This opinion editorial was co-authored by Péter Vajda, Senior Environmental Expert, Energy Community.
Air pollution remains one of the most pressing environmental health problems globally, having a direct effect on citizens’ quality of life. Despite the strong correlation between the two elements, recent developments brought greenhouse gas emissions at the forefront of the agenda of most international discussions via the climate agenda, emissions of standard pollutants such as particulate matter (dust) or nitrogen oxides tend to receive less focus and concentrated attention. A number of Energy Community Contracting Parties are facing the problem and certain municipalities have, for a wide range of reasons, air pollution levels that unfortunately often put them on the top of pollution rankings.
In order to address this problem, the Mayors of nine Western Balkan municipalities* came together virtually on the occasion of the Energy Community Just Transition Forum on 30 June to sign a declaration launching the Clean Air Regions Initiative (CARI). CARI is an initiative launched by the Vienna-based Energy Community Secretariat and supported by the Western Balkans Green Center (WBGC) a development agency of Hungary’s Ministry for Innovation and Technology under the State Secretariat for the Development of Circular Economy, Energy and Climate Policy. CARI is implemented as the very first program rolled out by the Center of Excellence in Green Transition for the Western Balkans (CEGT), a joint effort of the two institutions, and it incentivises ambitious regions and communities to take action in the field of air quality on a voluntary basis. The initiative focuses on the most critical sources of pollution such as domestic heating, industry and traffic. By signing the declaration, the Mayors committed to undertake voluntary measures aimed to reduce air pollution in their municipalities via the development of local air quality plans with ambitious policies and measures, to share their experiences and learn about progress and achievements in other regions and municipalities.
After launching the CARI, representatives of the participating municipalities have come together for the first two-day workshop in Szeged (Hungary) to kick off work on developing robust local air quality policies and measures in line with the aims of the CARI declaration. On this occasion, they exchanged good practices and experience with their EU counterparts, attended training on the introduction of measures capable of reducing pollution into the air by addressing the most critical sources of pollution such as domestic heating, industry and traffic. The workshop also included presentations on topics such as data collection, public participation and air pollution measurement technologies.
With the knowledge gathered during the first workshop, participating municipalities could start with practical preparations for developing their local air quality plans. The Secretariat and the WBGC continued their support of the process through regular online training, capacity building and knowledge sharing events throughout 2021.
The appeal of CARI is confirmed by the fact that further to the nine original signatories, four additional municipalities have decided to join the initiative lately. CARI will remain open to other interested municipalities in the future.
In the broader context of the CEGT, EU-wide technology and knowledge sharing are facilitated and capacity building programmes are implemented to the benefit of the Western Balkans region. CEGT is focused on climate-friendly as well as energy transition efforts, hence additional themes beyond CARI such as sustainable finance, green jobs as well as potentials in the hydrogen economy are planned to be covered as part of the CEGT’s work plan. Scaling up green investments is essential for the ultimate success of CARI and other programmes supporting shift to a cleaner and less carbon-intensive world, therefore activities of the CEGT are also aimed at helping the preparation of investment projects by creating an enabling business environment in the field of the green economy.
*The original signatories of the CARI declaration are Banovići, Kakanj, Lukavac, Maglaj and Tuzla from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bitola from North Macedonia, Pljevlja from Montenegro and Niš and Novi Sad from Serbia.