40% of the world’s energy still comes from coal and it is a key ingredient in the production of iron and steel. It is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, responsible for 46% of global CO2 emissions. The way the world will decide to deal with coal in the next few years will have a significant effect on the outcome of the climate crisis. Scientists have said that 80% of all the coal reserves need to remain in the ground in order to avoid a global temperature increase of more than 2℃ which will be catastrophic. There is now a scientific consensus that the world cannot afford to go above 1.5℃. Many advocates, researchers and frontline communities are calling for a complete moratorium on the building of any fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure.
The Western Balkans’ coal addiction
The Western Balkan countries are still heavily reliant on coal, particularly lignite. Lignite is a type of brown coal that is heavily polluting and has a low energy content. In 2016, 16 of the coal power plants around the Western Balkans emitted as much sulphur dioxide as all of the 250 power plants in the European Union.
North Macedonia is no exception. In 2018, almost half of the country’s energy came from coal and the country is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. There are two thermal powerplants which run on lignite; REK Oslomej in Kicevo and REK Bitola. North Macedonia extracts some of its own coal from two mines; Suvodol and Brod-Gneotino. It is estimated that there are enough coal reserves in these mines to last another 15 years. There have also been discussions about the possibility of opening a new coal mine in Zivojno (also outside of Bitola) which could give the country another 10 years of coal. Many argue that opening this mine would actually drive up the cost of the coal since it will include underground operations which have never been done in the country before and will require transportation of the coal over difficult terrain. That being said, coal’s future in North Macedonia is looking very uncertain.
A future without coal
The world is slowly waking up to the dangers of coal and discussions and policies are being put in place to phase out this dirty habit. The Western Balkan countries, along with Ukraine and Moldova have signed the Energy Community Treaty which states that all new coal operations in these countries must be in line with EU environmental standards and State Aid. This means that they can no longer be subsidised by governments (which has been the case so far) and will likely raise the price of coal. A conservative estimate of the cost of all the planned coal plants in the area is set at €3.8 billion. Furthermore, many Western Balkan countries are looking into EU accession. As member states, they would fall under the Emissions Trading Scheme which essentially means that polluters will need to start paying for their emissions. This too will drive up the price of coal, making the projects economically unviable, and will eventually lead to a loss of jobs and closing down of the plants.
For an example of this, we can look at the Sostanj lignite plant in Slovenia. It was originally estimated to cost €602 million, create 3,500 jobs and generate profit for the country. In the end, the project has turned out to be a disaster having cost Slovenia around €1.4 billion to build and has created only 450 jobs which are being halved over the years. Contrary to the original projections of profit, Sostanj is reporting annual losses of around €50 million and rising which, as always, is being covered by the taxpayer. All of this has been shrouded in claims of corruption and ongoing police investigations.
The Strategy for Energy Development of the Republic of North Macedonia until 2040 was commissioned by the North Macedonian government and was adopted at the beginning of this year. The strategy highlights 3 possible scenarios for the country’s future in energy; the business-as-usual scenario where everything remains as is, a moderate transition, and a so-called green transition which is effectively a move to strongly decarbonise the country. It is up to the government to decide which scenario to implement later in the year. Both the moderate and the green scenarios will see North Macedonia phase out coal by 2025 making the country the first in the Balkans to set a concrete plan and has already attracted a lot of positive attention from the global media. The strategy states that the green scenario is actually cheaper to implement than the business-as-usual model which is also very encouraging. The REK Oslomej powerplant will be discontinued in all three scenarios while REK Bitola will meet the same fate under the moderate and green scenarios. Whoever wins the upcoming election will have a big decision to make for the future of the country and the uphill struggle against the climate crisis but one thing is clear; if we are going to stand a chance of overcoming the climate crisis and everything it brings with it we are going to need a future without coal.
Over the next few months, Climate Herald will be publishing regular articles about the climate crisis based on scientific research and conversations with specialists in the field. We aim to shed light on how climate change will affect every aspect of our lives, what solutions are being proposed, and what needs to change in order for us to tackle the most pressing issue of our time.
Freese, B. (2016). Coal: A human history. Basic Books.