We must do more to help ourselves amidst the looming climate catastrophe.
The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that the world is completely off track to achieve its goals. Instead of the targeted temperature increase of 1.5℃ in comparison to pre-industrial times, we’re currently heading toward a 3℃ warmer globe, by 2100.
Climate change affects everyone everywhere, but its consequences are far more devastating for disadvantaged locations and low income countries like ours that are not prepared for the catastrophes to come. Although a widely discussed topic, the general perception of society in Kosovo — and not only in Kosovo — is that climate change is a future problem that won’t be affecting us. Nonetheless, we are already affected.
In 1994, John Elkington developed the triple bottom line framework that today is widely used to represent sustainable development pillars: environment, economy and society; also referred to as the 3Ps — Planet, Profit and People.
Currently, this chain works in the following way: The economy takes the necessary resources from the environment in order to increase profit, which then ensures benefits for society such as employment and goods that enable society’s living standards to rise.
While economic production is constantly growing, the environmental resources used are finite, and one day the goods we cherish today will become scarce. The scarcity of resources will mean less production, leading to a scarcity of basic goods, which is liable to cause social and political unrest. Therefore, dependency on finite resources is not sustainable per se, and has social consequences, meaning deepened global social inequalities, decreased living standards and social deprivation.
Needless to say, the biggest environmental harmers are the developed countries, but the aftereffects are global. The economic dependency on finite environmental resources has destroyed nature and caused climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, affecting society, again primarily those who are already disadvantaged. People worldwide are dealing with an increasing number of wildfires, floods, heat waves and droughts as well as air pollution.
This last one is a concern we can easily relate to. Air pollution is not a future problem, it is our current problem; we are inhaling a visible pollution, at least in the capital.
Why do we have air pollution in Prishtina?
Various national institutions, such as the concept document for protection from air pollution published by the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, and interviews given by the Hydrometeorological Institute of Kosovo and the National Institute for Public Health of Kosovo, have pointed to an open-ended list of factors that mainly blame industries, cars, use of coal for household heating, the power plant, but also climate conditions that are not taking the pollution created by us away from us quickly.
We’re blaming low income families that don’t have another choice, but social welfare is a social responsibility that needs to be addressed. If not addressed, it can’t be blamed.
Firstly, industries are seen as the sacred economic developers. Due to the 3Ps chain, we desperately need them, and we feel an obligation to protect them because they provide development even though they harm society through emissions and environmental degradation.
Secondly, we blame the cars because we are aware of their use even when unnecessary but then we continuously invest in more and more roads because we believe that new roads will bring us more economic development. In truth, yes, transport is a prerequisite for economic development but in itself doesn’t ensure economic development.
We need mobility but mobility is not limited to private cars. Prioritizing private car needs, such as planned road extensions, will only bring us more private cars and make us more dependent on them.
If we refer again to the 3Ps chain, cars are goods globally cherished by a part of society that tend to earn more from the economy pillar (i.e. higher earners) and most cars are dependent on finite environmental resources, i.e. fuel. Naturally, with growing car ownership, the price of such resources will increase, and society at a certain point in time needs to cope with its scarcity.
The growing number of suburban sites and frequent commuters to Prishtina, for instance, will be affected the most and will look to opt for cheaper alternatives. When alternatives are convenient, driving less is not an issue. But when alternatives are not convenient, the population can be affected disproportionately with unaffordable mobility for some, as well as extra time costs.
Thirdly, as air pollution gets worse in wintertime, it’s easy to spot the difference from summertime: heating. We blame the households that use coal for heating. Using coal for heating is not an option taken by choice, considering its health risks, especially for children and the elderly. We’re blaming low income families that don’t have another choice, but social welfare is a social responsibility that needs to be addressed. If not addressed, it can’t be blamed.
Low income families benefit less from the economy of the 3Ps chain and moreover, some earn their living from collecting waste for recycling, contributing to the decrease of environmental damage.
We may be the victims of a visionless society. But, what are our concerns today that would make us so different from our ancestors?
Fourthly, the biggest polluter is the power plant. Demand for electricity is increasing and will continue to increase, whereas its lack would have economic and inevitably social consequences. We may blame our ancestors for the terrible location of the power plant, which brings all the pollution down to Prishtina and to its surrounding areas. In this regard, the power plant’s location does not make any sense.
But if the concerns were solely based on cost reduction, the storyline would be different: Taking into consideration the location of mines, railways — transportation of coal is made by railway — and its proximity to Prishtina, the power plant’s location is just perfect.
It is our priorities and concerns that shape the future. We may be the victims of a visionless society. But, the question is: What are our concerns today that would make us so different from our ancestors?
We demand more electricity, for which we want to build more power plants with costs exceeding a billion euros, to improve our economy. Fortunately, the World Bank has refused to give the loan on the justification that other renewable sources of energy production are more cost effective. Nevertheless, we are in search of loans from other banks.
We breathe the developing economy.
Although, air pollution in Prishtina has been an issue for years, only recently did the wider public gain access to the PM2.5 pollutant levels as measured by the U.S. Embassy. In wintertime, air pollution levels record alarming quantities of PM2.5 in Prishtina.
PM2.5 are pollutant particles that make the air appear hazy and reduce visibility. These particles can stay in the air for days and even weeks. They are such fine particles that they can get deep into our lungs. Short term health effects can cause eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, and shortness of breath. Sensitive groups are more vulnerable to these effects such as children, the elderly and people with respiratory illnesses.
Long term exposure to these fine particles is associated with chronic bronchitis, problems with lung function, lung cancer, heart disease and premature death.
The World Health Organization has suggested that acceptable levels for these particles are an average of 10 μg/m3 annually, or an average of 25 μg/m3 in a 24-hour period. Whereas, at certain times Prishtina has seen this number go up to as high as 400 μg/m3 and, and although temporarily, it has taken a seat among the most polluted cities in the world.
One of the consequences of climate change is suspected to be weakened wind speed in some parts of the world and stronger wind speed in other parts of the world. What if we get to be in the first group and have no wind to take the pollution away quickly? Could we live with all the pollution we create for another 40 years?
The institutions have to date tackled this issue as an extraordinary circumstance that will happen for a single winter, preparing regulations that create the illusion of concerns taken care of — but the rest is up to the climate.
Last winter, protest-induced short term measures undertaken included a ban on private transport use in some areas of the city and provision of free public transport — for a few days. Additionally, citizens were promised district heating network expansion, investment in power plant filters and the promotion of renewable energy. Also, the use of coal for heating was banned, but needless to say, plans for building the new power plant went on.
Although most of the rich countries have taken action and begun changing their behavior to an extent, the UN has stated that not enough has been done to tackle the issue. Truly, being concerned about the environment is not a choice, but a social necessity.
We have to ensure that government decisions are not solely market driven but take into consideration the environment in which we live and it is us who have to live in it.
Tackling the issue of climate change needs global cooperation. Rightfully, it can be claimed that the developed countries have been much more harmful to the environment than our Kosovo. On a global scale, small countries don’t make a significant difference apart from setting examples of efficient environmental management and putting pressure on the big countries to act.
Nevertheless, in a small scale, our actions affect our lives: The power plants affect the health of the miners, citizens, animals and vegetation in their surroundings as well as the overall quality of life. These social consequences of using the environment for economic purposes can be mitigated if we turn our power plant investment plans into sustainable energy production with preliminary research on the best combination of energy production alternatives and long term 3Ps effects, as well as requesting sustainable policies from industries, work on forestation policies and changing our travel behavior, to address just some of the issues.
We have to ensure that government decisions are not solely market driven but take into consideration the environment in which we live and it is us who have to live in it. The economy won’t give us different air to breathe.
In long term thinking, the number of patients with health issues will increase, migration toward healthier environments, i.e. developed countries, will increase, which will not only decrease the number of taxpayers but it will also destroy that little economic development we are so devotedly fighting for, without any sense of vision.
Finally, it is not about giving a chance to the green only; it is about giving a better chance for the whole of society.
Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.