged EU policymakers on Tuesday to take swift action on coal power plants in the Western Balkans, saying pollution from these outdated plants cause 3,000 premature deaths each year.
According to a report published by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), Sandbag, Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, CEE Bankwatch Network and Europe Beyond Coal, the coal power plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia – all non-EU countries - emit "alarmingly high levels of pollutants that travel long distances," with the biggest impacts seen not only in neighboring Romania, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece and Croatia, but also in countries further afield such as Poland, Germany, Czech Republic and Austria.
"Every year they cause 3,000 premature deaths, 8,000 cases of bronchitis in children, and other chronic illnesses costing both health systems and economies a total of €6.1 to €11.5 billion.
"The EU bears the majority of the health costs amounting to € 3.1-€5.8 billion, while the economic burden on the Western Balkan countries is estimated to be €1.9-3.6 billion every year," the report said.
According to the report’s findings, this is due to the fact that Western Balkan coal power plants are "old, inefficient and substandard".
"In 2016, the region’s coal fleet (16 plants totaling 8 gigawatts) emitted more sulfur dioxide pollution than the entire fleet of European coal power plants (250 equal to 156 GW), combined with equally worrying levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides," it said.
According to the report, the five Western Balkan countries cited signed up for the Energy Community Treaty in 2005, in an attempt to integrate their energy markets with that of the EU.
"The Treaty set a deadline requiring Western Balkan countries to comply with EU pollution control legislation by 2018. However, compulsory moves towards healthy energy sources, investments and retrofits in energy production across the Western Balkans have largely been delayed," it said.
According to the authors of the report, one crucial reason for the lack of progress is the determination of policymakers in the region to replace the old coal fleet with new coal plants.
"It is in the interest of people across Europe - citizens of the EU and the Western Balkan countries - to engage on this public health threat. Policymakers in both the EU and in Western Balkan countries must prioritize healthy energy and climate ambition. This implies an unavoidable and just coal phase-out," they argued.
The groups called for the strengthening of the Energy Community to promptly enforce existing pollution control measures and propose additional legislation in the Treaty.
They also called on the European Commission to prioritize pollution control and air quality within the EU accession process in particular by excluding companies planning new coal power capacity from EU financing; and by supporting innovative financial mechanisms for increasing investments in renewables and energy efficiency.
"The expertise of medical professionals about the health impacts and costs of coal energy must be recognized in public debates and decisions, as well as ensuring that the health argument is included in clean air plans and energy policy overall," they added.
By Hale Turkes