The adoption of the European Green Deal (EGD) marked a new chapter for EU efforts to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. The EGD envisages Europe’s ambition to become first climate-neutral ‘bloc’ and move towards efficient use of resources and circular economy. However, in order to undertake ambitious climate actions and achieve sustainability goals, EU needs to bring other countries on this path.
Alignment with these goals is particularly important for the Western Balkan region (WB6), since 4 out of 6 countries are currently in various stages of the accession process to the EU. Set out in the negotiation framework, candidate countries need to align their domestic climate ambitions with EU acquis. However, because ‘’ Western Balkans is one of the regions in Europe most heavily affected by the impact of climate change’’, chapter 27 is foreseen to be the most expensive and most demanding part of the acquis.
In order to ensure a more predictable and merit-based process, the Commission adopted revised enlargement methodology for the WB6 in 2020. It envisages more holistic approach to the environmental issues by creating a cluster on Green agenda and sustainable connectivity, where chapters regarding the environment, energy, transport policy and trans-European networks would be tackled simultaneously.
Can fire be extinguished?
Although WB6 committed to the EU 2050 goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and increase energy efficiency and usage of renewable sources, lately those countries are marked as pollution hotspots in Europe. This is mainly due to the outdated coal plants, high carbon emissions from power generation, residential heating, agriculture, transport and uncontrolled waste burning. On the other hand, weak institutional capacities and the high cost of environmental protection are just adding another impediment to the equation. Notably, countries are not complying with the standards set out in the National Emission Reduction Plans and lag behind in introducing mechanisms and technologies for emission abatement.
Moving away from unsustainable production and consumption patterns in the WB would be a challenging task. Main obstacle to the region’s transformation into climate-neutral is its high dependency on fossil fuels in electricity production. With the exception of Albania, coal-dependence remains substantial to the energy sector, ‘’accounting for around 70% of electricity produced in the region’’. Since such production is cause for high levels of CO2 emissions, effective air quality management and policies should be put in place. On average, the WB6 emits ten times more CO2 than EU-27.
Consequently, this has far-reaching implications not only for the region, but also have a cross-border impact, especially affecting countries in the EU. Further efforts to tackle pollution and in particular CO2 emissions should evolve in the direction of internalization of emission costs by introducing a carbon price. With an exception of Albania that introduced nominal tax and Montenegro who adopted a national ETS scheme, other countries have not put in place any instruments to promote decarbonization in the region. This is particularly problematic since leaders of WB6 committed to the Green Agenda by signing the Sofia Declaration in 2020, which anticipates further alignment with EU ETS, introducing other carbon pricing instruments, as well as the reduction and phasing out of coal subsidies.
Nevertheless, the Green Agenda opened a window of opportunity for the region to switch to cleaner energy sources and prioritize energy efficiency, since it anticipates mechanisms and instruments for just transition. Another incentive to reduce the usage of polluting substances is the recently proposed EU carbon border adjustment mechanism that would create a competitive disadvantage for producers in the region. Besides, further investments in power plants would become unsustainable since this tax would make fossil production obsolete and uneconomic.
One thing is certain: if the WB countries want to progress on their path towards the EU, substantial changes and a strong commitment to achive full alignment with EU acquis is needed. Although EU officials put emphasis on more significant problems such as rule of law, environmental protection can become a burning issue in the future. Playing by the EU rules is particularly important in the light of the future involvement of the WB in the EU energy market. Moreover, by introducing Green Agenda, the EU showed readiness to tackle climate issues beyond its borders.
Author : EUROPEUM