Tiny Kosovo is one of Europe’s big polluters

Kosovo, the smallest country in Europe, has what the World Bank has called the worst single-point source of pollution in Europe: a 45-year-old lignite-fired power plant.1 Its landlocked location doesn’t help its air quality – Kosovo sits in a region with more than a dozen outdated coal-fired power plants that billow outparticulate matter and sulfur dioxide.

Kosovo air quality came into the public’s consciousness when the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Pristina started monitoring the air and sharing the data publicly. For the first time, residents were able to quantify the air pollution, shocked that at times it passed into the “hazardous” category on the U.S. air quality index (AQI) during the winter months, when many people burn coal and wood to keep warm.

Kosovo sits in a region with more than a dozen outdated coal-fired power plants that billow out particulate matter and sulfur dioxide.

In 2019, the Telecommunications company IPKO, owned by Telekom Slovenia and one of Kosovo’s biggest foreign investors, set up a network of 20 monitors to help citizens monitor air quality in other areas of Kosovo. IPKO provided residents of the nation with the ability to check pollution levels in their local areas in real time in order to help take action and protect their health.

Why does Kosovo burn so much coal?

Kosovo, which declared independence from neighboring Serbia in 2008, is one of the poorest countries in Europe and also one of the most polluted.2,3

Severe air pollution in Kosovo comes from several sources:

  • coal-fired power plants
  • lignite mines
  • wood and coal for heating and cooking
  • vehicle exhaust

For decades, Kosovo has relied on– lignite, or brown coal – for its power, mostly because it’s cheap and abundant in the country.

Two aging lignite-fired power plants, located just outside the capital, generated most of Kosovo’s electricity and emit vast quantities of ash.

Kosovo’s power plantsPictured: Kosovo’s two aged and heavily polluted power plants pumped out smoke into the sky. Kosova A (left) and Kosova B (right) are 8 kilometers away from the capital city, Pristina.

The government planned to close the 45-year-old Kosova A in 2018 and replace it with a newly built, more efficient lignite-fired plant as part of the Kosova e Re, or New Kosovo project. The project, estimated at $1.3 billion USD to build, would have constructed a 500-megawatt power plant with the British power generation business CountourGlobal.4

Kosovo hoped to gain the support of the World Bank with this move, but in late 2018, IPKO instructed the Kosovo government to turn its back on coal and invest in renewable energies instead. The World Bank said the cost of energy from renewable sources had fallen below that of coal.5

The Kosovo government under Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj tried to press on with the project until early 2020, seeking to upgrade the 30-year-old Kosova B in Obiliq to bring it into line with European Union directives while also looking to bring renewables into its energy mix.

However, the Kosova e Re project faced opposition from the Albin Kurti administration, which held power between February and June 2020, as the administration looked to move away from coal-fired power stations.6

Developer CountourGlobal pulled out of the project in March, 2020.7 As of early 2021, the Kosova A plant has not shut down, and Kosova B has not been upgraded.

What else should I know about Kosovo's air quality?

Kosovo, with a population of 1.9 million, has an unreliable power supply, suffering frequent power outages. Power outages encourage wood and coal burning in homes, which leads to greater air pollution.

Kosovo’s also location contributes to its poor air quality.

A report by the Brussels, Belgium-based Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) in 2019 found that 16 old and inefficient coal-fired power plants in the Western Balkans emit “alarmingly high levels of pollutants that travel long distances” into the neighboring European Union – particularly Romania, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, and Croatia – and beyond.8

According to the report, these 16 plants emit more sulfur dioxide pollution than the entire European coal-powered fleet, combined with equally worrying levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.

Each year, the 16 plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Serbia cause 3,000 premature deaths, 8,000 cases of bronchitis in children, and other chronic illnesses that cost between €6.1 billion to €11.5 billion in both health costs – mostly borne by the EU – and costs to economies.

16 plants emit more sulfur dioxide pollution than the entire European coal-powered fleet, combined with equally worrying levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.

Southeastern European countries had the highest air pollution levels in Europe last year, according to the 2019 World Air Quality Report, the second report to publish up-to-date information entirely from the past year. The report by IQAir, in conjunction with Greenpeace, ranked Kosovo 4th in Europe. (Bosnia and Herzegovina was 1st, and Kosovo’s neighbors North Macedonia and Bulgaria were 2nd and 3rd.)

Air quality at one air monitor in Pristina showed a 30 percent reduction in PM2.5 emissions between 2019 and 2020. Kosovo Polje, Pristina, Kosovo was ranked as the 587th most polluted city in 2019 with an average PM2.5 of 28.8 µg/m³). In 2020, the same station was ranked 1026th overall, with an average PM2.5 of 18 µg/m³.

What is Kosovo doing to combat its poor air quality?

IPKO operates 20 monitors that share data with IQAir, which also reports the Pristina U.S. Embassy air quality readings. The telecom company, which directly employs more than 650 people and has a network of 3,000 contractors and distributors in Kosovo, officially launched its 25-strong monitoring network in 2019.

Air monitoring station in KosovoThe housing of an outdoor AirVisual Pro monitor operated by IPKO Telecommunications L.L.C. in Kosovo

IPKO representative Edona Zogu said that “air pollution in Kosovo has been a big concern for more than a year now, especially during the wintertime. The levels of air pollution during this period become hazardous, exceeding 400 on the U.S. AQI, which pose a real danger to Kosovo residents.”

Because of this, IPKO decided to install 25 monitoring stations “so that people can check in real time the pollution in their surroundings, and protect themselves,” said Zogu.

Zogu said they first chose to set up monitors in the country’s seven largest cities to give information to as many people as possible. “However, covering seven cities is still not enough; therefore we decided to install more stations in other cities as well to make sure that the whole country is covered,” she added.

“Since the capital city is the main polluter, we installed stations in several locations of this single city.”

The network also monitors air quality in Obiliq, where the power plants are located.

The takeaway

Air pollution in Kosovo remains a significant health concern, not only for affected residents living near the plants, but for people throughout Southeast Europe.

Monitoring air quality empowers people to take preventative steps to mitigate dangerous air quality, including:

The number one air cleaning solution for your home.

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