By Claudia Strambo, researcher at Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden and Azrudin Husikalead expert for air quality, climate and energy in development of BiH Environmental Strategy and Action Plan 2030+.

After a year marked by climate disasters, countries from all around the world are currently gathering in Glasgow, Scotland for COP26 to discuss and agree on the way forward to tackle climate change. We all recall the devastating floods in Germany, the fires around the Mediterranean and the severe drought across the Balkans that have taken place in 2021. These events have once again highlighted the urgency of the climate crisis. 

Within this context, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has taken various steps to address climate change. In March 2021, BiH committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a third by 2030, and almost two-thirds by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. An Environmental Strategy and Action Plan is under development and there will also be a climate change adaptation and low emission development strategy for 2020–2030, of which only adoption is pending. Following the Sofia Declaration, through which Western Balkans partners agreed to align with the European Union’s Green Agenda, BiH is working on increasing its mitigation ambitions to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Going forward, we can expect new policies and measures aimed at adapting to a changing climate and seeking to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in BiH. 

Landscape view of Kakanj coal mine in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jasmin Agovic

The social dimensions of decarbonization 

The debate on climate policy typically focuses on two main aspects of climate change. The first one is financial: how much does it cost to decarbonize economies and how much economic damage do climate impacts like floods, fires and droughts generate? The second one is technological: what technologies will enable the shift to a low-carbon economy? How quickly can we deploy renewable energies, electric cars and biofuels? 

These are of course essential transition issues. However, it is also very important that we keep in mind the social dimensions of the transition. Not everyone is affected by climate change equally, nor can everyone adapt as easily to a changing climate. Similarly, the consequences of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also vary across society. They can both reduce and worsen social inequalities. For instance, improving energy efficiency and heating systems in social housing helps reduce energy poverty and benefits disadvantaged people, while measures to phase out old (and more polluting) cars tend to affect the poor the most because they often cannot afford a newer car. Taking these social considerations into account is essential for ensuring that climate action is economically and socially fair – that is, to ensure just transitions. 

Challenges and opportunities in moving away from coal 

Replacing coal with cleaner fuels is crucial for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and it brings both opportunities and challenges in BiH. To start with, air quality will improve significantly, thus reducing the healthcare costs associated with air pollution. The shift can also generate new jobs, not only in the renewable energy sector, but also in the process of cleaning up and rehabilitating and transforming old mining and coal power plant sites. There are also economic benefits. As Damir Miljević, member of the RESET Sustainable Energy Transition Center Managing Board and energy expert in BiH, pointed out, “The main economic benefit from the transition is getting cheaper and cleaner energy from unlimited and free energy sources, such as the sun and the wind.” 

However, moving away from coal also has its challenges. Miljević warned about the implications of the transition on municipalities and the 17 000 workers that depend on coal mining and coal-based power generation. “The main challenge will be to implement effective strategies to avoid rising unemployment and poverty in coal regions,” he said. 

Such strategies include using a combination of measures to help affected workers to find new livelihoods and measures to ensure that adequate social protections are available when re-employment is not possible. In practice, that means providing reskilling to workers affected by the transition and ensuring that these programs are also available for workers’ families and the wider community. It also means providing other forms of personal support, for instance job-seeking assistance, mental health counselling and financial planning. Other measures include investments and policies to generate opportunities to nurture and maintain the economic vitality and stability of those regions that are most affected by the transition, such as developing transport, communication and education infrastructure. 

Woman charging electric car in Sweden, GettyImages

International support 

Climate change is recognized as one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges of our times. To limit its adverse implications, we need urgent social and economic transformations in all areas of life. The window of opportunity to make these transformations is rapidly closing, but there are also increasing momentum and resources made available to enable them and ensure that these transformations are socially and economically fair. For instance, the European Commission, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and World Bank have all set up programs to support just transitions in BiH. 

Sweden is one of the EU countries that has shown its strong commitment to support BiH in its low-carbon transition, as highlighted by the Ambassador of Sweden in BiH, H.E. Johanna Strömquist: 

“Sweden is at the forefront of the green transition and aims to be climate neutral by 2045,” she said. “Climate action is a top priority, at home and globally, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We must work together to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and stop this growing threat against health and prosperity. The EU Green Agenda for the Western Balkans is a unique opportunity to reduce the climate impact and promote a sustainable recovery. Sweden also supports Bosnia and Herzegovina’s efforts through projects related to energy efficiency, air quality, waste management and the development of a country-wide environmental strategy.” 

Making the most of transition opportunities 

As tempting as it may be, it is essential not to delay climate action because of the social implications of low-carbon transitions. As we wait to act, climate change impacts are worsening. This implies increasingly negative consequences for everybody in society, especially for disadvantaged groups that lack the resources to cope with climate change impacts, as evidenced by the terrible floods that took place in BiH in 2014. Secondly, delaying action means delayed transition planning and investments, which will very likely lead to higher costs and worse outcomes overall. 

The context calls for taking advantage of the momentum and available resources to spur on the transition, harness the various opportunities for development it represents and achieve the multiple benefits that it can deliver. In this process, it is crucial to pay close attention to social equity issues and implement just transition policies. 

The interview was initially published on the portal on November 1, 2021.