Winters in North Macedonia have become synonymous with air pollution. National and international media frequently show apocalyptic images of smog-filled, congested streets and people floating through them, occasionally wearing pollution masks to try and minimise the damage on their health. Air pollution is when pollutants like chemicals, gases and particles are released into the air, normally from the burning of fossil fuels. In 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked Skopje as the most polluted capital city in Europe. On average, Skopje was found to be 4.5 times over the WHO-recommended limit of particles present in the air. This rises to 8.1 times over the limit in Tetovo. The fact that Skopje is nestled in a valley of mountain ranges only exacerbates the problem as rising, warm air meets colder, heavier air travelling downwards and traps the toxic air inside the city.
What is Air Pollution and Where Does it Come From?
Air pollution can take on various forms. Some of the most problematic and most common are referred to as short-lived climate-forcing pollutants (SLCPS) which include methane, black carbon, ground-level ozone and sulphate aerosols. Black carbon is more commonly known as soot and ground-level ozone as smog. Smog is that fog or haze that forms over a city and is a result of emissions reacting with sunlight. This is normally the result of nitrogen emitted from vehicles, sewage, agriculture and waste. Soot refers to particles from chemicals, soil, smoke, dust or allergens that are easily moved around in the air. The nature of these forms of pollution means that they have different effects on human health and well-being as well as the climate crisis as we will discuss further in these articles.
In Skopje and the rest of the country, the main sources of air pollution are industry (especially from coal-burning), domestic heating and vehicles. Many power plants and factories in North Macedonia date back to pre-1990s and burn brown coal, also known as lignite. Lignite is cheap, abundant but also highly polluting. Furthermore, the country’s cities and transportation culture are extremely car-centric and cities like Skopje, Strumica, Tetovo are often congested with traffic. To top it off, many of the vehicles in the country are old and have engines (particularly diesel) which are below EU standards. In 2010, the government made it easy to import old vehicles from the EU which made this situation even worse.
The Relationship Between Air Pollution and Climate Change
Air pollution is a topic that touches upon a number of issues. We cannot talk about air pollution without talking about human health, social injustices, urban planning and so on. It is also impossible to discuss air pollution without understanding its link to the climate crisis. Air pollution is a contributor to climate change and, in turn, it is exacerbated by it. Ultimately, many air pollutants are greenhouse gases and these include carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon (soot) which are considered to be the three most potent. CO2 and methane raise temperature and smog create high levels of ultraviolet radiation. On the other hand, climate change increases the production of allergens like pollen and mould and prolong the seasons in which these are created. Sunlight exacerbates smog and, likewise, the smog affects the amount of sunlight that is absorbed or reflected into the atmosphere. This wrecks havoc on the climate. The negative effects of air pollution are also extremely far-reaching. Soot from diesel engines and other particles can travel very long distances all over the globe. Scientists have found that soot has even reached as far as the polar regions. Here, it settles on the ice and snow thus darkening it. Dark snow means less sunlight is reflected back into the atmosphere and trapping more heat to warm the planet further.
The links between air pollution and the climate crisis are complex and multi-faceted. Many pollutants are greenhouse gases or pollutants that can have both long and short term affects responsible for either cooling or heating the planet. Climate change, in turn, makes air pollution and its consequences worse. A natural conclusion to this is that tackling air pollution will not only make our cities more liveable and our air fit for consumption once again, but it will also significantly help to tackle the climate crisis. This is particularly true of North Macedonia and the Western Balkans where emissions from outdated, highly polluting industries are alarmingly high. A study in 2016 found that 16 power plants in the Western Balkans emitted as much pollution as all of the EU’s coal plants alone.
In next week’s article we will continue to elaborate on the air pollution problem and how it is linked to the climate crisis. We will discuss the health and social consequences of air pollution and what is currently being done to tackle the problem.