It is not easy to maintain a balance between human needs, the civilization we are developing and the living environment
What is the current level of awareness of energy consumption in Serbia in the general public and companies?
The current situation is polarized. The world is going through an energy crisis and experiencing high energy prices, and together with the unpredictability of geopolitical influences, all of this has negatively affected inflation in a huge number of economies. We still do not feel the drastic nature of these global changes. The awareness about energy consumption in Serbia differs in relation to the importance of energy consumption for users. Companies are far more interested and monitor consumption, prices and even geopolitical events. This is logical because the production and final product price include the cost of energy sources. An example of an industry that is relevant to us is the production and processing of food and beverages, where energy products account for about 20% of the production price, while in the construction and chemical industries, the percentages are up to three times higher.
As far as individual users go, the electricity here has a relatively low price, while fuel costs cause somewhat more attention in terms of consumption. In general, we have had a fairly stable supply for about three decades, while our awareness of consumption and savings has not been fully developed. Our awareness level cannot be compared to the awareness in markets where the supply is unstable and depends directly on the upheaval in the global market.
In what ways can the circular economy contribute to the fight against climate change?
My view is that the circular economy plays the main role in preserving natural resources and environmental protection. It is not easy to maintain a balance between the needs of man, the civilization we are developing and the living environment, both the one we inherit and the one we should leave to the next generations. These conflicting goals require balancing social, economic and environmental goals, which always leads to compromises and even conflicts in practice. The pursuit of economic growth conflicts with environmental preservation, just as the pursuit of social justice may have implications for economic efficiency. These are all real problems. However, in Serbia, we must all work much more to actively reduce air, land and water pollution, because it most directly affects the health and quality of life of people today and here, as well as of future generations. The circular economy provides solutions in that direction.
The pursuit of economic growth conflicts with environmental preservation, just as the pursuit of social justice may have implications for economic efficiency
How does CEDEF, as an expert organization, contribute to the promotion of the circular economy and sustainable development in Serbia?
CEDEF focuses on the topic of sustainable development in Serbia and the region and during the last 20 years, we have implemented numerous research projects, and education programmes for students and energy managers, especially through the creation of MEMS, the first network of energy managers in Serbia ever. We have placed special emphasis on cooperation with local governments because concrete important environment-related projects take place locally. Cities and municipalities are the main places where the strategy is implemented and it was important to open the topics such as sustainable development and replacement of old technologies and fossil fuels. Truth be told, energy efficiency is not a particularly attractive topic for local elections and it does not attract votes. Nevertheless, with brave and prudent local governments, we have done a lot on these strategic programmes.
Have you noticed that public interest in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources is growing?
During the activities we have carried out in the last twenty years, we saw a substantial increase in the interest of the public, especially among experts. The topics of efficient use of energy, sustainable development and circular economy inevitably intertwine and there is a growing interdisciplinarity in the approach. During the implementation of many concrete projects that gather researchers and practitioners, we have worked with energy experts, biologists, physicists and climatologists, but also economists, lawyers, communicators and IT specialists. We see this as a positive development.
How much effort did the state and the media invest in informing the public about the importance of the circular economy, that is, the rational consumption of energy?
We need a little more alarmism. The media report on uninteresting topics only when an alarming situation arises. Although we generally blame them for such a modus operandi, I think that we lack a bit of dramatization here. To clarify, I am not referring to alarmism about the supposed doom of the planet in a year or so or neo-pagan extreme movements and the uproar they create. We need an improvement in the quality of life through progress, but also to strike a wise balance with the natural environment.
We certainly need more knowledge and a reliable education and information system, which comes under the domain of the state and the education system. We need an education that highlights the importance of a healthy environment that we should take care of, without shutting down everything that consumes energy and creates waste, i.e. all factories, mines, traffic, construction activities, pharmaceutical companies, petrochemicals, steel plants, cement plants and others. That’s not easy and it takes a lot of effort at various levels and across the entire connected ecosystem to seriously address it. Educating staff who have the ability to balance importance and interests, both in the economy, science, legislative and executive authorities and who can work together for the benefit of long-term interests of people today, but also of new generations, is a huge task, I would add, the patriotic job of the highest rank.
What role does energy efficiency in times of crisis, when cutting costs is a priority, play?
When I participated in a panel discussion on energy issues with Germans, Norwegians and French at the Economic Forum in Poland in 2011, my colleague from Paris, Marc, mentioned the term “negawat” as a new concept implemented by the Schneider Electric Company. This was the right expression for energy efficiency, which we normally call “the first fuel” and a good representation of how important the concept is and accessible to everyone. It is one of the fastest and most cost-effective options for reducing energy bills and boosting energy security. Together, energy efficiency, electrification, changes in behaviour and digitization shape global energy intensity, i.e. the amount of energy needed to produce a unit of GDP, which is a key measure of an economy’s energy efficiency. We need security as well as efficiency.
The media report on uninteresting topics only when an alarming situation arises
Any seriously-minded organization, including the state, has its own strategic plans for continuity and resistance to macro shocks such as shocks and disruptions in the energy market. This is especially relevant if a country is an energy importer like us. Since we have not been exposed to serious energy crises for several decades and we have not developed a significant awareness of savings and alternatives, I see a big untapped potential in encouraging the implementation of energy efficiency measures through education and concrete action plans.
How is the intergenerational justice concept reflected in the circular economy?
Despite technological progress, we still depend on the environment and natural resources. Our philosophical theories of justice, however, falter in trying to address the normative questions raised by environmental problems and resource depletion. Sustainable development and circular economy embrace the concept of intergenerational justice. Priority should be given to policies and practices that will not jeopardize the safety and environment of future generations. The time frame for planning our “ecological footprint” should be at least 300 years. We should also not jeopardize growth and shut down the economy, but we should be careful about external effects, everything we consume from natural resources, everything we pollute or poison by our activities related to land, water and air and be mindful of the environmental debt that we leave to 10 generations after us.
How can investments in new development projects and new technologies support the transition to a circular economy?
We are living in a century when we as, a specie, will decide whether we want sustainable or unsustainable development. I’m an optimist. After awareness and education, finances are crucial. But they will not be activated if the awareness of the importance and urgency of sustainable development is not developed in parallel. We need to invest more in science and research, in new technologies, processes and materials, but also in learning about circular business models. We are only at the beginning of the century when we need to implement this approach to development needs in practice.