A position statement for the Western Balkans
This statement is the outcome of a series of discussions and exchanges among researchers, practitioners and advocates working on energy transformation and social justice in the Western Balkans (comprising six Southeastern European states – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovine, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Sebia). It is the outcome of our common concern that decision-makers in region are failing to deal with the complex societal, political, economic and environmental tensions arising from the growing private investment in renewable energy across rural and urban communities.
We call for a present and future energy transition that is socially just and environmentally sustainable. In the text that follows, we briefly outline our diagnosis of the current situation, the main challenges faced by the region, and the main policy steps that are urgently needed.
This statement speaks to wider debates and struggles on renewable energy transitions across the world, particularly in settings where some development challenges are still unfolding. We hope that global scholars, advocates and activists working on energy and justice will draw inspiration from it.
The current situation
The Western Balkans (WB) has been termed a ‘renewable energy El Dorado’ due to the rapid expansion of new forms of energy production, particularly solar photovoltaics. The expansion of renewable energy, however, is occurring under conditions of significant social inequality, urban and regional economic disparity, insufficient regulation for the protection of cultural and natural heritage, and limited controls on corruption and dispossession. With rising investment interests from private capital and finance, there is insufficient capacity in the region to protect the interests of local people, the natural environment, and future generations, from any social and environmental degradation that may occur.
Despite political commitments to promote a just energy transition, there is an inconsistency between words and deeds in almost all countries. What is supposed to be an inclusive decision-making process in the energy sector is narrowed down to formalities of involving civil society and academia in presenting draft energy strategies, and discussing low-carbon transition plans. Vested political and economic interests determine the current levels of the energy transition, as there is lack of transparency in the sector, particularly regarding ongoing tender procedures, employment, and new energy projects.
We have identified four areas where further action is needed:
- There is inadequate regional cooperation between and within nations, to connect diverse stakeholders interested in promoting the uptake of renewable energies in ways that are socially, environmentally, and politically equitable and just.
- Renewables have been associated with multiple controversies – particularly small hydro plants (HPPs). The pushback against these projects by local people who have been excluded from planning procedures has unfavourably affected the perception of renewable projects. This is further exacerbated by the lack of transparency and adequate public engagement in the expansion of renewable energy investment.
- There is a widespread expectation that the price of energy will need to rise to match the cost of production and to cover the costs of grid improvements and renewable projects. This will push the worst off within the WB further into energy poverty, which is already a pervasive issue in the region.
Our shared positions
We stand for a socially just energy transition that is fair, inclusive, and equitable, and that it benefits everyone in society, underpinned by six principles:
- Energy access for all: Policymakers need to ensure that marginalized communities and low-income groups are not left behind in the transition to a low-carbon economy. To that end, prompt changes in policies are needed, to prioritize the needs of vulnerable populations.
- Citizens at the heart of the energy transition: The benefits of civil society’s vigorous advocacy for a just energy transition should not be left to investment initiatives that are solely profit-led. That requires strengthening accountability by private investors, and ensuring citizens’ access to socially-equitable and sustainable energy services through simplified procedures, supportive schemes, and separate quotas.
- A full justice package: Citizen participation needs to go beyond the technocratic and elitist inclusiveness approach of ‘who creates the agenda’ and to also consider bottom-up approaches and the real energy ‘frontiers’, their struggles, and ways of achieving justice in its various forms.
- Just transition funds for coal regions: It is high time for governments to define the steps for just energy transitions in coal regions, focusing on ways to protect workers in the sector, while strengthening local value chains, and ensuring that local people have access to new job and market opportunities.
- A strong social welfare system: The state has the obligation to shape the energy transition and serve as the ‘visible hand’ in ensuring social justice through its various political and economic instruments.
- Solidarity matters: Regional collaboration through continuous exchange and learning from each other is of key importance in ensuring a socially just energy transition. The quest for accountability by states and investors requires joint action that should also consider the role of intermediaries such as the European Union, the Energy Community, and other international donors.
Signed: Stefan Bouzarovski, Ivana Vuchkova, Hannah Charles, Saska Petrova, 31st March 2023
Published as part of the LENS project.