The fifth panel discussion on Point platform, called Building like there is no tomorrow: (UN)sustainable energy in the Balkans and beyond, which was moderated by a journalist and ecology activist Amina Čeliković, gathered a group of environmental activists, relevant experts and legislators to discuss issues of air pollution and river protection, as well as to seek better solutions for the future.
The panel discussion opened with a conversation about building small hydropower plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in the neighbouring countries, and the public outcry about this issue.
Lejla Kusturica, a long-time activist from Atelier for Community Transformation, says that the movement to stop building small hydropower plants is the most impressive struggle since the end of the war, and has brought unity and solidarity among people across the region.
“Water is a source of life. Bosnia is the sixth country in Europe when it comes to the richness of fresh water. So many communities across Bosnia actually depend on those rivers. When the investors came, 10, 15 years ago, they really sold lies.They said that small hydropower plants were going to bring jobs, boost the economies of these communities. People, wanting progress and jobs and better future for their kids, some of them said yes. Unfortunately, some years later, people started realising that local communities have nothing good from these projects”, said Kusturica.
Kusturica pointed out that 110 small hydropower plants in Bosnia produce only 2.2 percent of all electricity produced annually in the country, and yet the environmental cost of it is very high.
“We need green energy, but how we are going to do it is up to us, and we shouldn’t do it by killing life and our survival here”, she said and added that there are alternatives like wind and solar energy.
Vlastimir Karlik from Arnika Center for Citizens in the Czech Republic spoke about the negative environmental impact that big hydropower plants produce:
“They produce more energy but they also have big impacts. These impacts can be explained in different ways. These big hydropower plants are based on a big dam, specially built in some narrow valleys and they create a reservoir and the turbines are on the bottom of the wall. They change the character of the river. Especially if there are more of them, one downstream the other. Then you are changing a free flowing river to a cascade of reservoirs and channels. The dems have a big impact on the fish population”.
He added that big dams have a huge environmental impact and can cause pollution and that we should always consider if there are alternatives, not only in terms of design and construction of these power plants but also in other sources of energy.
During the discussion, it was important to point out that it’s not easy to “flick the green switch”, or in other words, to find ways in which countries can go sustainable.
Pippa Gallop, Bankwatch’s Southeast Europe energy advisor says that in the Western Balkans it seems that we are trying to get rid of coal plants as fast as possible and that politicians became unimaginative about what the alternatives could be and focused on what they already knew, which is more hydropower.
“This is really increasing the urgency of finding alternatives and this is, I think, really a key point, because we are now getting to a point in a debate where politicians, they are not always acting, but I think they are slowly understanding that we are coming to the end of coal. So still they are clinging to hydropower, but they are also trying to stay as close to the existing model as possible. So, they are sort of trying to stick to this centralized model of we have one big plant and transmission lines that take it all around”, Gallop said and added that gas and biomass are not adequate alternatives from the climate point of view, since they have emissions, therefore we are left with wind and solar energy.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be connected to what’s happening with the Turów mine in Poland.
Nikol Krejčová coordinates the campaign against the Turów mine extension in the Greenpeace Czech Republic.
She explained that Turow is a coal mine, located in Poland, near Germany and the Czech Republic, which has a very negative environmental impact and it’s making the climate crisis even worse.
“Unfortunately, there is a plan from the owner, Polish company PGE, to continue mining until 2044. And we know that all these negative impacts will continue”, Krejčová explained.
In February 2021, the Czech Republic sued Poland over the mine at the European Court of Justice.
As Krejčová explained, the European Court of Justice decided to stop the mine immediately. However, the PGE hasn’t stopped the mine, but they are trying to reach an agreement with the Polish and Czech governments. At the moment, the public is waiting for the European Court of Justice to decide on a penalty fee for the mine, which the Czech Republic suggested should be 5 million euros per day.
One whole chapter regarding the accession to the EU deals with the environment. Is it just on paper or is the EU enforcing environmental laws?
Jutta Paulus, a Member of the European Parliament for the German Green Party Bündnis90/Die Grünen says that in theory, the EU is very strong on environmental law, but in practice, it is a bit difficult, due to the prioritization. The Ministry of Environment in Brussels would need more staff in order to be able to follow breaches of the environmental law all over the EU.
She also pointed out that there are cases where primary legislation regarding the environment is being breached:
“There are a lot of cases in the member states where taxpayers’ money is used to clean up after companies that have neglected their duties, or have gone bankrupt or dissolved”.
Paulus also explained that on the European level there are several rulings of the Court of Justice on environmental laws, but it takes very long. It takes around two years until an affair goes to the European Court of Justice.
At the end of the panel, participants discussed whether we have a reason to stay optimistic and what we should do in order to have a future.
Lejla Kusturica says that witnessing grassroots movements defending rivers gave her hope.
“These small, or big victories gave this sense of hope and now we believe that we can do something and that it is possible to achieve the things we can’t even imagine”, she pointed out.
Pippa Gallop said that the change has to be done from the bottom up.
As she explained,“this has to be done with the consultation of the community and with the local authorities really heavily involved and not just taken over by the coal companies and the national governments”.
Amina Čeliković concluded the discussion by saying:
“We had an industrial revolution and now is the time to have an ecological revolution as well.”