EU accession creates an opportunity for Serbia to improve and harmonize its standards, which will definitely lead us to achieve our goals much quicker
The priorities of the Ministry of Environment are solving the decades-long problems of air pollution, proper treatment of wastewater and regulating the problem of illegal landfills.
You have said that this year’s environmental budget will be bigger than ever. What are the priorities on your 2021 agenda?
Since the new government was formed, air pollution has become an important topic. In the first three months of this year, we launched competitions and started implementing projects relating to the replacement or overhaul of boiler rooms and individual fireplaces, in order to switch to more environmentally friendly energy sources as soon as possible. So far, we have supported more than 50 local governments.
Due to the fact road and public transport also pollute the environment to a certain extent, we have also set aside funds to subsidize the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles.
When it comes to wastewater, we plan to build wastewater treatment plants in 28 towns. We are going to pay special attention to the sewerage grid. The first steps in terms of project design have already been made, and financing has been provided through the credit line of the Council of Europe Development Bank in the amount of 200 million euro.
“Raising people’s awareness of the importance of preserving the environment must be constantly in focus and our Ministry has been continuously working on that”
The Ministry will also help local self-governments in the rehabilitation of illegal landfills, and Minister Vujović called on cities and municipalities to map them on their territories. Furthermore, we have a long-term plan to construct eight regional wastewater treatment centres in line with European standards. We have are negotiating with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to get a credit line of 100 million euro to finance these projects.
When all the projects are implemented, I expect that the ecological situation in Serbia will be much better, and that is the most important task of the new Environment Ministry. We are confident that we are going to succeed because environmental issues are at the top of the priorities of the Serbian government and especially President Vučić.
Chapter 27 is extremely complex and requires large financial resources. How far has Serbia come in this process?
In January 2020, Serbia submitted the Negotiating Position for Chapter 27 to the European Commission for consideration and opening of the chapter. The negotiating position is the most important tool for solving environmental problems and the mechanism by which we will establish an environmental protection system to ensure a better quality of life for all people in Serbia, whilst following the example of EU countries.
While preparing our negotiating position, we identified environmental problems in Serbia and concluded that the biggest investments should be made in the waste and waste sector.
Preparing for negotiations and developing a negotiating position is a necessary part of accession, but not the ultimate goal. Putting to use the experience accumulated in the EU is the most important thing considering that the EU has managed to secure good air quality, clean water, a high recycling rate and reduce industrial pollution.
The negotiating position is a means to achieve better living conditions for all people. EU accession creates an opportunity for Serbia to improve and harmonize its standards, which will definitely lead us to achieve our goals much quicker.
By signing the Declaration on the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans in Sofia, the countries of the region have committed themselves to a series of concrete actions. What exactly does this mean for Serbia and what have we committed ourselves to?
The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans is one of the priorities to which we are committed. By adopting it, we have shown a strong will and determination to tackle all environmental and economic challenges related to environmental protection and climate change. Nowadays, environmental problems and climate change can only be solved in a regional framework. The Ministry of Environment fully supports this initiative. We must recognize that environmental protection and the fight against climate change in the Western Balkans are segments in which we need to invest in the coming period.
I believe that a comprehensive, regional programme of adaptation and mitigation of climate change is needed. This is an area that has the potential to be a link in the region, as it is unencumbered by political differences.
“The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans is one of the priorities to which we are committed”
The most important thing to raise the quality of life and health of present and future generations, but also to improve the economy in the Western Balkans region through the development of the green and circular economy, which represent the future of the European Union.
Regional countries have committed themselves to working together with the EU to make Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050. The Serbian Assembly adopting the Law on Climate Change last month is a step in that direction.
The EU and the European Investment bank and quite a few other institutions have been supporting Serbia on its ‘green’ road the green economy. What questions does this transition raise?
EU accession provides a good opportunity for Serbia to improve environmental protection and the share of the green economy, which are essential for achieving a better quality of life for people in Serbia. Together, as the Government, we strive for cleaner transport, less polluting industries, the use of high quality fuels, changing the environmental behaviour of both businesses and individuals, and sustainable household heating systems which implementation we want to expedite. Substantial investments in green infrastructure and transition already have a positive impact on improving health, quality of life and regional development, as does a long-term stimulus for the economic growth of the entire country.
The construction of the railroad to Budapest and a transport link to Thessaloniki, on which President Vučić and the Government have been working hard, will certainly significantly contribute to the reduction of carbon emission, especially in the area through which the Belgrade-Niš motorway, one of the key Balkan roads, passes.
Air pollution is a complex environmental problem and its solution requires large investments. What crucial changes will take place to mitigate this issue?
Our air protection laws are largely in line with the EU requirements, and we will continue harmonizing them with the EU regulations this year too.
In order to reduce the pollution that is especially pronounced during the heating season as a result of the use of primarily fuel oil and coal, for the first time this year, we have launched competitions in which local governments can participate to switch to more environmentally friendly energy sources. We have allocated 300 million dinars for this purpose, as well as 100 million for afforestation and landscaping of public areas. Thanks to the engagement of Minister Vujović, the competitions were implemented quickly and the funds were disbursed to over 50 local governments. In terms reducing pollution caused by road and public traffic, we need to have more vehicles that are in line with the new Euro standards and norms but also increase the number of electric and hybrid vehicles, which is something that our ministry is already working on.
Do you plan to cooperate with other ministries, such as the Ministry of Energy, on carrying out decarbonisation by 2030?
The Ministry of Environment overlaps with other ministries in numerous areas, and we have particularly close and common challenges and goals with the Ministry of Mining and Energy. Energy development and environmental protection are inextricably linked and our common goal is to get closer to European standards year on year. We have formed a working group that will be engaged in jointly eliminating environmental and economic problems.
In both economic and environmental terms, people in Serbia and the region will benefit from the National Investment Programme presented by President Vučić, which focuses on environmental issues, water protection, treatment plants and construction of sewers for all. This highlights the fact that environmental protection is becoming a priority in the coming years.
How would you rate the overall environmental awareness of people in Serbia?
Raising people’s awareness of the importance of preserving the environment must be constantly in focus and our Ministry has been continuously working on that. People must be aware that it is only up to us to decide what kind of environment we will leave as a legacy to future generations. I am confident that we are going to feel the benefits of environmental investments very quickly by having a healthier environment. Investments in environmental protection should be viewed as modern patriotism in the fight for the health and nature of the country we love and live in.