Governments in South East Europe are largely unable to address the problem of energy poverty, understood as the incapacity of people to heat their own homes, warned Stefan Bouzarovski, a lecturer in human geography at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
Speaking on 1 June at a conference hosted by IFRI, the French Institute for International Relations, Bouzarovski said that district heating systems inherited from the communist era were "not the solution" for heating households in the region.
At the same time, as power prices soared and salaries stagnated, the use of wood for heating has increasingly become an alternative to electricity, he said. The situation might worsen as the price per kilowatt/hour is expected to increase across the region, he warned.
Bouzarovski said little had changed since the United Nations published a report entitled 'Stuck in the Past: Energy, Environment and Poverty in Serbia and Montenegro'.
According to this study, nearly half the population has been marginalised by the energy-poverty nexus. More than half the population uses wood and lignite coal as a major source of energy for heating and cooking, creating high levels of indoor air pollution and leading to chronic illnesses, the report says.
Bouzarovski warned not only of the impact of this on the environment in terms of deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions, but also to human health, as most households that rely on wood fuel have no proper ventilation.
He said the most problematic countries were not only the Western Balkan applicants, but also EU members Bulgaria and Romania. He lamented the lack of targeted EU programmes for the "energy poor".
Bouzarovski said that although many people had moved to cities over the last twenty years, the use of fuel wood had not decreased. This, he implied, was an indication that fuel wood was used not only in the countryside, but in the cities as well.
He also warned of violent micro-conflicts between forest authorities and poachers, which he said were already taking place but had received little attention.