In-depth | Elections2021

Elections 2021: A different perspective on our environment

By - 10.02.2021

With elections happening almost every two years, K2.0 listens to ideas on solutions amid dubious promises.

Although elections have become a common occurrence in Kosovo, discussing what is genuinely important for the lives of constituents is rare.

In political party rallies, televised debates and what is written and said by and about political parties, there is a lot of talk on party calculations and maneuvers, polls, slogans and individuals; and less about practical issues that would basically inform voters of what to expect after the electoral campaigns. In principle, the electoral campaigns themselves should serve this purpose — so that voters know what they are voting for.

Amid all of this and above all to challenge this context, we at K2.0 spoke with experts in various fields. Through their answers we have endeavored to list some of the issues that are not discussed but will be important for voters when they head to the polls on February 14.

Through the series “Elections 2021, a different perspective” that comprises eight articles, each focused on one specific field, we elaborate on what exactly is not receiving due attention, what is the current situation and what should be done to change things in favor of the citizens. We also try to inform voters and make their well-being the focus of discussion by providing forward looking solutions.

A different perspective on our fragile ecosystem

It is 2021 and a pandemic is only one of the crises facing the globe. Another one, which has been brewing through the years that we have mistreated our planet, is the climate emergency.

Over the past few decades, human beings have managed to emit more greenhouse gasses than in the whole history of humanity, and our world has put the foot on the accelerator pedal toward the increase of temperatures. If we don’t manage to reduce CO2 emissions, it is likely that by the year 2100 the Earth will be doomed to shut down. 

The good news? As David Wallace-Wells puts it in “The Uninhabitable Earth,” it has taken a generation to bring us to this point of almost no return, and it may take another generation to save the planet. And where is Kosovo in all of this? 

Well, to start with, Kosovo has been out of the climate discussion for ages, as if this part of the world is untouched by the effects of the crisis. The problems are deep because for too long there has not been a minimum level of environmental policy and action that serves as a solid base to grow from. Natural resources have been treated as economic resources, and not as an ecosystem that we must coexist with today and in the future. 

In recent years, issues concerning the environment have been strongly raised by citizens in different parts of the country, especially problems like trash, air pollution, and the health of rivers under the threat of hydropower construction. The lack of governmental action and proactivity in this field is monumental, but it is starting to look like they can’t escape this conversation any longer. So what are political parties saying about all this and what are their plans if they get to govern?

A hot topic first: The hydropower saga. Citizens in different areas of the country have opposed small hydropower construction on different rivers, including the Lumbardhi in Deçan, and the Lepenc near the Sharr mountains. 

AAK’s activity while heading the Ministry of Environment currently speaks for their program: They have allowed all necessary permits for the operator Kelkos to obtain two 40-year licenses and one 15-year license to exploit the Lumbardhi river, despite numerous resulting problems that have caused the ministry to be taken to court as well as an investigation in parliament that remains unfinished.

Now they promise to establish the legal basis to allow the revision of the licenses. OK. 

LDK says it will review the current licenses of hydropower operators, while VV’s Hajrulla Çeku promised on a TV debate to review all licenses and permits — as it’s suggested in their official program — and to place a temporary moratorium on hydropower licensing. The former VV-led government put a stop to any hydropower-related construction during their short term in power in 2020 and says it will do so again.

"Small hydropower has caused immense harm to river ecosystems and the communities who depend on them."

Bleta Arifi, environmental social scientist

But the environment is a large topic, often connected to party programs through their plans about energy production and resource exploitation. When it comes to the issue of feed-in-tariffs — a policy incentive for private companies to produce different forms of supposedly green energy that has a high risk of misuse, parties generally agree on gradually removing them — with some being more vocal than others. 

All major parties also agree to give the Trepça mine complex a full-force rehab, and there are many different promises to bring drinkable water everywhere across the country, as well as to clean the rivers of waste. If it continues like this we may actually get a full environmental transformation. It remains to be seen what actions they will bring forward to replace a culture of economic exploitation of the environment benefitting investors more than citizens. 

While you may want to pay attention to the detail in the available party programs (here are some available for AAK, PDK, LDK and VV), we will try to offer a broader perspective by talking to three experts from the field: Environmental activist Granit Gashi, environmental policy expert Besfort Kosova, and environmental social scientist Bleta Arifi, who is currently investigating how energy transitions can be leveraged for social equity around the world. To our questions about what we lack, what aspirations we should have and how change could come about, the experts answered:

What do we lack?

Bleta Arifi, environmental social scientist:

The public debate and policy making around environmental protection and sustainability in Kosovo does not sufficiently address questions of social justice and equity. 

The problem of air pollution is a pertinent example: The key culprit behind air pollution in Kosovo is the burning of fossil fuels (and firewood) in the electricity, heating and transportation sectors. The solution to tackling high particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions is fairly evident: A green transition across all of these subsectors. 

However, current debates and socio-ecological conflicts around renewable energy investment in Kosovo demonstrate that this transition has started on the wrong foot: Access to land, resources and wealth are being distributed in an inequitable manner. Solar energy development in Kosovo is dominated by a very few wealthy investors. So is small hydropower, a sector that has caused immense harm to river ecosystems and the communities who depend on them. 

As we fight for a green transition away from a fossil fuel energy system, we have to make sure that planning and policy making is guided not only by the goals of reducing emissions, pollution and resource use, but also by the objectives of social justice and equity. 

Granit Gashi, environmental activist: 

[We lack]  the normal work of a governing system that is supposed to protect the environment. There is a lack of will and professionalism, which normally leads to scandals, sabotage, and corruption. Besides that, there is a lack of monitoring and real data, and finally: Investment. 

Besfort Kosova, environmental policy expert: 

It is a pleasant surprise, hearing politicians from various parties who have begun reflecting and thinking positively about the environment in our country. The biggest surprise is that, in previous elections, these parties themselves advocated for the construction of new production capacities based on an old mentality, which has been surpassed in more developed countries.

Although Kosovo is not a member of the UN and the Paris Agreement does not apply to it, our country has undertaken obligations under the Energy Community Treaty. In the future, these obligations will undoubtedly bring carbon taxes, which will create a new environmental reality in the country.

The environment is a multidimensional problem and it requires numerous financial means that Kosovo lacks. The few funds available are politically oriented where the most visible results can be noticed and where the most votes can be won over.

Thus, for example, Kosovo has the financial means to pay for highways worth 700 million, but it cannot manage to allocate 70 million euros for electric filters, their absence causes residents in Prishtina to have a shorter lifespan than those of other cities as a result [among others] of the airborne ash released from the coal power plants.

What objectives should guide us?

Bleta: We need to cultivate imaginaries of just and equitable transitions toward sustainability, not only in the energy system, but also in urban spatial and mobility planning, agriculture, water, and so on. 

In the context of the aspired renewable energy transition, this means asking questions about distributive issues, e.g. who benefits from wind farms and solar parks? Who is being left out or adversely affected?

"The politicians' hesitation to halt environmental degradation in Kosovo is bizarre."

Granit Gashi, environmental activist

One aim might be to design support and financing schemes that make it possible for rural communities to establish energy cooperatives and install their own solar farm on their land, rather than simply hosting or even selling land to wealthy investors from urban centers. Overall, the needs of affected populations need to be considered when planning renewable energy projects. This requires [the genuine involvement of] communities in important planning and decision making processes. 

We need cities to be less car-centric and distribute public space in a way that is more just. We should aim for more walkable and cycling-friendly cities, with a reliable and affordable public transportation system, and with ample and uncommercialized green public spaces.

Granit: The politicians’ hesitation to halt environmental degradation in Kosovo is bizarre. Their action [in this direction] would not only be right but also very popular. As a civil sector, we need to stick this idea into our politicians’ heads. 

Besfort: Our aspirations should be oriented toward environmental education and policies that are environmentally friendly; first off [we should ensure] a budget increase for the environment because it is extremely low. [We must also] pursue policies that aim for life in society to be in harmony with the environment, to increase the number of inspectors, to raise awareness.

These can be achieved through environmentally-driven policies. Environmental policy making means more budget for the environment, more environmental projects, more environmental awareness, less pollution and better health, higher welfare for people.

What changes do we need to get there?

Granit: Non-governmental organizations are now — [in addition to] reporting and documenting — pushing matters into the courtroom.

As environmental activists we have talked to politicians in countless political debates, and to civil servants within the respective ministries, and we also took to the streets to show our disobedience. From politicians we got the famous justification of inaction: “Make us do it.” And from the ministries we were told “off-record” countless times: “We won’t get in the way of our economic development,” meaning that [the ministries do not] apply the law [because that] would make life very hard for any investor.

"Kosovo does not need to invent anything, it just needs to follow the best examples that other countries have taken at this stage of socio-economic development that the country is in."

Besfort Kosova, environmental policy expert

To smash this mentality firmly we need to send our government to court as much as we can. We must unite as the civil sector; we should push legally until our government loses so much money that this becomes a matter of priority and urgent policy change.

Bleta: At a more structural level, we must try to change how we think and talk about environmental problems and their solutions. We can start by supporting and engaging with grassroots activism that foregrounds environmental justice, the right to non-commercialized and healthy public space, a walkable city, clean air and clean water. Such mobilization will help create the ideational base and public support for more equitable environmental policy.

In the context of energy policy, we need to call on politicians to see beyond the outdated extractivist rationale that underpins development discourses in Kosovo. The coming government must get the ball rolling for the transition of the Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEK) from a centralized, coal-based generation model, to a distributed renewable one. 

Moreover, we need to start reviewing the broader policy regime that governs renewable energy development from a social equity lens. Spatial planning for renewable energy is one possible point of intervention that can shape the societal and environmental outcomes of renewable energy projects. 

For example, rural and structurally-weak municipalities in Germany have opted for site wind farms only on publicly owned land. By leasing municipal land to project developers, the municipality receives an annual fee for each wind turbine it hosts. This is an important source of income, which the municipalities invest back in public services that benefit the entire community, rather than one individual land owner. 

Such models may not be transposable in the Kosovar policy context, but they demonstrate how spatial planning can be used to mitigate some of the distributive and spatial injustices that can result in the context of renewable infrastructure development.

Besfort: Kosovo does not need to invent anything, it just needs to follow the best examples that other countries have taken at this stage of socio-economic development that the country is in. Thus, changing the mentality and strategic vision towards the future is of primary importance.

Public policies need to be strategically oriented — this ensures that the country is in line with the technological and economic developments that are being pursued in the developed world.

The primary requirement is that public policy, political discourse and the budgetary aspect reflect that the environment is a priority for future governments. This can be achieved with a clear orientation and commitment expressed through party policies, which also have to be included in their political programs. And the big change must start from the statutes of the parties, where the environment must be a priority both in their words and their deeds, and even in allocated funds from the budget. Without financial means, it is all just wishful thinking.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.