As the World Health Organization warns of health risks from worsening air pollution and slashes what it considers safe levels of pollution, more studies confirm the worst in cities across Europe. In Serbia, air quality in almost all locations where it is measured is assigned the lowest possible score. In Belgrade, the capital and largest city, the daily limit on exposure to harmful airborne particles is regularly exceeded. Researcher Predrag Momčilović sheds light on this insidious problem and why tackling inequality is key for Serbia.  

Air is often described as a mixture of gases that has no colour, smell, or taste. But this definition is meaningless if you live in one of the Balkan Peninsula’s many polluted cities, especially in winter. They reek of soot and their smog-covered skies make throats itch and reduce visibility to a few metres. This is the everyday reality of air pollution.

The average person can survive up to three weeks without food. Without water, we can live for three or four days. Without air, however, we cannot survive for more than a few minutes. We inhale these noxious gases and particles into our lungs when they pollute the air that surrounds us. Continuous exposure to polluted air has been linked to increased risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and possibly even cognitive decline. Air pollution has become ubiquitous in modern societies, but some parts of the world – including the Balkan countries – have been badly hit by this global phenomenon.

In his 1914 novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell imagines a world where all atmospheric air is sucked into “huge gasometers”, with access sold by “air monopolists”. Similarly, today clean air is becoming increasingly scarce and subject to commodification. While not generally sold in bottles, unpolluted air now has a price: the costs of living in and travelling to areas less affected by pollution and of buying more efficient fuels and air purifiers. A common narrative is that air pollution affects everyone in the same way, and that we are all in this together. This is patently untrue. Polluted air first affects the most vulnerable – who are at increased risk of both exposure to air pollution and associated health problems – and then everyone else.

Serbia’s air pollution and resistance legacy

Air pollution and its effects on vulnerable populations are not new issues in Serbia. Indeed, what may have been Europe’s first environmental protest, in the eastern Serbian town of Bor in 1935, was sparked by the devastating impact of severe air pollution on the local environment and population.

Copper ore mining and processing had begun in the region in 1903, bathing the surrounding land in sulphuric acid fumes that leached into the soil and water and crippled agriculture. In spite of repeated complaints, the local people only received derisory compensation for their losses. By April 1935, the situation had become critical. Against a backdrop of record agricultural losses, local residents took to the streets to protest against the high levels of air, soil, and water pollution caused by the copper mines and smelters, and attempted to bring them to a standstill. Police officers and soldiers were drafted in from around the country to defend foreign capital, while the French embassy put pressure on the authorities to end the protest. On several occasions, shots were fired at the protestors, killing a miner and wounding many others. The rebellion, known as the “Vlaška buna” (Wallachian Revolt), was finally quelled in June 1935 after the protesters’ demands were partially met.

Today, the situation in many cities across Serbia is comparable to Bor prior to the outbreak of the Vlaška buna. According to the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA)’s Annual Report on the State of Air Quality in Serbia in 2020, almost all locations where air quality was measured scored the lowest possible (category 3). Most locations classed as category 1 were subject to insufficient monitoring, or none at all.

According to SEPA, Serbia’s primary air pollutant is airborne particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5): tiny, suspended particles that are inhalable and can lead to adverse health effects. Other common pollutants include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, heavy metals, and pollen allergens. The 2020 annual report states that the maximum daily mean concentration of PM10 particles was exceeded at all 34 measuring stations for which data was available. Furthermore, over 85 per cent of the measuring stations recorded daily values above this limit for more than 35 days, the absolute maximum allowed. These included Valjevo (147 days), Zaječar (139), Užice (134), Kosjerić (126), Pančevo (119), Niš (115), Kraljevo (106), and Subotica (61). At monitoring stations in Belgrade, the daily maximum limit was exceeded 90 times. This was more likely to be the case during the winter months than in the warmer part of the year. At almost all measuring stations, daily limits were regularly exceeded in January. The absolute record holder was Valjevo in western Serbia, where maximum daily values were exceeded every day during January 2020.

Bottling clean air?

Air pollution consists of numerous particles and chemicals from a variety of sources. However, its primary cause is always the same: the nature of the socio-economic system. Air quality is only likely to improve if we recognise this and tackle the established narratives that were created to preserve the status quo.

A decline in air quality is often associated with re-industrialisation and an accompanying rise in living standards. The received wisdom is that gross domestic product (GDP) growth and clean air are incompatible until a certain turning point is reached. Once this happens, air quality starts to improve, but in order to get to this point, growth needs to reach a certain level. In the meantime, air pollution must be accepted as a necessary evil. This has become the established narrative of the authorities in Serbia and a justification for air pollution.

Clean air is not free from commodification; in Serbia, it has become a privilege that you must pay for.

This narrative is based on neoliberal economic theory as expressed in the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC). The EKC was developed primarily to describe how GDP growth affects the level of inequality in a society. According to the EKC, as GDP per capita increases, so does inequality. Once a certain point is reached, however, inequality (and pollution) begins to drop. It is important to recognise, however, that free-market measures themselves do not reduce inequality and pollution; only market regulation reduces inequality. Reductions in inequality and pollution mainly occur in periods of increased redistribution of wealth. In contrast, free-market measures often lead to the rich becoming richer.

In the same way as air pollution can be traced back to the socio-economic system, its impacts are a product of social and economic inequalities. We generally think of air as a public good. A long-standing joke is that in the future, they will start bottling the air we breathe. Thankfully its physical and chemical properties make it much harder to own and sell than drinking water or arable land. Nevertheless, clean air is not free from commodification; in Serbia, it has become a privilege that you must pay for. Access is limited to those who can afford air purifiers, who are able to live in city districts with lower pollution levels, and who can travel to regions with better air quality. The situation is very different for those living in informal settlements or parts of the city where, due to a lack of infrastructure and higher levels of poverty, domestic heating is provided by wood-burning stoves or open fires, and drivers can only afford the most polluting cars.

Energy poverty and air quality

Serbia has the dubious honour of being one of the leading countries in Europe when it comes to poverty and social inequality. According to the Serbian Statistical Office’s 2020 Survey on Income and Living Conditions, 29.8 per cent of people in Serbia were considered to be living below the poverty line or at risk of social exclusion in 2020, and just over 35 per cent of Serbian households could not cover unplanned expenses to the sum of 16,600 dinars (140 euros). Of the households surveyed, 94.6 per cent stated that housing costs are financially burdensome, and 51.9 per cent considered them to be significantly so. Just under 10 per cent could not afford adequate heating. Single parents, pensioners, families with three or more children, and unemployed people were identified as being particularly vulnerable to poverty of all kinds, including energy poverty.

There is a strong link between energy poverty and air pollution in Serbia. Thirty-six per cent of households – rising to 45 per cent of the over 65s – use wood-burning stoves as their primary heating device, and as many as 57 per cent use firewood. The majority of the wood used is raw and unprocessed, which is a strong indicator of energy poverty. Wood pellets or chips provide higher quality energy but are unaffordable for many. While unprocessed firewood is a low-cost and renewable energy source with claims to carbon neutrality, wood stoves and open fires are a major source of both indoor and outdoor air pollution, and excessive exposure to wood smoke can cause severe health issues.

The spiral of poverty of all kinds can easily draw in large numbers of people, and it can be very difficult to escape without outside help. The fight against poverty, including energy poverty, should therefore be given high priority by national and local governments and all social actors, especially in the progressive sphere. In addition to crucial benefits such as improved health and wellbeing outcomes and relieving pressure on household budgets, cutting energy poverty in Serbia could reduce the population’s reliance on firewood for fuel and in turn improve air quality.

If we hope to develop measures that will be effective in tackling energy poverty, the participation of those affected is crucial. Decisions are often made without understanding their needs, which leads to the introduction of the wrong measures that unsurprisingly fail to solve the most pressing problems. However, targeted measures can only go so far. Energy poverty – and the air pollution associated with it – is a symptom of social inequality that can only be tackled by a more equitable distribution of resources within Serbian society.

The fight for a greener, more equitable Serbia

For the first time, the public’s attention is fixed on environmental degradation, specifically poor air quality, thanks to the actions of concerned citizens, civil society organisations, and Green political actors in Serbia. According to public opinion polls, Serbians rank environmental problems as their third biggest concern; for residents of Belgrade, they occupy first place. Various protests and performances have been organised in the city to put pressure on the government to improve air quality, attracting over 5,000 people in some cases. Such numbers would have been unthinkable for environmental protests in Serbia only a few years ago.

In early April 2022, parliamentary and local elections will be held in Belgrade. For the first time in Serbian history, environmental problems will be one of the key campaign issues. The development of a genuine Green-left opposition, in the form of the coalition Moramo (“We must”), is another important first. Moramo is expected to achieve favourable results in the elections and to make it into the city and national assemblies.

Today, as in 1935, Serbia finds itself at a crossroads. Ecological degradation and social inequality are reaching alarming proportions. In addition to efforts at an institutional level to tackle these issues, citizens from a broad cross-section of society need to take inspiration from the past and join the fight for a greener, more equitable Serbia.

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