An EU programme finds green innovations in Serbia, like the Sokobanja spa, and helps them grow

The healing properties of the mineral waters of the Serbian spa Sokobanja have been well-known for centuries, ever since the first patient was sent there for medical treatment in 1873. Now, its water is going to be reused to protect the climate.

Thanks to the EU for the Green Agenda project, coal-based individual heating units in two local schools will be replaced with a cleaner alternative – thermal water from the spa centre.

“The medical treatment for patients here in the spa consists of inhalation, followed by thermo-mineral baths, after which the water has been released into the nearby stream,” said Marija Žikić, a project manager from the Sokobanja municipality.

“With a temperature of 32 degrees, the water requires considerably less energy to heat up the school premises.”

Thanks to this project, the city is moving closer to its ambition of replacing fossil fuel boilers in nine public buildings with renewable energy resources. Local authorities have already removed all industrial pollutants within a 30 km radius, making the area a habitat for sensitive species such as kingfisher.

“We expect the new heating system without harmful environmental impact to be fully functional for the next heating season,” says Žikić. “This is extremely important because boilers that are used currently have become the epicentre of air pollution in the city.”

The green heart of Serbia

Sokobanja aspires to lead the way when it comes to green transformation, as one of the first Serbian municipalities to adopt a declaration back in 1991 that labelled it as ’the Green Heart of Serbia’.

The catchphrase comes from the spa’s air, rich in oxygen and ozone thanks to constant circulation and the intersection of cool forest winds. During the night, brisk winds, locally called the “night owl”, descend from nearby Mounts Rtanj and Ozren, bringing freshness even in the summer.

These specific geographical features are highly beneficial for people with lung diseases, such as bronchial asthma, or acute and chronic bronchitis, who can be treated in the specialized hospital or just spend some time outdoors.

That’s why it is of paramount importance for the spa to preserve its air quality and biodiversity.

“It is important for us on the local level to launch this kind of climate action initiatives, aiming to reduce severe air pollution, especially during the winter,” says Žikić. “Local self-government units do not have enough capacity, human or financial resources to become drivers of the green transition themselves.”

The Green Agenda meets the national agenda

As a winner of the category Best Innovative Solution for the Green transition under the EU for the Green Agenda initiative in Serbia, Sokobanja will benefit from financial, as well as mentoring support to get this idea off the ground.

The selection of best solutions has been done by the United Nations Development Program, which is implementing the project, the EU Delegation in Serbia and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The project is implemented also in cooperation with the Embassy of Sweden and the European Investment Bank, with additional funding from the governments of Sweden, Switzerland and Serbia. The EU bank’s role in the project is to provide financial and technical support to develop and scale up investments under the Green Agenda, in line with EU standards.

Thanks to this initiative, the government of Serbia, as well as local governments, civil society organizations, research institutions and companies, receive top-notch consulting to develop national environmental protection strategies and reinforce policy, management, data collection and implementation capacities. These activities also support the Ministry of the Environment in the implementation of energy efficiency measures, while educating the municipalities on climate and environmental protection.

Paving the way to a sustainable future

Representatives of the selected green solutions will undergo training in areas such as business planning, legal regulations, environment protection and market research. They will also receive assistance in the preparation of specific analyses and project documentation.

“The purpose of the EU Green Agenda for the Western Balkans is to reduce fossil fuels dependency and move to renewable energy sources, preserve and better use natural resources, reduce environmental pollution, preserve nature and biodiversity, ensure rural development and sustainable food supply systems,” said Emanuele Giaufret, EU ambassador and head of the EU delegation to the Republic of Serbia.

Green innovation essential for decarbonisation

The European Investment Bank, as one of the world’s main financers of climate action, will help turn green ideas into bankable projects, either by financing directly or providing technical support to commercial banks to finance investments that have long-term positive impact on the environment.

“Green innovation will be crucial for achieving carbon neutrality and climate mitigation,” said Alessandro Bragonzi, the European Investment Bank’s head of regional representation for the Western Balkans. “The EU for the Green Agenda project is certainly the right way forward when it comes to supporting green innovations and the energy transition of the economy.”