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A Greener Skopje with Cleaner Air?



   This past winter saw a multitude of news reports on the very high air pollution in Skopje.  The amounts of dust and soot measured within the city were extreme, on some days hitting ten times the levels deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization.  Skopje’s residents were warned not to go outside on the worst days. But perhaps the most disturbing part of these developments is that it was only because of recent improvements in the system of air quality monitoring -- required by the European Union -- that this information came into existence.  In addition, for the first time, citizens had easy access to the real-time readings of an air quality measuring station in the city center; and bloggers asked “Is Skopje really the most polluted city in the world?”

   Fine particles and soot in the air are most dangerous when small.  That’s because it is the size of the particle that determines where in the respiratory tract the particle will come to rest when inhaled. Because of their small size, particles that measure 10 microns or less (which are referred to as PM10) can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency is among the many institutions that has widely studied the effects of inhaling particulate matter and has confirmed that such exposure causes asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular damage, birth defects, and premature death. Because of these linkages to health, PM10 concentration in the air is a key measure of air pollution.

   The Ministry of Environment has been tracking pollution levels from its network of monitoring stations.  There are five in Skopje; two in Bitola; two in Veles; one each in Kicevo, Kumanovo, Kocani, Tetovo, Kavadarci, and village Lazaropole; and two near the OKTA oil refinery (near the villages of Miladinovci and Mrsevci).  Two new measuring locations in Skopje were activated in September 2011.  Stations measure a wide variety of air pollutants including the important PM10.  In 2008, the average annual PM10 concentration in Skopje was 80 micrograms per meter cubed, rising sharply to an average of 130 in 2011. This sharp increase is a matter of concern. For the country as a whole, average particulate concentrations of about 70 micrograms in 2008 placed Macedonia about 70th cleanest globally. The EU15 countries, by comparison, registered an average of 26 micrograms, well within the EU’s limits for national average concentrations of 40. More striking is that for an individual urban area, Skopje ranked about 100th worst in the world in 2008 (out of about 1000 cities) but about 40th worst in 2011.  Skopje has by far the dirtiest air in Europe, followed by Sarajevo at about 120 micrograms and a number of Turkish cities with levels around 100 and Bulgarian cities at 70. However, annual averages don’t tell the whole story. Daily levels are also critical.  That’s why the EU also sets a daily standard for PM10 of 50 micrograms which is not to be exceeded for more than 35 days a year.  By this standard, Skopje’s air quality is even more alarming. (See the chart which shows daily PM10 concentrations at some monitoring stations in Skopje last winter.)

Average daily PM10 concentration from monitoring stations around Skopje

GG Greener Skopje

Source: Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning, 2012

   Highly-polluted air wreaks permanent damage on people’s health.  The Institute of Public Health has estimated that nearly 300 deaths occurred in Macedonia in 2011 as a consequence of poor air quality from particulate matter.  What this means is that 300 people died prematurely from exposure to high concentrations of air pollution.  This analysis followed earlier work in 2007 by the EU’s Directorate General for the Environment which estimated that reducing air pollution in Macedonia below the ceiling set by the EU (through implementation of the air-related environmental aquis) would result in 237 fewer cases per year of premature death arising from lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. A likely bigger cost of heavily-polluted air is the many, many citizens who are plagued with asthma, chronic bronchitis or other respiratory diseases.  These Macedonians lose work days and require additional health care.  The magnitude of the economic costs of lost work days and higher health spending is an issue that warrants further investigation before solutions can be found. Yet even careful statistics in this area cannot capture the damage done to people’s quality of life of knowing that the air you breathe is making you sick. 

   Skopje’s geography, economy, and mobility all contribute to the PM10 problem. Skopje is blessed with attractive surroundings, but the mountains to the west and the south and the hills to the east that provide charming views also prevent the winds from clearing out the city air.  Especially in the winter, the city is subject to thermal inversions, which trap air in one place for days.  Within this setting is a mix of air pollution sources.  Combustion for energy, especially electricity production, is a main culprit with strong growth in recent years, rising about 5 percent each of the past five years.  Electricity demand has been spurred by the revival of the ferro-nickel, ferro-silicon and steel industries, all major consumers of electricity.  With the majority of Macedonian industry located in, or near, the capital, soot from industrial smokestacks also adds directly to Skopje’s air burden.  Emissions from vehicles, especially older ones, and dust from construction contribute significantly.  Last, district heating powered by fuel oil and rising household use of wood stoves (which is rare in urban areas in the rest of Europe) ensure that winter particulate emissions are high, coinciding with the occurrence of thermal inversions.      

   Skopje could follow the example set by Mexico City, although, of course, on a much smaller scale. In 1992, the United Nations declared Mexico City the most polluted urban area in the world. About 1,000 deaths and 35,000 hospitalizations a year were estimated to be caused by the city’s terrible air quality. As in Skopje, thermal inversions held a toxic blanket of dirty air over a grimy city, especially in the winter months.  About three-quarters of polluting emissions in Mexico City came from the enormous number of old and unregulated vehicles driving the city streets, amplified by incomplete fuel combustion in engines caused by the city’s high altitude.  The situation seemed hopeless -- there was even talk about building giant fans to blow the polluted air out of the city.  Yet today Mexico City boasts blue skies on many days each year, and the city’s determined efforts to continue to improve air quality offer many practical lessons to cities elsewhere.  Gasoline was reformulated. Factories were closed or moved, and fuel oil was replaced with natural gas in the industrial and power sectors.  Most importantly, drivers were prohibited from using their cars one day per week.  The “One Day Without a Car” (or “Hoy No Circula”) program keeps older and dirtier cars off the road for one day a week and requires semiannual inspections of vehicles’ emissions.  Older cars that do not meet emissions standards are further subject to an environmental contingency program: they are banned from city roads on days when measured air pollution levels are high. As a complement to driving restrictions, public transportation is now being expanded.

  What can be done do to attack Skopje’s air pollution problem?  A first step is to understand better how current air quality is harming Macedonians and imposing costs on both the public and private sectors as well as understanding the sources of Skopje’s pollution. The World Bank’s ongoing Green Growth Program with the Government of Macedonia has taken on this task over the next few months. Then the size and scope of benefits from cleaner air will be apparent as well as the policies and programs most likely to elicit results. We already know that there are many clean air initiatives from around the world that may be good models. Some places to start would surely be a reconsideration of fuel oil and wood for heating.  Upgrading old coal and oil boilers and converting to natural gas would help.  Could more renewable energy options be viable for power plants?  Are there industries that could relocate away from Skopje or adopt cleaner practices? Could energy efficiency measures in buildings reduce demand for heating and electricity? Could clean public transport and non-motorized transport (bicycles) be encouraged? Can Skopje transform from a capital city which today competes for the title of worst daily local air quality in the world to a modern clean and green European leader? Air pollution is a costly and serious problem for which practical solutions are readily available, and finding solutions and understanding tradeoffs are part of the World Bank’s Green Growth Program.  Imagine sitting at a café next to the Vardar on a sunny spring day, taking a deep breath of the PM10-free air, or a brisk walk with the family around the Kale Fortress on a sunny blue-sky day in November. Ahh, now those are the sights and smells of a greener Skopje. 



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