Updated: Aug 28, 2020
By Stojan Tasevski
Kumanovo, North Macedonia
One of the main and rising environmental disasters is air pollution. It’s a major environmental problem in cities, especially in developing countries. Saturating the atmosphere with small particles, toxic gases, and aerosols has a massive effect on natural and agricultural ecosystems around the world, not to mention significant health burdens.
Regional and global air quality is not only affected by fossil fuels produced from vehicles and industrial fumes but agricultural waste burning, forest fires, and vegetable fuel combustions. One of the reasons why these tragedies occur is because of the urban population growth and the consequences that follow. Developing countries are the most affected by air pollution simply because of the absence of technology and resources to deal with this problem. One of these developing countries is North Macedonia, with its capital city Skopje as the hotspot for air pollution in the country.
In 2018, Skopje was the most polluted capital city in Europe according to the World Health Organization (WHO) with the highest annual mean of PM 2.5. However, this is not a new issue, Skopje has been dealing with air pollution for more than two decades and in the last 5 years, it was amongst the top 10 polluted cities in the world. Due to the seriousness of the situation geopolitical interests were forced to shift focus towards the battle against air pollution in this region.
The plethora of different pollutants in the air can cause severe health issues. Most of them have a carcinogenic effect, but they can also cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The WHO claims that around 2600 people die prematurely every year from air pollution in North Macedonia.
The main question that needs to be answered is: What is the cause of air pollution and what needs to be done to lower the air pollution in Skopje?
Causes of air pollution in Skopje
After the 1963 earthquake in Skopje, the capital endured a massive reconstruction, growth of industrial activities and with that an accelerated urbanization. With the urban population growth, air pollution was gradually increasing until it became a hazard issue. The cause of air pollution can’t be tied to only one source but a series of different sources producing different pollutants.
One of the sources of air pollution in Skopje and in many other cities is road traffic. It enriches the atmosphere with carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, particulates (PM 10 and PM 2.5), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon emissions. Road traffic emissions depend on the age of the vehicles, their mileage, and the quality of fuel it’s used. On top of that, half of the passenger cars and buses used in the city are old vehicles that belong to the high-emission vehicle category which only worsens the pollution further.Another major source of air pollution is residential heating which many citizens consider to be even worse than road traffic pollution. Instead of electricity or district heating systems, people turn to fuelwood as their primary source of heating. The rise in PM is mostly from inefficient and incomplete combustions in fireplaces, heating boilers, and small stoves from which the emissions are emitted just at a few meters height, near the air people breathe. The State Statistical Office announced the results from a survey conducted in 2015 showing that of the total number of households, 62% use fuelwood as their primary source of heat, 30% use electricity and 8% rely on district heating systems.
The most common source of air pollution in the world comes from industry and energy production. Both of these sectors produce a great deal of air pollution from which industry is a source of heavy metals and particulates, whereas energy production is the key source for nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, particulate and carbon monoxide emissions.
In addition, Skopje is a valley-based inland city that experiences serious wintertime pollution episodes. This issue comes to light every winter because of the temperature inversions during humid winters.
The country tried to tackle air pollution with various strategies on many fronts. Initial change needs to happen with the way people think. Environmental sustainability needs to be thought at a young age so that future generations can tackle this issue with caution and ease. The government issued restrictions and solutions to try and lower the health effects among the citizens. Some of the solutions the government issued are that employers are obliged to grant leave from work to pregnant women, to people older than 60 years, and people with chronic asthma. At one point the public transport was free for all passengers so that people would restrain from driving their vehicles. The city authorities also increased inspections at construction sites, waste motor oil collection companies, and oil change firms to regulate the amount of pollution that it was produced. Skopje, together with nine other cities from seven different countries across Europe, is officially competing for the European Green Capital Award 2021, adding that the EU has recognized North Macedonia's achievements and efforts to improve the environment and quality of life.
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