Serbia is considered one of the most abundant biodiversity areas in the world, but little has been said about it. Two years ago, the Minister of Environmental Protection, Goran Trivan took upon himself to rectify this, which, in his own words, is sometimes Don Quixote-like.
In an interview for Diplomacy&Commerce, the Minister says that the degree that a certain society is considered civilized is reflected in its attitude towards environmental protection.
“The level of your awareness about environmental protection coincides with the level of your civility. Today, environmental protection is the most important ideology in the world. My and my team’s mission is to change this society and make those who don’t understand – understand! In terms of development and awareness, we lag behind other countries by 20 to 25 years. We are fully aware of this, and we are doing everything in our power to skip over certain stages. Understanding environmental protection has changed significantly in the last two years,“ says Minister Trivan at the beginning of the conversation.
He took environmental protection problems to global agenda which resulted in him being appointed one of the vice presidents of the fifth session of the UN Environmental Assembly (UNEA-5) which will take place in 2021.
We lag behind the rest of the world by at least 20 years in terms of environmental protection. How can we catch up?
— It’s not difficult to skip some periods, maybe even years, when you are closely following what is in happening in the neighbourhood and the world. Europe has set some of the world’s key environmental standards, so it’s good that we are part of Europe because, in that way, we are also part of the European civilization and standards. Everyone in this field is open to cooperation and sharing positive and negative experiences. Their mistakes are important to us because they can help us with skipping certain stages. If you really engage your mental faculties and make a conscious decision not to repeat certain mistakes, you have already jumped forward several years. You cannot make any investments unless you have appropriate project documentation and this is something that we have to keep up with. We have plenty of ambition and potential investors. Owing to that, we are going to compensate for all the years we have lost. I have to admit that we won’t be able to catch up to Western countries because they are progressing fast. The important thing is that we reduce this gap to less than 10 years.
Serbia is on a good path to include Chapter 27, which is thought to be one of the most demanding and costliest chapters in the negotiations with the EU, in the agenda of the European officials. Could you tell us what have you done so far in this respect, and what remains to be done towards the opening of this chapter?
— What we have to do is to determine our negotiating position for Chapter 27 which is the most comprehensive, most complicated and most financially demanding chapter. We have almost finished our work, a year before the deadline. We have good cooperation with the European Commission and the Commissioner for the Environment, and their doors are open to us. We have completed the second draft of our negotiating position, and we expect their formal opinion on this. I know that they will be satisfied because they helped us throughout the whole process. I expect that Serbia will adopt the negotiating position by the year-end and that, after that, the EU will open Chapter 27. The EU gave us a number of transitional periods, more than what earlier negotiators got. This is important because it creates an opportunity for us not to immediately “jump into a standard”, so to speak, but rather gradually adapt to it over time. Many neighbouring countries failed to do this and now they have to pay penalties.
After Chapter 27 is opened, how long is it going to take us to implement all these standards?
— There is an estimated period of how long it will take us to reach a certain standard for every transitional period, i.e. every area. The time in question depends on technology and money. Money may be a decisive factor, but I have to underline that staffing capacity could also be the biggest obstacle. That’s why the Ministry is trying to build its capacity because we need to have young educated people working for us. At the moment, we have 170 vacancies, and we hope that we are going to take on board dozens of young people who will be additionally trained. I think that the entire business regarding Chapter 27 will cost us around 15 billion euro, but, personally, I think it is going to cost even more. Depending on an area in question, we are going to need between 4 and 5 years for each area, which is cumulatively 20 years. That’s why we need both the staff and the money. The EU representatives know all too well what is the situation like in various countries, including ours, hence, it is important to be honest and not embellish the reality because nobody benefits from that.
Huge amount of money will have to be spent on environmental protection,. You mentioned somewhere around 15 billion euro. Serbia doesn’t have that kind of money. How can we obtain it?
— Yes, we don’t have that kind of money; well, not all of it. We have some of it, so, if we really want to advance in this segment, we are going to have to invest it. The money that we have set aside now is not enough, but we are currently preparing to invest it. Also, there are a few preliminary stages that we need to go through, so we should not rush anything. Speaking of investments, we need to invest 5 billion euro in at least 350 wastewater filtering facilities and 2 billion euro in utility waste processing systems. There is a solution, and we won’t embark on all the required investments simultaneously. Funds, foreign and domestic investors, as well as banks, are interested in investing because these processes generate profit. The first serious public-private partnership was formed in Belgrade, in the Vinča landfill project, which can serve as an example for further processes. We need close cooperation with local governments in regard to public-private partnerships.
Businesses are at the helm of investing in environmental protection, but are also, as you have pointed out, the biggest pollutants. What is the cooperation between the Ministry and companies like when it comes to burning issues?
— We are completely open to all types of investments, and I would like to see domestic companies getting more involved in this process. The problem in Serbia is that we do not have a sufficiently developed economy. We conduct weekly interviews with investors from around the world. This is not an easy or a short route. For instance, we had been dealing with the Vinča landfill for six years before we even found project partners. This is the average timeframe for all public-private partnerships that we will realize in Serbia. That’s something that we simply have to do and local governments are very interested in getting involved. We have launched several competitions regarding drafting project documentation. Every little bit of assistance can help.
You often conduct local inspections although that is not your job. You also said that you would like to reform inspection oversight. How far along are you with that?
— I believe that inspection is a key factor in policy implementation. I learned that from the Germans because although our laws are good, the question remains how to implement them. There are a number of individuals and companies who knowingly violate the laws. Our inspection departments don’t have enough staff. Last year, a lot of inspectors retired, and we did not hire new ones. That’s what I meant earlier when I said that we had to employ young people. I am often in the field to tell the inspectors that we are here as a backup just in case someone locally tries to hinder their work. There are no taboo topics for me. We are all very open in the Ministry. A lot of pressure is exerted on our inspectors and they have a very hard job to do locally.
Since you said that there were no taboo topics for you, I have to ask you something that is trending but is not such an easy topic to discuss – problems with fees of recycling companies and mini hydro-power plants.
— As I said, we are very open to any topic and we are working on these problems. In regard to recycling companies, we are talking about companies that deal with hazardous waste. They get 2.2 billion dinars from the state budget which is a third of the Ministry’s budget. That’s just one side of the story. If we increase the budget, they will get more money too. There are plenty of vacancies in these companies too. We have been trying to secure more funds for them and make it possible for them to increase their fees. As far as mini hydropower plants are concerned, my opinion is that they are harmful if they are of a derivative type. I think it’s time to say good-bye to them, and that is something we are going to propose. Serbia has the smallest underwater surface in the region, and we must not destroy it. It is up to experts to decide the location of these power plants, excluding the protected natural areas. The biggest problem is perhaps that most of these power plants were not built according to the standards outlined in the relevant documentation, hence all of them have to be inspected. Our ambition is to change the law on mini hydropower plants so as to prevent their construction in protected areas.
SUPPORT FROM COLLEAGUES
How aware are decision makers of the crucial importance of environmental protection activities? Are they willing to increase your budget?
— I don’t know. For the first two years, we had to focus on ourselves and build the Ministry as it should be built. We are about to start dealing with interior policy. It is encouraging to see that, two years ago, decision-makers decided that the Ministry of Environmental Protection should be reinstated, and that decision was crucial. You cannot deal with such complex issues if you don’t have a separate entity to handle them. Sooner or later, all government ministers will have to deal with these issues because they will have to apply environmental standards. I think that there will be no problem with that because we are talking about young people who understand how important all of this is. At this point, the most important thing is that we have good communication with the Ministry of Finance and that we have already found a common language and opportunities for accessing new non-budget funds. We need to increase the current budget of 6 billion dinars by at least a half.