By Vanora Bennett and the EBRD's audiovisual team.

A city built in a dip in the valley and surrounded on three sides by hills … so in summer, from the hilltops, you can enjoy an urban panorama of river, squares, ornate neo-Grecian government buildings, traffic and massive urban statuary.

But not in winter. On bad days in winter, all you see is smog. Skopje disappears.

There are plenty of bad days. This city in North Macedonia is Europe’s most polluted capital, according to a 2017 study by the Finnish Meteorological Institute and the Macedonian Institute for Public Health. Particle pollution in Skopje is more than ten times higher than the air quality standards set by the European Union. That study confirmed an earlier finding by the Institute that 1,300 lives a year are lost because of air pollution. The damage is not just to citizens’ lungs. Exposure to this particulate pollution takes its toll on the economy too. A 2015 World Bank report estimated that air pollution was robbing this upper middle-income country, which is trying hard to grow its economy and be part of the European Union, of 3.2 per cent of its annual GDP, or €253 million a year. When the smog descends, people keep their children at home, and obsessively check the air-pollution app, MojVozduh or MyAir. The app is on everyone’s phone, and the quality of the air much discussed on social networks and sometimes at protests under the slogan "Stand up for clean air."

It’s no mystery what causes the ashy, chemical fog. Skopje’s central heating system covers only a quarter of the city’s housing, mostly apartment blocks in the centre. Many people living in the little houses of the city’s fast-growing periphery are poor. In Skopje, people burn what fuel they can find to heat their homes in winter. Sometimes it’s the region’s polluting brown coal, lignite. Sometimes it’s firewood. Sometimes it’s tyres or anything else people can get their hands on, including waste. Added into the mix are exhaust fumes and fumes from ad-hoc, under-inspected industrial processes– and that’s before even thinking about the Vardar River, whose water is polluted from untreated sewage. These are the kind of problems that need collective measures, decisive government action, long-term thinking and investment to solve.

Years of recognition that air pollution was killing Macedonians even contributed to a change of government in 2017, amid criticism of the old administration’s environmental record. That administrative passivity had in turn followed on from the war years in the former Yugoslav states of the 1990s, when little public attention could be given to the environment, and a previous period, when Yugoslavia and communism still existed, characterised by years of urban under-investment. The smog is the physical manifestation of neglect from on high.    

So Skopje’s environmental problems are centre stage in North Macedonia’s economic and political life. The new government that come to power in 2017 is taking that to heart. Its most high-profile first step was to improve the country’s international standing by settling a dispute with Greece over its name, which had stood in the way of investment and EU approximation negotiations. (The country has now taken the new name of Republic of North Macedonia). But it has also resolved to cut air pollution in half within three years.

Since a quarter of North Macedonia’s two million people live in Skopje, a figure expected to grow to 800,000 in a generation, all eyes are on Mayor Petre Shilegov. How will he clean up?

Skopje, North Macedonia

Skopje, North Macedonia

Tirana, Albania

Tirana, Albania

Tirana, Albania

View of Skopje obscured by smog

In the winter time the particulate concentrations can be high affecting also the visibility. Tirana, Albania

In the winter time the particulate concentrations can be high affecting also the visibility. Tirana, Albania

Crowds Protests, Skopje, North Macedonia

Crowd protests. Skopje, North Macedonia

Crowd protests. Skopje, North Macedonia

A man with a plan

“Environmental and air pollution are the biggest challenges we face, because for more than 20 years we’ve had bad and uncaring environmental planning, bad urbanism. No one took much care about air pollution and environmental issues, and now it’s time to account for all that,” says the mayor.

Shilegov – who laments his predecessor’s preference for spending large chunks of budget (“€680 million!”) on putting up overwhelming ancient-Greek-style buildings and statuary instead of improving the environment – reduces his own carbon footprint by riding a jaunty scooter to work, and encourages fellow-citizens to take buses and leave their cars at home.

His policies so far target domestic heating (he’s working on connecting up the 73,000 buildings currently not in the public heating system and overhauling the energy company), traffic (last winter he signed a deal to buy 35 new compressed natural gas (CNG) buses, financed by the EBRD, to boost the public transport system and reduce emissions), and industrial dust (tightening up the inspection system). These will all affect air quality.

He’s also planning to clean up the river with a wastewater plant, another EBRD investment, co-financed by the European Investment Bank.

“If we succeed in halving emissions in three years, we are on a good path. My goal is bigger – I want to help this city to be developed. I’ve lived here all my life with my family, and I’m planning to continue living here. My goal is to have much better conditions for human life.”

Perhaps the most important step that Shilegov has taken so far has been to tap into the most up-to-date international thinking.

Last winter, Skopje signed up to EBRD Green Cities, an innovative programme that mixes advice on policy and planning changes that have worked well elsewhere with carefully chosen investments in urban environmental improvements. Both the bus and waste water projects in Skopje financed by the EBRD sit within this programme. Shilegov’s next step will be to complete work with urban infrastructure experts on a follow-up plan tailor-made for Skopje, known as a Green City Action Plan. (His is supported by the government of Austria).

The beauty of this approach is that it cuts right through the accumulated problems of an individual city’s past, making it possible to leapfrog straight into a more sustainable future.

A blueprint for greening cities

Skopje’s problems might be acute, but it’s not alone. Cities – the source of 70 per cent of energy use and 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions – are where most of the world’s pollution is concentrated.

In an age of growing concern over where climate change and environmental degradation might lead, cities therefore also represent one of the greatest opportunities to make progress.

“Cities have become an increasingly important driver of change on the environmental front, including climate change,” the EBRD’s Josué Tanaka, told the bank’s Annual Meeting in May. This will only become more true. In 1900 one in six people lived in cities. Today it’s one in two. In another two decades it will be three out of four people.

The global Paris Agreement of 2015 sets the big goals for today’s climate action – keeping the worldwide temperature rise to under 2C and if possible to 1.5C by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But to make this reality requires changes at city level, where local authorities are looking for the best ways to address specific issues and improve residents’ quality of life.

The ambitious EBRD Green Cities, which brings one institution’s long experience of working in eastern Europe to bear on changing today’s urban environments, has proved so popular that since being established in 2016 it has quadrupled in size. Over €1 billion of EBRD and donor funding facilities have been approved for projects expected to be developed in future under the programme. It had signed up 29 cities from Bulgaria to Jordan and Mongolia by May 2019, and is working towards a target of 100.

The EBRD way of improving cities involves a lot of painstaking work on gritty detail across the whole spectrum of municipal infrastructure – water and waste water, public transport, energy efficiency in buildings, solid waste and district energy. For example, the bank supports local administrations and transport companies to buy and run less polluting public transport (swapping out diesel buses for something greener, such as CNG or electric). It shares know-how between cities on updating water and waste water or district heating plants, often so as to diversify the sources of energy that power them away from dirtier fossil fuels.

Mayors of cities that were slow to provide 20th-century solutions appreciate the EBRD idea of applying 21st-century ones. In the words of Erion Veliaj, the mayor of another EBRD Green City, the Albanian capital Tirana:  “I remember growing up in communist Albania in the late 1980s. The lady on the 7th floor was the only person with a phone. Every time we needed to connect we went to the poor lady. Then, after the fall of communism, everyone wanted a phone. But cellphones had arrived by then, so we escaped the whole thing of lines and immediately jumped into cellphones. And that’s what we can do now. There’s so much technology out there.”

Tirana, Albania

The next step

Tirana in the springtime has charm. The city, which has already completed a Green City Action Plan, has ribbons and paper flowers twined round the trees in the city squares. Its central Skandarberg Square is car-free, and there are bike lanes, sunshine, and a central park full of cafes, jogging lanes, more bikes, pavilions in pastel colours, an amphitheatre and playgrounds.

The Mayor’s office is equally high concept. It’s kitted out with child-friendly pictures and painted in bright colours. (American-educated Veliaj runs Tirana as though he is managing an energetic hearts and minds campaign, and has a classful of children in every day to talk).

It wasn’t like this when he took office in 2015, he says. “Even this office didn’t exist. There was just this empty psychiatric-ward-type room which was completely white. So we said, look, first this office has to be a place, a playground where kids can come and play, a Q&A session for people coming to meet the mayor, a wedding officiation set-up, or a town hall where we fill it with chairs and immediately start having a discussion about the city with a sense of urgency. We established authority here at point zero. Then I looked out of the window at the city’s clock tower. It was stuck – hadn’t worked for four years. I said, OK, so now we have to go out and start exercising authority three metres from our window and fix that. And the journalists were like, what’s the symbolism? I said, the symbolism is if we can’t fix things in our sight how are we going to fix things and make decisions by reading memos and having council meetings about stuff that happens 30-40 miles from here in a remote mountainous area, the remote rural areas becoming part of metropolitan Tirana?”

The first big thing he thought was wrong was the number of cars clogging the streets (“we’ve come to worship the car as a status symbol of capitalism. … it was a way to show your neighbour that you’re not a poor commie any more, you made it.”) He commissioned research showing people spent more on their cars than on their kids, which shocked a few and prompted a rethink. Then he made the big central square a pedestrian precinct. Then he got private bike hire companies in to supply wheels for the bike lanes he provided.

There’s a lot of people-mobilising and crowd-funding in his policies. He got people to pay half the cost of insulating their buildings, and found there was less vandalism than if the city paid for the whole job out of public money. Another step in the cheap-and-cheerful charm offensive was switching to electric taxis (by giving taxi-driver permits to drivers of electric cars within 24 hours – within 2 years, half the fleet has gone electric). Then there’s the orbital forest he’s asking people to give trees to – getting kids who think tree-donating is cool to apply pester power to their parents to provide two million trees by 2030.

“We had water problems and air problems. We were either going to borrow from the EBRD for the water or the trees. This was the commonsense way.”

All this means that Tirana’s big money has been saved for the huge water plant at Bovila, outside town, to supply areas that have become part of metropolitan Tirana now it’s grown fourfold to a million people - a €15 million project with EBRD funding, begun last year.

There will be more. The future priorities set out in Tirana’s Green City Action Plan include urban transport projects for electric buses and electric vehicle charging kit, as well as improving energy efficiency in municipal buildings. As the EBRD’s Nigel Jollands says...

“It’s very encouraging to see how EBRD Green Cities is supporting cities to achieve their climate goals.”

The future

What next for an urban sustainability programme whose work helps cities that sometimes have more dash than cash move smoothly out of the past and straight into a greener future?

Just as cities are looking for new solutions – one being implemented in North Macedonia, for instance, is developing a solar field on top of a disused coal mine – so are experts at the EBRD.

“Ambitions are high for EBRD Green Cities. We are confident that we can continue to deliver an increased focus on localised renewables and remain at the cutting edge of climate finance.”
Nandita Parshad, Managing Director of the EBRD’s Sustainable Infrastructure Group
“As EBRD Green Cities expands, we are constantly looking for new ways to increase its impact by building on our success, and are putting considerable research power into actively researching new and realistic ways to do more.”
Lin O’Grady, who is in charge of EBRD Green Cities

Matthew Jordan-Tank, Director for Sustainable Infrastructure Policy and Project Preparation, lists some of the plans on the drawing-board. Some are already underway. Old buildings in Georgia being retrofitted to become more energy efficient may be able to be fitted with solar roof panels too.

One possibility for further upgrading an EBRD Green Cities project – swapping to cleaner running urban transport – is using electric buses.

“And the nirvana would be to power them with renewables.”
Matthew Jordan-Tank

Using (clean) hydrogen as a fuel – produced through electrolysis that, if solar powered, is both greener and more affordable – is also being tested in France in a pilot that could be extended around the EU.  If successful, this would offer completely clean transport in cities.

Behind the inventiveness and the technology, Jordan-Tank says, is people power.

“A lot of what’s driving the move towards green cities is the insistence by local people that they want a cleaner and healthier environment.”
“That’s more and more important.”

Our work to make cities greener is supported by donors including Austria, the Czech Republic, European Union, Green Climate Fund, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Taipei China as well as the Eastern Europe Energy Efficiency and Environment Partnership (E5P) and the Western Balkans Investment Framework.