Macedonia made public transport temporarily free for all in the capital Skopje last week, as part of a batch of emergency measures to fight high air pollution levels.

This country in south-eastern Europe is the historical homeland of Alexander the Great but dense smog (smoke and fog) had enveloped the country’s cities.

This is an annual winter scourge in the Western Balkans (a region of south-eastern Europe including Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Albania) blamed on a mix of coal burning, aging industry and high-polluting emissions from older vehicles.

The government said that pollution in Skopje was recorded at more than four times above safety levels and that it has decided to ban heavy vehicles entering the city center.

It has also excused pregnant women and people over 60 years of age from work. Outdoors sports activities were also banned. Outdoors sports activities were also banned.

A woman covers her face to deal with the smoke and fog in Skopje.

Local media said shops ran out of face masks as many people sought to protect themselves from the subzero and largely windless air in Skopje, located in a valley surrounded by mountains from three sides, thus trapping pollutants.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) study published early this year said Skopje was among 10 European cities with the highest concentration of toxic particles.

Air pollution causes more than 1,300 premature deaths per year in the Macedonian capital, according to official statistics. Particle pollution (haze) in Skopje is more than ten times higher than the air quality standards set by the European Union.

Communist-era industries

Skopje and four other Balkan cities in that list rely for their energy including heating during frigid winters on high-polluting lignite coal, a holdover from decades of old communist Yugoslav rule. Smoke from wood-burning stoves and exhaust fumes from old cars adds to the problem.

Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica in Bosnia, as well as Kosovo’s capital Pristina, suffer from similar high air pollution.

A recent study by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) found 16 aging, communist-era lignite plants in areas of former Yugoslavia emit as much pollution as all of the European Union’s 296 power plants combined.

Aging, communist-era power plants in the former Yugoslavia burn high-polluting lignite coal.

With an eye on future EU membership, the governments of ex-Yugoslav republics have pledged to tackle emission levels.

Under the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive, emissions in the region would have to be reduced by 90% for sulfur dioxide, by 67% for nitrogen oxides and 94% of airborne particulates by 2028.

But the region plans to invest billions of euros in building more coal-fired plants with a total capacity of 2,600 megawatts (MW) to meet rising demand for electricity as old plants are phased out in the next decade.

Environmentalists fear the renewed investment in coal could backfire if governments are forced to spend hundreds of millions of euros more to meet EU environmental standards to qualify for accession to the bloc. – Agencies