Environmentalists have accused Macedonia’s government of not taking air pollution seriously, after it set aside only modest sums for a two-year plan that has ambitious goals for drastically reducing air pollution.
“Such shameful deceptions and fake war on air pollution, while over 3,000 people die annually [as a consequence] and while hospitals are full of children with respiratory diseases, is unacceptable,” the O2 Coalition for Clean Air, a civic association, told BIRN.
The government last Thursday said it was making the fight against air pollution a priority, announcing a strategic plan to reduce pollution in the capital Skopje by 50 per cent, and across the country by 30 to 50 per cent, in just two years.
But the funds put aside for this goal are only 1.6 million euros annually, which experts say is not nearly enough.
The plan, among other things, envisages buying new air pollution monitoring stations, reducing VAT tax and subsidies to encourage households to use central heating instead of wood and other polluters, a winter regime of reduced car traffic as well as more urban greenery.
When it comes to industry, “the swift adoption of the new law on industrial emissions, with stricter rules, will be the key”, Environment Minister Jani Makraduli said. Until then, he promised stricter inspections of factories and construction companies.
Makraduli also called for additional financial donations to boost these efforts.
But environmentalists said the plan, and the call for donations, were a cynical bluff and a far cry from what needs to be done.
They reminded the government that in mid-2017, when it came to power, it promised to re-establish the so-called environment fund, which would gather all the money that citizens and companies pay in environmental taxes.
According to the latest data, Macedonia in 2016 alone gathered some 183 million euros from environmental taxes. But the absence of a specially dedicated fund means that the bulk of this money is spent elsewhere.
“We ask only for what is right, for taxes to be used for the purpose they were paid for. We ask for the fulfilment of promises,” the O2 Coalition said.
For several years running, air pollution levels in Skopje and in the towns of Bitola, Kicevo, Tetovo Kumanovo and Kavadarci have reached record highs in the winter months.
What is particularly problematic is the high level of PM10 particles, small breathable specks that are considered one of the worst air polluters.
Due to their small size, they can penetrate the lungs and are known to cause cancers and other fatal diseases.
Following mild winds and precipitation over the weekend, pollution with PM10 particles in most parts of the capital on Monday was just below the highest acceptable level of 50 index points.
But in recent weeks, PM10 pollution in Skopje, Tetovo and in some other towns has reached measures that are ten times higher than the allowed maximum, putting Macedonia on top of the global air pollution rankings.
Professor Trajce Stafilov, from the Skopje Chemistry Institute, who has been studying pollution for years, explained that the problem was “not in the lack of studies and planned measures” – but in their implementation, which needs political will and money.
“The biggest air polluters have already been pinpointed and a dozen good studies already exist. They are the industrial and energy companies, traffic, urbanisation, households and the waste landfills,” he told BIRN.
According to some estimates by the local environmental NGOs, Macedonia needs to spend several billion euros to deal with its air pollution and reach just average EU standards.