Published on Sustainable Cities

Greening Cities in the Western Balkans: Good for Growth, Good for Budgets, Good for the Planet

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Green park with trees and a side imagery showing the environment's heat levels.

Cities are where economic development really happens. Cities allow workers to be closer to jobs. They bring people together physically - that fuels productivity, that facilitates innovation. Cities also make it cheaper to deliver better quality services to more people. As a result, many of the benefits of urban life — productivity and livability — are associated with proximity within the city.

Cities in the Western Balkans are no different - some of the larger cities in the region are indeed engines of growth. But many cities are small, they are sparsely populated, and they are shrinking. A changing climate is increasing vulnerability – with cities needing to contend with more unpredictable shocks, such as flash floods and wildfires, together with worsening heatwaves and droughts. Our recent work on ‘greening cities’ as part of the Western Balkans Regular Economic Report demonstrates how greening cities could be an opportunity amidst the stresses.

How green are cities in the Western Balkans?

The World Bank’s flagship report, Thriving, published in 2023, develops 5 measures of greenness: air pollution (or PM2.5 emissions), CO2 emissions, methane (CH4) emissions, urban heat, and finally the extent of green cover.

So — how well do cities in the Western Balkans do on different measures of greenness?  

First. In terms of PM2.5 emissions, cities in the Western Balkans are far more polluted compared to their European counterparts. Skopje's annual mean PM2.5 levels are 4.5 times WHO's safe threshold, Tetovo's exceed it by over 8 times, and Sarajevo's are triple the recommended safe levels. The main contributors are residential heating and cooking (using solid fuels), industrial activities, and transportation. In winter months, residential heating bucks the trend.

Figure #1: Annual average PM2.5 concentration in cities

Map showing annual average PM2.5 concentration in cities in the Western Balkans.

Source: Based on data for 39 Western Balkans cities from the European Commission’s Global Human Settlement (GHS) Urban Centre Database R2019 which derives its PM2.5 emissions data from the EC’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR v5.0).

Second. The performance on carbon emissions is somewhat better. This is mainly due to Albanian cities and their greater reliance on renewable energy for electricity supply. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia have the highest average production-based CO2, emissions from the residential sector, and the transportation sector respectively.

Third. Methane emissions in the region are growing fast — mainly because of poorly-managed waste, i.e., from waste decomposition and incomplete waste burning. Across WB6 countries, CH4 concentrations at dumpsites increased by 16.89 parts per billion (ppb) in 2020, which is higher than the global annual rise of 15.23 ppb in 2020.

Figure #2: Methane growth rate (pbb/year), 2019-2023

Map showing methane growth rate in country boundaries and urban areas in the Western Balkans.

Source: Methane emissions measured as Column-averaged dry air mixing ratio of methane, as parts-per-billion from Sentinel-5 Precursor Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI). Urban areas defined using GHS-SMOD R2023A – GHS settlement layers, application of the Degree of Urbanisation methodology (stage I) to GHS-POP R2023A and GHS-BUILT-S R2023A, multitemporal (1975–2030).

Fourth. We find that cities are getting hotter, much hotter. And this is bad for human health. It also means lower labor productivity. Our calculations shows that this could be 140 hours of less work every year because of heat stress. This is compounded by thermal inequalities — for example, some neighborhoods in Mostar were 8.2 degrees hotter than others — see our work in Mostar here.

Fifth. And finally, we look at green cover — a combination of tree canopy and grass. Some cities, such as Belgrade, Skopje, Sarajevo, and Pristina, witnessed an increase between 2015 and 2020, whereas Tirana, Tetovo, and Prizren, experienced a fall in overall green cover.

How to make cities greener?

Investing in greening cities could have high returns. The report argues for action on 3 main fronts.

1.      Make cities more compact. Reducing urban sprawl is good for the climate. Compact cities tend to have lower CO2 emissions, and much better air quality. They are also better for economic activity - and finally, compact urban development is good for budgets! The provision of good quality basic services is far cheaper in denser cities - almost 1/5th the cost in per capita terms, compared to less dense, sprawling cities. Shrinking cities could be an opportunity to promote more compact urban design.

Figure #3: Determinants of air pollution

Estimated effect on PM25 emissions in residential places and in transport.


Source: World Bank analysis based on data for 2785 global cities from the European Commission’s Global Human Settlement (GHS) Urban Centre Database R2019, which derives its data on PM2.5 emissions from the EC’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR v5.0).

2.      Cut emissions in sectors such as transport, buildings, and waste. Expand public transport, cycling and pedestrian options. Complement these actions by green transport policies to reduce GHG emissions from transportation sources. Build (or retrofit) public and residential buildings to be energy efficient and resilient to climate risks. Regulate better urban waste management systems to reduce emissions of methane and air pollutants.

3.       Tackle extreme heat. Both - the frequency and the intensity of heatwaves is expected to worsen in the coming decades. Cities can adopt measures to cool physical spaces, through greening, shade, and urban design. Invest in early warning systems for extreme heat. That can save lives.

Some action is already taking place in the region. Serbia issued its first sovereign green bond in 2021, and other green finance instruments, such as microcredit and private equity, could be deployed at local levels. Green city action plans are allowing cities in BiH to identify opportunities for private financing in urban greening projects. A deeper understanding of the problems, combined with peer-to-peer knowledge sharing around solutions, for instance via the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, are opportunities to experiment and innovate.

The main message is this: Greening cities in response to a changing climate is good. It is good for growth, it can save lives, and it makes the planet more livable.

Sameh Wahba

Regional Director, Sustainable Development, Europe and Central Asia, The World Bank

Christoph Pusch

Practice Manager, Europe and Central Asia, Urban, DRM, Resilience, and Land

Megha Mukim

Senior Economist, Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice

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