The European Union is currently gearing its forces to become a world champion of low carbon economic development, with Germany providing the lead in the form of the Energiewende. The ambitious and far-reaching objectives of this process have attracted a significant amount of academic and media attention, not the least due to the radical political, social and economic transformations that they require and foresee.
What is potentially less well known, however, are the ways in which efforts to promote new patterns of energy production and consumption within the European Union are impacting the policies of countries across the 28-nation bloc and beyond it. In particular, it remains unclear where the rising demand for ‘green’ energy will be met within Europe’s increasingly integrated energy market.
One region where EU energy policy is having an unmistakable impact is the Balkans – the space that encompasses the vast mountainous space between the Alps and Hungarian Plain in Central Europe, and the Aegean and Ionian seas in the south. The region includes a number of countries that are outside the EU (Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia) but are politically and economically closely integrated with it. Due to its specific topography and population distribution patterns, the Balkans is also a vast reservoir of biodiversity, while containing extensive natural landscapes that have seen little human intervention.
However, more than 500 large and medium-sized dams are planned or currently under construction in the region. If these schemes do go ahead, they will irreversibly destroy the natural heritage contained in the region’s extensive river network. Unfortunately, many of them are motivated by the desire of Balkan countries to sell ‘green’ electricity at a premium to neighbouring EU countries; and may be supported by international development banks and financial institutions.
I have a personal stake in this story the danger that two new hydropower plants might be built in the heart of the Mavrovo National Park in the Republic of Macedonia was one of the main reasons why I became an environmental activist in the 1990s. The plans to construct the plants hark back to the days of socialist central planning, when large-scale hydropower development was seen as a sign of technological progress and a driver of economic modernization. Even though, together with Friends of the Earth, we ran a campaign about the harmful environmental and social effects of these plans – resulting in the publication of a monograph about the national park – unfortunately they never went away. Possibly one of the most harmful developments was their inclusion in the national energy strategy, and the decision of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to support them. Such efforts decisions fly in the face of a host of evidence (some of it very new) that large-scale hydropower has hidden costs that far outweigh its benefits.
But there is still room for optimism. Several non-governmental organizations both Macedonia have mounted a vigorous campaign to raise public awareness and pressure the authorities into changing their plans. This is in contrast with the disappointing attitude of the political party affiliated with the European greens; even though the party is currently in government, its president recently termed the biologically diverse and precarious spaces potentially affected by one of plants as a set of ‘unattractive bare landscapes’. The local NGO campaign has now been scaled up to include the entire region, and is directly supported by organizations such as EuroNatur, RiverWatch and IUCN. Earlier today I delivered a video presentation at a conference organized by this campaign, where I spoke about the results of a study (about the possibilities for future low-carbon energy development in Macedonia) in which I recently participated. It was refreshing to see the rising engagement of civil society and a range of academic experts in this effort.