How to clean the air? By changing our mindset first

January 27, 2020

by: Steliana Nedera

UNDP Resident Representative

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Are you a resident of Sarajevo or Zenica, permanently exposed to polluted air and are 30 years old? Statistics say your life span will be shorter by at least one year because of the air you breathe.

This is what air quality measurements and World Health Organization data is telling us.

If you think this public health problem is characteristic of Sarajevo and Zenica only, you are in wrong. The same fate is shared by residents of almost all urban and suburban areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which can be then viewed as a sort of a development indicator. Air pollutants concentrations are not measured in all cities, but the health consequences we are witnessing are more than telling evidence in itself.

Poor air quality in the cities across the country, regardless of its source, is vastly an effect of combustion of various fossil fuels. The country has been dependant on fossil fuels for so long that this energy dependency is mistaken for its natural resource. There are two ways that this practice can and must be changed – firstly, changing the type of energy source, and secondly, reducing energy consumption. The United Nations Development Programme has the capacities, but also readiness and determination to support countries around the globe, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, in both of these processes.

If we want healthy population and economy, a clear way ahead is in decarbonisation. In short, decarbonisation is an end to reliance on fossil fuels – both in industry and in private life. It is multifaceted – from a shift in focus in electricity production from thermal power plants to renewables, to personal choices to use public transport or train more often. Here, Bosnia and Herzegovina has made some, at least declarative, steps forward. Decarbonisation is a process underpinning the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, to which this country is a signatory, as well as all EU development and environmental policies, including the most recent European Green Deal. Delivering under this heading will be essential to the country’s successful European path.

Climate crisis and the public health crisis caused by the prolonged episodes of air pollution in many cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina are a call for action – to move from words to deeds. UNDP stands ready to help policy makers and implementing bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina start delivering on their international commitments and national plans in air and climate protection in a systematic manner, for their citizens and together with citizens. However, the rule of law and quality of life will not come from the support of the international community or political processes alone, but through citizens and their elected representatives assuming responsibility to adjust their policies and behaviours for a clean air and a healthier environment. Along these lines, I have three clear messages for citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina:

  1. Stay informed and take care of your health. Information on pollutant values ​​and locally adjusted air quality index is available for many cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina through websites of competent professional institutions. Adjust your daily activities to current air quality and comply with emergency measures in cases of excessive pollution as prescribed by current plans.
  2. The economy must be a decarbonisation champion. Better air quality depends primarily on the seriousness in enforcement of measures to limit the use of solid fuels. Industrial plants and other businesses play a key role in energy transition to healthier and more cost-effective energy sources. In this process, it will be necessary to harness the power of incentives and subsidies to stimulate decarbonisation measures.
  3. We need to change our attitude towards public transportation and cars. Public transportation must be accessible to everyone and everywhere, but cars for personal use should not be a welfare category. Responsibility for technical compliance of cars and traffic control of vehicles with no catalytic converters and with a high exhaust emission ratio rests with the competent authorities as well as citizens. Health impacts of a technically defective vehicle are enormous for both the driver and his environment.

In conclusion, countries and cities of the twenty-first century cannot hope for their sustainable development while maintaining dependence on the fuels and practices of past centuries. Apart from a shift in individual and systemic behaviours, new technologies are also a significant portion of the solution here. Pilot projects under Smart City initiative have helped us showcase the existing innovative spirit in Bosnia and Herzegovina, capable of harnessing technological solutions to improve the quality of life in Sarajevo.

Clearly, complex problems such as air pollution call for complex solutions – they require a combination of clear policy decisions, effective economic and technological measures, and serious changes in individuals’ behaviour in order to have a real impact on the environment and human health. Yet, all of this is within a reach, as seen in the experience from around the world in a relatively short period of time. One such example is Beijing, which has succeeded to halve particle pollution in only six years. By putting public health and the environment at the centre of its focus, society in Bosnia and Herzegovina can look forward to its smart development for the 21st century.