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COP28: The EU’s Climate Goals and the Western Balkans Challenge

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EU members are set to push at the upcoming COP28 climate summit for an agreement to gradually phase out fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide (CO2), as agreed at a summit of EU climate ministers in October, compromising between the more ambitious aims of some member countries and the concerns of others that are more dependent on fossil fuels. The position is also an ambitious one for the countries of the Western Balkans, where five of the six aspiring EU members still have coal as a substantial share of their energy mix. 

As well as seeking a deal to phase out fossil fuels, EU climate ministers also want the gradual elimination of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies by the end of the decade, as well as an end to construction of new coal-fuelled power plants. The agreement positions the EU one of the most ambitious participants in the yearly United Nations climate discussions, due to start on November 30 in Dubai. Such a phase out has previously been opposed by major producers of fossil fuels, as well as those who depend on fossil fuels for energy. 

However, as agreed by EU climate ministers, the bloc will argue for an end to “unabated” fossil fuels, which would allow countries the option to continue burning coal, gas, and oil if they employ technology to “abate”, or capture, the emissions. At the same time, ministers acknowledged that emissions-capturing technologies are currently limited in scale, and emphasised that the use of these technologies should not serve as a means to postpone climate action, as reported by Reuters in October. 

Around 10 countries, including Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Slovenia, had advocated for a more robust agreement to eliminate all fossil fuels, according to the newswire. Around the same number of countries effectively made a case for including a provision regarding abatement technologies for energy intensive industries.

The nations that argued for the inclusion of provision on abatement technologies included Bulgaria and Poland, both of which are among the poorer members of the bloc and have large coal sectors that politicians acknowledge will be politically difficult to shut down. 

The Western Balkan countries are all considerably poorer than existing EU member states and, with the exception of Albania, also rely to varying extents on coal power. Several studies have shown that emissions from the region’s ageing coal power plants cause widespread harm to health both in the region and outside it. 

They have committed to reducing emissions as they seek to align with EU energy policy. However, Climate Action Network (CAN), a European NGO coalition dedicated to combating climate change, pointed in a new report that outdated and inefficient coal-fired power plants in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia complicate the transition to renewable energy. 

“While commendable efforts have been made in drafting the [National Energy and Climate Plans] NECPs, there is substantial room for improvement in their final versions. Notably, while the avoidance of investments in new coal generating capacities is a positive step, the absence of a concrete coal phase-out strategy is concerning. Minimal efforts to reduce reliance on coal by 2030 are insufficient for significant greenhouse gas [GHG] reduction,” says the report.

“Persistent dependence on an outdated and inefficient coal fleet hampers the much-needed transition to renewable energy sources in the region, further complicated by the potential transition to fossil gas as indicated in the NECPs. This undermines the feasibility of implementing carbon pricing policies, which are inadequately addressed in the NECPs,” added the report. 

CAN Europe director Chiara Martinelli called for countries in the region to “establish clear and immediate coal phase-out dates and implement corresponding policies”. 

It pointed out that Bosnia, as the sole electricity exporter in the region, generates up to 60% of its power from coal-fired plants, with the remainder primarily coming from hydropower. Kosovo and Serbia produce approximately 90% and 70% respectively of their electricity from coal-fired plants, supplemented by hydro, wind and solar power.

While the NECPs of these countries outline general goals for transitioning to green energy and committing to cease investing in new coal capacities, the report criticised the lack of detailed information on capacity scale, sectoral uptake and comprehensive grid integration strategies. 

“Inclusion of credible and cohesive policies in the final NECPs by June 30, 2024 is essential, serving as a milestone to ensure that the 2030 climate and energy targets pave the way for climate neutrality by mid-century. This deadline is not merely procedural; it represents a critical opportunity for the Western Balkans to align with the EU’s energy and climate framework, actively contributing to Europe-wide climate neutrality,” said Viktor Berishaj, energy policy coordinator for Southeast Europe. 

There is also controversy over the increased emphasis on gas in the region. CEE Bankwatch Network has strongly criticised the European Commission and international development banks for their support for fossil fuel projects – specifically gas – in Southeast Europe. 

Southeast Europe has gained some major gas transportation infrastructure in recent years, including the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and Croatia’s offshore Krk liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, and several other interconnector projects are underway as countries in the region seek to reduce their dependence on Russian gas by enabling gas imports from different sources. 

European Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi announced recently that the EU will support construction of an LNG terminal and gas power plant in Montenegro – despite the country not having any gas distribution infrastructure at present. 

Campaigners from CEE Bankwatch contest assertions that gas is a useful transition fuel in the shift away from coal power, and argue that building new gas infrastructure will not help importing countries achieve energy independence. Instead, they call for development banks and other international institutions to redirect funding to green energy projects. 

“Before the escalation of the Russia war with Ukraine, there was really a strong group of progressive countries, mostly EU members. Now, everybody is concerned with energy security,” said CEE Bankwatch gas campaigner Gligor Radecic in a recent interview with bne IntelliNews

“We do not believe gas can provide any energy security. It’s the exact opposite; we’ve seen super volatile prices and even if the EU is not importing so much fossil gas from Russia, replacing it with other sources like Azerbaijan cannot be considered facilitating energy security. We do not believe Europe should be using fossil gas from authoritarian regimes,” said CEE Bankwatch’s communications officer Ido Liven. 

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