The Dayton Accords reached 22 years ago heralded an era of peace for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Yet the country is now estimated to be the second deadliest in the world for another killer, responsible for more lives lost worldwide than any war – air pollution.
Electricity produced from coal can appear cheap in the short-term. It has been seen by many to be a development opportunity. The electricity is even exported to neighbouring countries.
Yet what price does cheap and dirty energy place on people’s health, the environment and development?
Tuzla is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s largest coal power station. Lignite, the dirtiest form of coal, is heated to several hundred degrees Celsius as it roars into action. The heat and steam produced turns a generator to produce electricity. At the same time, the plant releases 51,000 tonnes of toxic sulphur dioxide and other pollutants into the air each year, just across the road from a primary school in the town of Divkovići.
Air pollution such as from this coal power plant is contributing to respiratory diseases and heart problems, cancer and asthma. In Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, 44,000 years of life are lost each year due to particulate matter or nitrogen dioxide – such as that produced in Tuzla – or ozone pollution. More broadly, air pollution eats over 21.5 per cent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s GDP through lost work and school days, healthcare and fuel costs for example.
Filters are used on Tuzla coal plant’s towers. Yet once expired, these are disposed of at the disposal site together with the putrid pollution they collect. Winds can therefore pick up and scatter ash pollution onto nearby homes in Divkovići – whose centre is just 1.5 kilometres away.
Meanwhile, near the coal plant, waste ash and coal slag from the plant are pumped into vast landfill sites that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Vast amounts of water must be added to pump the waste to these sites. As a result, what was once farmland nearby now resembles a swamp. A house that a family once called home is also partially slumped into the ground, out of bounds due to a landslide. Heavy metals from the waste are seeping into nearby rivers, while even more chemicals are added to stop pipes from being clogged, causing the flooded space to gleam a dystopian, almost fluorescent blue. “It looks even brighter in the summer,” reveals Denis Zisko, Energy and Climate Change Coordinator at Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Centre of Ecology and Energy, as he guides us through the safest path to take a look.
Construction material reveals that the coal plant is set for expansion. “We pay for this with our health,” Denis says.
Near to coal plants such as Tuzla, locals are presented with the dilemma of whether to stay close to the polluted environment or pack their bags.
“People have left this town – for the graveyard… soon no one will live here” a local told international media reporting on pollution here. Reports suggest that the local population has been decimated from 500 to around 30 residents.
“This town was once the largest producer of roses in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Blaško Iveljić, who lives a short walk away from the toxic landfill, tells us with some pride. Yet after once caring for adjacent land and even raising sheep and cattle here, he since saved money to ensure his family could move out and buy a flat away from the pollution.
A thin layer of ash coats some of the courgettes stretching across Iveljic’s garden, while the air increasingly rakes at our throats and stings our eyes. Pollution has made Tuzla’s toxic surroundings feel uninhabitable.
School term cut short
In the Bosnia Herzegovian capital of Sarajevo, safe limits of particulate matter are often exceeded for 60-90 days a year, sometimes reaching up to 200 days.
Rather than industry, heavy traffic, poor spatial planning, solid-fuel based heating and natural factors are to blame for the poor air quality.
Soaring pollution levels in winter mean that school term is sometimes ended early – as has been the case at the city’s Environment Studies and Woodwork high school.
“I found out that school would be closed by watching the news. I was sort of happy not to go, but sad that this was due to air pollution,” says Amar, who studies horticulture there. “In winter, I don’t exercise outside. Sometimes it’s hard to even breathe,” he insists.
“My family leaves the city when the air gets too bad – normally for at least five or six days a year,” adds his classmate Samir, in what is a common escape for those that can afford it.
Powering a response
UN Environment’s Pollution report, issued ahead of the third Environment Assembly that took place under the same theme, recommends data sharing as part of the solution. In order to issue warnings for citizens to evade pollution or measure the effectiveness of actions to counter it, robust data is needed that can be easily shared.
Air quality monitoring stations being installed or refurbished by UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility, with data accessible in real-time online, can therefore make a real difference.
“Five to seven years ago, people were not even talking about air pollution here,” notes Enis Omerčić, air quality specialist at a hydro meteorological institute, at the Ivan Sedlo station outside Sarajevo.
Now, awareness and desire for change is growing.
Air pollution is increasingly on the lips of politicians and news reporters. Fresh efforts to raise awareness on the impacts of air pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina and stimulate solutions will also take place under the UN Air Quality Initiative and Response.
AirQ software will provide data linking air pollution types with specific health effects, helping drive policy responses. New air quality monitoring stations are also planned for urban areas and the country considering joining the Breathe Life campaign.
UN Environment’s Pollution report also points to inadequate administrative capacity and a lack of political will as gaps seen in the fight to beat pollution.
Until now, “the costs of health, economic and ecosystem losses have not been given due attention in policy creation,” one Entity’s Environment Minister Edita Ɖapo admitted at the ‘Clean air for all’ conference convened by UN Environment in October.
Path for action
The air quality resolution agreed on agreed by countries at the UN Environment Assembly aims to improve data quality and create the conditions for clean energy and transport, unleashing sustainable development.
UN Environment is called on to help countries put in place affordable air quality networks and raise awareness, and to support countries in identifying, prioritizing and addressing key sources of air pollution.
While much remains to be done, this has already started on the ground in in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Heating for homes and businesses is one of the biggest energy guzzlers in the country.
UN Environment is therefore helping the country’s second-largest city – Banja Luka – to switch their heating system from heavy oil to renewables, as part of a project under the District Heating in Cities Initiative.
The transition will see ten biomass boilers installed, slashing harmful sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide emissions by over 90 per cent while saving almost €1 million in fuel costs each year.
History shows that catastrophes involving enormous environmental damage can lead to their prevention and even significant improvements in air quality, noted Christer Johansson, a special advisor to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, at the Clean Air for All event.
“Many people suffer from air pollution here,” recognizes Harun, who has nearly completed his studies at Sarajevo’s environment and woodwork high school. “We need to bring change”.
Reducing Carbon Emissions, Let Soil and Trees Do the Dirty Work
By now, most of us are familiar with the role forests play in absorbing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are accelerating climate change around the world. But forests are just one part of a broader landscape that often includes water resources and farming that can also play an important role in climate change mitigation.
Climate-smart approaches to reducing emissions from forestry, agriculture and energy, among other sectors, have the greatest potential to improve sustainable livelihoods while limiting the impacts of climate change. The challenge, however, is how to systematically measure emission reductions across a landscape, in order to unlock results-based payments. And how can this be done in a straightforward way?
That’s where the BioCarbon Fund’s Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL) comes in. In addition to the country programs it supports, the Initiative has pioneered a way to report and account for emission reductions across a diverse landscape. ISFL’s Emission Reductions Program Requirements show countries what they must have in place to receive payments from the ISFL for emission reductions generated by a range of sustainable activities across a landscape. The requirements are part of the BioCarbon Fund’s broader support to countries rewarding them for smarter land use planning, policies and practices.
In recent years, tropical forest countries have significantly improved their reporting and accounting methods for measuring emission reductions in the forestry sector, but many countries find it difficult to accurately report emissions data in other sectors. To respond to this challenge, ISFL built into its requirements a phased approach to emission reductions accounting. This approach allows a country to begin accounting, and receiving payments, for emission reductions from a limited set of land use categories that meet ISFL requirements. Countries can then add data from other sectors into their ISFL accounting, and receive payments for emission reductions from these sectors, as they become available.
These ISFL requirements are a significant new tool not only for countries, but also for the broader climate change community, as they will help test approaches to comprehensive landscape emissions reporting and accounting that could be expected of future emission reductions programs. It is hoped they will form the basis for countries to pilot innovative approaches to emissions accounting at the landscape level, and foster programs that change the trajectory of land use across jurisdictions over the long term. More than 100 countries included forests and land use in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which spell out how they commit to reducing their emissions.
Building a Climate-Resilient South Asia
Last summer’s monsoon hit South Asia particularly hard and left nearly 1,400 people dead and displaced millions of others.
In the last sixty years, such weather extremes have become more common in the subcontinent and, without urgent action to limit carbon emissions, their impact on communities will likely get worse.
In addition to these extremes, average weather patterns are also changing with each year turning out to be warmer than the previous year and monsoon rainfall patterns are getting more and more erratic.
Eight hundred million South Asians to be exact – or half the region’s population—are at risk to see their standards of living and incomes decline as rising temperatures and more erratic rainfalls will cut down crop yields, make water more scare, and push more people away from their homes to seek safer places.
This worst-case scenario and relevant adaptation strategies underpin the upcoming report South Asia’s Hotspots, whose main findings were presented yesterday at a panel on building climate change resilience in South Asia at the World Bank Spring Meetings.
Its main author, World Bank Lead Economist Muthukumara Mani detailed how specific geographic areas across South Asia or “hotspots” which –until now—were relatively immune to climate change threats could be badly affected by 2050.
Most hotspots, Mani remarked, are located inland, already poor, have fewer roads and are isolated from main economic centers. And with many residents subsisting on farming, higher incidences of droughts or floods combined with extreme heat could further drive down their fragile wellbeing and force more people into poverty.
And while other manifestations of climate change such as sea level rise or natural disasters and their impact on economies have been well documented, less is known of the long-term effects of higher temperatures and unpredictable rainfalls on local communities.
It’s urgent to develop this understanding as most countries in South Asia have already passed their optimal temperature tipping points, beyond which standards of living and consumption are only expected to drop irreversibly.
To build resilience, the report recommends that South Asian countries better prioritize their financial resources where they’re most needed and target the most vulnerable individuals and families.
Mani noted that diversifying jobs beyond agriculture, investing in education and skills, and improving access to electricity can ease the expected decline in living standards caused by long-term climate impacts. Such actions, he argued, must be tailored to address the specific climate impacts and local conditions found in South Asia’s hotspots.
In the end, the cost of inaction—that is, if carbon emissions continue unabated—could be huge as countries with severe hotspots, Mani concluded, would see income in these areas drop by 14.4 percent in Bangladesh, 9.8 percent in India, and 10 percent in Sri Lanka by 2050.
Following the presentation, government, civil society, and academia elaborated on concrete climate actions and adaptation strategies to build a more resilient South Asia.
The panel included Ms. Mahmuda Begum, additional Secretary in World Bank Wing at Economic Relations Division at the Bangladesh’s Ministry of Finance, Ms. Aisha Khan, Executive Director for Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) and CEO of Mountain and Glacier Organization (MGPO) in Pakistan, Mr. Anand Patwardhan, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, USA, and Ms. Jaime Madrigano associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, USA. Ms. Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia Region, World Bank Group moderated the discussion.
Noting that Pakistan’s soaring population coupled with shrinking arable lands present a challenge to the country’s environment sustainability and food security, Aisha Khan emphasized that building climate resilience should go hand in hand with better –that is, more open and inclusive—governance. Involving civil society, including women-run organizations, will bring greater accountability to climate change policies that will later impact the entire population. And that sense of co-ownership and shared responsibility, Khan added, is critical to civil society.
Such collaborations are key to building strategic climate resilience and, to be successful in the long term, should extend to partnership between countries. Water presents such an opportunity. “We in South Asia are the third pole…with the densest glaciers outside polar regions in the world,” she said. “Water being a common problem for all of us, we need to do more work together.”
When it was his turn to speak, Anand Patwardhan noted that the conversation about climate resilience would have to go beyond risks and be reframed around opportunities to further advance the development agenda. In India, large national programs such as Smart Cities or Swachh Bharat projects are two examples of how climate action can help achieve greater development outcomes. In South Asia, Patwardhan later remarked, a lot of infrastructure still needs to be put into place. There lies an opportunity to invest in natural infrastructure [that benefits both the economy and the environment] and ecosystem adaptation to advance resilience across the region.
New Satellite Animations of Earth Show How Quickly Humans Are Changing the Planet
A new website that combines dramatic images from space with expert analysis of how humans are changing the planet will launch on World Earth Day (22 April).
EarthTime ties together diverse data layers to show the patterns and connections behind some of the major social and political trends of the past two decades – and how they are inscribed into fast-changing landscapes.
The platform has already been used in public outreach in schools and museums, and to inform world leaders at World Economic Forum events of major environmental and geoeconomic shifts, from air pollution to inequality. It uses images captured by NASA satellites since 1984.
The vision, and long-term goal, is to better inform everyone – including individuals, business heads and policy-makers – about the lives we lead, the decisions we make and the impact we have on the planet.
Nine expert analyses on global challenges will be launched on World Earth Day (22 April): deforestation, city growth, coral bleaching, fires at night, glaciers, renewables, sea-level rise, surface-water gain and loss and urban fragility. Other layers will be added in the months and years ahead. You can see them at www.earthtime.org.
EarthTime was developed by CREATE Lab (the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, in partnership with the World Economic Forum. It draws on the Forum’s network of experts to give analyses and to tell stories. Users will soon be able to create their own stories.
EarthTime uses more than 300 free, open-source, geospatial datasets – an unprecedented number for visualizations of this kind. Expert opinions make sense of the data and the connections between them allowing a layering of narratives (e.g., how did rise in the global demand for meat trigger deforestation, a major contributor to climate change?). These stories are combined with images from space captured by NASA satellites between 1984 and 2016.
Current datasets come from the World Bank, the UNHCR, NASA, Berkeley Earth, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Climate Central, S&P Global, Kudelski, the International Renewable Energy Agency and WWF, to name a few. New data providers are being added constantly.
“EarthTime tries to build the common ground that we believe is essential to the discourse that we all must have as stewards of our planet and our joint future,” said Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, and Director, CREATE Lab.
“The Earth is changing dramatically. No single discipline can make sense of all that is now happening and no citizen is free from the consequences of what we all do next. We all must be involved in understanding Earth’s changes and how we can work together to bring about our desired sustainable future into reality.”
Nourbakhsh also serves as a Global Future Council member at the World Economic Forum. His research focuses on human-robot collaboration.
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