Sustainable development cannot be achieved without environmental solidarity and cooperation within and between generations and countries. As the European Commissioner for Environment, Stavros Dimas underlined, European environmental policies have delivered immense benefits to Europe's citizens, allowing countries to work together and solve problems that cross national borders. Nevertheless, there's still a lot of work to be done in order to build up a model of development that is genuinely sustainable.

 Reliable and affordable energy supply is a condition for economic growth. At the same time, energy production and consumption is a major cause of environmental pressures, including greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions. According to the 2007 European Environment Agency's Belgrade Report, the challenge for all South East European countries remains to increase the economic welfare and wellbeing of society while, at the same time, reducing negative impacts on the environment, reducing waste generation, and last, but not least, limiting consumption of energy and resources
In this context, EU enlargement provides a major opportunity for the environment, but also a significant challenge for the new EU countries, as well as for the candidates to EU membership, which must be able to effectively apply EU legislation in the field. Due to EU membership and the obligations which came with it (such as the efforts to reduce CO2-output by 2020 and to provide 20% of the energy demand with electricity from renewable energy sources such as biomass, hydro, wind and solar power) the importance of regenerative energy and their associated technologies have grown in South-Eastern European region.

The current economic downturn brings about new dilemmas: Is this still the right time to invest in renewable energies and climate friendly technologies within a region rather vulnerable to the economic pressures, and whose socio-economic performance is characterised by strong national and regional disparities? Some have used the deteriorating economy to argue that tackling climate change through the transition to a low-carbon economy is now a luxury item; saying it is too expensive, could damage competitiveness, and should be a secondary political objective.

According to European Union's monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, this is, after all, the right moment. Thus, what Europe should do now is try to limit the damage inflicted by the global financial crisis on its economy by precisely accelerating structural reforms and through the introduction of low-carbon technologies. In a speech in Brussels, on Tuesday, 11 November, Almunia made reference to speeding up the use of environment-friendly technologies, which reflected the Commission's belief that governments can turn the recession to advantage by looking beyond the immediate future and promoting policies essential to long-term economic prosperity.

The global economy and the climate system are linked and the current slowdown represents a unique opportunity to use public sector investment to kick-start the economy and build the low-carbon infrastructure we need for our long-term prosperity, such as more renewable energy generation, better public transport networks, smarter and more flexible electricity grids, or "retrofitting" buildings to increase energy efficiency. This is why achieving a low-carbon South East Europe is vital for the region. It's not only critical in addressing the challenge of climate change, but as the Stern Review pointed out, the development of low carbon technology represents a major opportunity for wealth creation.

What can be done, in these conditions, in the South East Europe Area? There are numerous opportunities for regional cooperation and the sharing of expertise in implementing energy efficiency policies. In the opinion of Andris Piebalgs, EU Commissioner for Energy, "the role of regions and local actors is important in realizing the huge potential for energy efficiency that we know, exists. The regions, its actors and many networks have a role to play in bringing programmes and initiatives to fruition that make changes in behaviour - both in terms of how we use energy and how we purchase and make decisions that will have an impact on our future energy use."

Within the SEE Programme, Priority Axis 2, "Protection and improvement of the environment", supports among others activities which intend to "promote energy & resource efficiency". The purpose of this area of intervention is to support transnational cooperation in the adoption of EU policies including community frameworks for energy efficiency and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Transnational activities, which support sustainable waste management and long-term reduction of air emissions, are addressed by the Area of Intervention 2.4.

The SEE Operational Programme proposes a wide range of indicative activities within transnational partnerships that can be supported under this area of intervention as part of wider projects. As recommended in the Operational Programme, projects which aim to increase the exploitation of renewable energy sources should be accompanied by impact assessments, analysing possible negative impacts on agriculture, forestry, biodiversity, soil, water, air and landscape development. The main opportunities for energy efficiency and renewables in the SEE region are in the areas of:

  • improving insulation of buildings (whose consumption accounts for about 40% of energy used in most countries);
  • solar energy technologies;
  • sustainable waste management (by avoiding, re-using and recycling);
  • geothermal;
  • wind energy;
  • maintaining high usage of rail and public transport instead of road and private transport;
  • assistance in developing energy management capability in SMEs. 
  • To conclude, regional cooperation between countries and multi-stakeholders in SEE should be stepped up in order to be able to address the current challenges.  Awareness and education actions on climate change, energy efficiency and alternative energy resources are of vital importance. The SEE JTS strongly encourages interested institutions to take a step forward towards this great challenge, by using the financial mechanisms offered by the SEE Programme.