Getting Serbia’s much-needed energy transition off the ground is no easy task

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Some saw it as an important first step towards energy transition. But for Serbia’s coal miners and their families, the letter sent last spring by Mining and Energy Minister Zorana Mihajlović came as a cold shower. In the letter, Mihajlović told the management of state-owned power utility Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS, the ‘Electrical Industry of Serbia’) to suspend all activities on the construction of the 350 MW Kolubara B coal power plant, a 40-year-old project that has already been abandoned and revived several times. A month earlier, in April, the Serbian parliament adopted an unprecedented law on the use of renewable energy sources, paving the way for the decarbonisation of its energy sector. The law provides for an increase in the share of renewables in Serbia’s energy production, which is currently dominated by coal at 70 per cent compared to just under 30 per cent for hydroelectricity.

The Minister’s directive was immediately met with protests by the workers of Kolubara, a mining complex located roughly 50 kilometres south-west of the capital of Belgrade in the Kolubara river basin. Miodrag Ranković, president of the region’s main trade union RB Kolubara, organised several thousand workers in protest at the construction site. “We are not against a gradual energy transition, but we cannot close our power plants overnight,” says Ranković, the son and grandson of miners who himself began working in coal in 1981. “Most of the people in our region depend on coal mining. Solar and wind power do not create many jobs. If we close the power plants, what will happen to the workers? Jobs will be lost and wages will be cut.”

In Serbia, the name ‘Kolubara’ is synonymous with electricity. Since the days of Yugoslav planning in the early 1950s, the river basin has been the heart of the country’s energy production. The region’s huge lignite reserves account for 75 per cent of Serbia’s coal production and the various power plants in the complex provide more than half of the electricity generated in the country of seven million, the largest in the Western Balkans. While the overall workface declined as a result of privatisation and restructuring in the 2000s, with almost 30,000 employees, EPS remains one of Serbia’s largest employers and has long defined the country’s energy strategy. In Kolubara, 18,000 employees work for EPS and its subcontractors, 16,000 of which are members of the trade union headed by Ranković.

High economic dependency on coal

“Having reserves this large is a gift from nature and an enormous source of wealth for a small country like ours. It ensures our energy independence,” explains Ranković, who spoke with Equal Times from his office just behind the church square in Lazarevac. “But today we are under enormous pressure from the big countries of the European Union [Serbia has been an official candidate for EU membership since 2012] who are trying to use green energy to make us dependent on them. We have endured much over recent years – inflation, lack of basic necessities, bombings [by NATO in 1999] – but we have always been able to rely on our own food and above all our own energy, which has allowed us to survive.” This notion of independence has deep roots in Serbia, which was deeply marked by its isolation on the international scene 20 years ago, and patriotic rhetoric resonates with a large portion of the population.

The acrid smell of coal and a landscape devastated by open-cast mines are the daily reality for the inhabitants of Lazarevac, the largest town in the Kolubara basin. The mines have continued to expand along the river, swallowing homes and fields in their wake, while the smokestacks of the power plants belch out grey smoke only a few metres away from houses and farms. But few people here take offence at their impact on health or call for improvements to their environment.

Despite the mediocre quality and high sulphur content that make it so polluting, brown coal has been an economic boon for the region. Continuously expanding mining operations have attracted workers from throughout the country and remain a pillar of the national economy.

In 2019, Serbia produced 39 million tonnes of lignite, making it one of the world’s top 15 producers. While a quarter of the population struggles with poverty, the quality of infrastructure and local services in the Kolubara region are a testament to higher living standards made possible by the exploitation of lignite. According to the local trade union, workers in Kolubara earn an average salary of €800, a considerable sum compared to the country as a whole, where the average salary is €460 and unemployment affects almost 15 per cent of the working population.

The images of miners protesting in May resonated throughout the country. For trade unionists, they brought back memories of historic struggles. The 2000 Kolubara miners’ strike played a key role in the revolution that led to the overthrow of the warmongering regime of ultra-nationalist President Slobodan Milosevic, who was later transferred to the Hague Tribunal and ultimately died in prison. “It always gives me goose bumps when the miners of Kolubara go on strike,” says Dragana Petković-Gajić, who has been involved with the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia (CATUS), the country’s main trade union confederation, for 30 years. “They very rarely strike and when they do, it has a very strong symbolic and emotional component, because they do a very hard job. When they protest it means they have good cause to be worried.”

According to various estimates, Serbia’s subsoil contains more than four billion tonnes of lignite. With such seemingly inexhaustible reserves ensuring affordable electricity for consumers, even if heavily subsidised by the state, few people in Serbia are concerned about the urgency of climate change or imagine a future without coal. Advocates of lignite warn that energy prices will soar if coal is phased out, pointing to the current surge in gas prices and the instability of wind generation. But an increasing number of alarming studies on its health impact, coupled with the intensifying effects of climate change, have pushed many to adapt their discourse, notably the trade unions.

Awareness of the need for transition

In 2014, Serbia, along with the rest of the Balkans, was hit by unprecedented flooding, which led to the deaths of 33 people and material damage estimated at more than €1.5 billion. The rising waters of the Kolubara River brought coal production to a halt for over a week. “Just a few years ago, the region’s trade unions were not interested in climate change or just transition,” acknowledges Enisa Salimović, South-East Europe coordinator for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). “They were interested in wages, social dialogue, pension reforms, tax reforms, etc. But over the last four years or so, people have begun to understand why a just transition is so important. Climate change and pollution affect all of us and we are all suffering the consequences of past choices and decisions.”

According to a report by the Europe Beyond Coal campaign, under the responsibility of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), emissions from Western Balkan coal power plants were responsible for around 3,900 premature deaths in Europe, as well as 8,500 cases of bronchitis in children and a number of other chronic diseases. Serbia holds the sad record for most pollution-related deaths Europe at 175 per 100,000 people. As a result, the dramatic impact of coal on human health, above all on workers and their families, has become part of the trade union agenda in the Western Balkan countries, all of which are candidates or potential candidates for EU membership. The power plants built during the Yugoslav era are often dilapidated and are among the most polluting on the European continent. According to a

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