Fitting Croatia within the Donut: Discussion & conclusion

Tomislav’s lecture at the 2020 Green Academy

This is the final of a three-part selection from the analysis paper written by IPE’s 2020 JRF Tomislav Cik.

One of the most obvious results is that none of the analysed units reaches the green ring of safe and just operating space. Although they do meet sustainability standards in certain aspects of their social metabolisms, no units display exemplary performance by satisfying the standards defined by the model. Not only do local social metabolisms fail to function sustainably but they all also fail to reach the sustainable area of SJOS in any of the three defined segments. This points to a need for policy interventions on both national and local levels of political decision-making to address the identified shortcomings. However, the analysis does reveal differences within the sample in regard to their overall sustainability performance. The grouped, comparative “mosaic” of presented doughnut visualizations offered below renders this insight more obvious. If we are to simultaneously compare the doughnut visualizations against each other it does seem that some cities are more (un)sustainable than others and, thus, form relatively distinct patterns of sustainability performance. Although the visualized overshoots and shortfalls in the socio-economic and cultural segments are relatively uniform across the sample, with the exclusion of minor, but relevant exceptions that need to be adequately addressed, it is noticeable that the cities of Zadar and Gospić perform significantly better on the biophysical set of indicators, especially when compared to the cities of Zagreb and Slavonski Brod. In this sense, the national model provided in this research is not fully representative of the selected sample, as the pattern of the sustainability performance of Croatia’s social metabolism more resembles that of Zagreb and Slavonski Brod than of Zadar and Gospić.

In order to better inform policy measures for the transition to come, an in-depth discussion on certain aspects of these discrepancies is provided in the following sections.

Biophysical performance

As stated previously, one of the most interesting results of this research refers to the differences in the biophysical performances of Gospić and Zadar, compared to Zagreb and Slavonski Brod, with former cities displaying better indicator values than the latter, rendering their social metabolisms closer to the aspired SJOS. It is difficult to attribute these differences to a certain set of specific characteristics of these localities, as the only obvious difference refers to their geographical positioning within the territory of Croatia, with Zadar positioned more closely to the Adriatic Sea, and Gospić being in its relative proximity, while Zagreb and Slavonski Brod are landlocked cities under continental climate and connected to fossil fuel infrastructure. Indeed, it is to be expected that geographical positioning will have an impact on indicators gauging biophysical performance related to access to natural resources, climate change and pollution. However, this relationship is insufficient in explaining the dynamics of differing sustainability performance in biophysical aspects of their social metabolism, and should, in future research, be controlled for a more comprehensive set of variables in order to establish these determining factors. Furthermore, it is also obvious that Zagreb and Slavonski Brod represent more industry-oriented economies, while it can be stated that Zadar, and to a minor extent Gospić, perhaps precisely because of their geographical features, focus more on service-based and biomass processing activities that are usually considered less resource-intensive. Except for Zagreb, at the county level, all three cities show similar levels of development in terms of their county-level HDI scores. An extremely low population density in the case of Gospić could to an extent explain the good performance on biophysical indicators, as most of the methodological assumptions of the model’s biophysical segment in their essence rely on per-capita estimations.

In this research, the topic of access to nature is measured by the indicators of water use, organic farming and green open spaces. In the case of water use, the doughnut visualized for Croatia is representative, as all cities remain within the SJOS regarding this indicator. Croatia’s richness in renewable water resources is a well-known phenomenon and is certainly one of Croatia’s largest potentials for future transformation efforts. However, we should be careful in considering this as the ultimate proof of sustainable water extraction practices across Croatia’s territory. The often publicly cited data referring to approximately 32,000 m³ of total renewable water resources per capita annually in Croatia is the one used in this research, which may seem like practically unlimited amounts of water are accessible to Croatia’s citizens for utilization at any given time. However, a detailed analysis of public policies of water extraction practices in Croatia states that it would be more appropriate to refer to the data on underground renewable water resources of 2000 m³ per capita annually, as this is the water being used for human consumption purposes. Around 5% of renewable underground water was extracted in 2015, which is a lot considering the unequal temporal and spatial distribution of these waters across Croatia, and considering the overall unavailability of water for extraction, due to technical and ecological reasons (Tomašević, 2016). In this light, although according to this research Croatia’s accessibility to water resources may seem unlimited, we should be careful when determining sustainable levels of water use, along with defining clear criteria for granting concessions related to water use extraction. This is partly because the effects of water extraction by private companies for commercial purposes has greater overall negative effects on the environment when compared to the delivery of water by public water supply institutions to realize the basic human right of access to water (Tomašević, 2016).

In any case, a fundamental reconceptualization of current modes of water supply and utilization practices will have cascading effects throughout Croatia’s economy. Because of the role that water plays on all levels of Croatia’s production and consumption processes, changes in water distribution and utilization practices may be inevitable in all major sectors of the economy. One such sector is agriculture. Along these lines, when analysing the standards set for organic farming, none of the analysed cities reaches sustainable levels. The best performer in the sample is Gopić, whose results could partially be attributed to the fact that Gospić is the only city for which county-level data hasn’t been applied and, thus, presents the most realistic state of affairs. Nevertheless, poor performance on this indicator across the rest of the sample, with Zadar displaying the worst results, should raise some concern. A transformation to sustainable means of food production can refer either to transforming a portion of existing industrial farmlands and/or to rooting organic farming practices on Croatia’s unutilised agricultural land. This seems especially necessary when considering the data published by the Institute for Applied Ecology “OIKON”, which detects 400,000 ha of unused agricultural land in Croatia that could be used to feed 11 million people annually, at the same time creating numerous, high-quality jobs. The largest share of this unutilised agricultural land is unsurprisingly found in the County of Zadar, with 43,178 ha of unutilised farmland located in this county. In any case, for the purpose of achieving a sustainable future, all means of sustainable food production should be endorsed by national and local authorities, like agroecology, permaculture, traditional and subsistence farming, along with organic farming methods. One way of supporting these efforts, especially from an urban perspective and in the context of Central and Eastern European countries, could be by advocating already existing food self-provisioning practices in cities’ allotment gardens, as some studies show numerous environmental and social benefits of this mode of alternative food production practice for urban sustainability (Sovova, 2015).

As stated in the opening remarks, agriculture is just one of many sectors vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. This analysis confirms that Croatia needs to significantly reduce its carbon footprint if it is to meet Paris Agreement goals and contribute to limiting global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in this century. Following the result of the national carbon footprint indicator, none of the analysed cities reaches sustainable levels of carbon dioxide emissions, with some cities, like Zadar, producing somewhat better results than the above-average levels detected in Slavonski Brod and, especially, Zagreb. This is further exemplified by the poor performance on the Air Pollution indicators for Zagreb and Slavonski Brod, with Slavonski Brod displaying considerable vulnerabilities in this area. Unfortunately, this is a well documented and longlasting problem for citizens of Slavonski Bord, as activists have been warning local and national authorities about these air quality issues caused by the Oil Refinery “Brod” across the Sava river in Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with dangerous levels of exposure to background radiation originating from the thermal power plant in Stanari, Lukavac, Ugljevik, Zenica and Tuzla. Increased levels of air pollution are the result of various factors. Polluting particles are most often formed due to an increased number of domestic and industrial combustion plants on solid fuels (mostly biomass) during the winter months. This, in combination with regular daily activities, such as daily migration patterns using personal transportation, and appropriate weather conditions, causes the retention of these particles in the city’s ambient air. PM10 is one of many such particles, and smaller the polluting particles are, the more dangerous they are as they infiltrate people’s bodies on a deeper level and can cause numerous health issues.

It is obvious that altering cities’ combustion patterns and infrastructure, along with overall downscaling of everyday economic activities, will have a positive effect on the air quality in our surroundings and, at the same time, alleviate other negative impacts of climate change. In fact, some studies (Kennedy et al., 2012) have attributed significant per capita GHG emissions (0.27 tCO2/cap/yr) reductions in major metropolises (e.g. London, New York, Berlin etc.) to changes in cities’ stationary combustion patterns (power plants, industrial combustion plants, heat and power production plants, district heating plants, small plants e.g. stoves and residential boilers etc.). This mainly refers to a switch from oil and coal to renewables and natural gas for fueling heating and electricity generation. Interestingly, although the cities are, in percentage terms and on average, reducing their per capita emissions faster than their nation-states, alterations to electricity generation sourcing are usually the result of higher levels of governments (Kennedy et al., 2012).

As mentioned in the opening sections, the roles that cities play in global climate change and mitigation efforts are well understood. Because cities represent complex and interconnected spaces of social and economic activity, synergies are required on all levels of political decision-making in order to adequately transform our existing infracture, production and consumption practices to sustainable levels of resource use. In order for this to happen, national legislation has a significant effect on the development and implementation of local climate plans for climate change mitigation and adaptation (Reckien et al, 2018). In the year 2020, first such breakthrough has seemingly been made in Croatia with the “Climate change adaptation strategy in Croatia for the period up to 2040 with a view to 2070”. The extensive strategy for the first time explicitly prescribes the necessity for specific measures across eight most vulnerable and following key sectors in Croatia: water resources, agriculture, forestry, fishing, biodiversity, energetics, tourism and health. At the same time, the importance of executive authorities successfully transferring these responsibilities to units of regional and local self-government in regard to planning, implementation and reporting, while at the same time ensuring adequate co-financing, is recognized.

However, in the public space of civic deliberation, a lack of critical discussion about some conceptual cornerstones of the Strategy is noticeable. Although it is out of the scope of this analysis to provide an in-depth analysis of this comprehensive document, generally, it is now clear that any strategy aimed at achieving wellbeing in the 21st century must avoid the trap of defining policy measures in terms of “green growth”. It is not clear that the Strategy unambiguously rejects “sustainable” developmental models predicated on the idea of economic growth and the negative impacts of such developmental model on the overall quality of life. A truly transformative strategy for the 21st century will have to be supported by degrowth-oriented policies centred around downscaling of our consumption patterns through reductions in material output and fundamental transformations of our energy systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, while at the same time prioritizing regenerative practices centred around care to reduce social inequality and increase overall wellbeing. Although embedding these processes in existing global climate networks is to an extent detrimental (Reckien et al., 2015), at the same time, the transition to come must be achieved by cooperation with local stakeholders, enriching the process of co-planning with transparent and openly critical debates to increase the overall inclusiveness of the process (Lehtinen, 2018).

Although there are numerous strategies for cities to achieve necessary levels of GHG emissions reductions, this process is undoubtedly inseparably connected to higher levels of renewable energy production and consumption. This is crucial in reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In this research, some Croatian cities perform better than others, with Gospić and Zadar completely meeting the aspired for targets set in the doughnut model, while Zagreb and Slavonski Brod are considerably failing to meet the target of 90% of renewable energy production in the total energy mix. In a way, national and local policy measures aiming for higher levels of energy efficiency are important for mitigating negative climate change impacts, along with reducing energy poverty throughout Croatia’s regions. Even in Croatia’s capital, the city of Zagreb, significant shares of citizens are still living in low-energy efficient households (Grdenić et al, 2020), which causes numerous health and infrastructural issues. At the same time, there is a noticeable lack of adequate measures in existing national and local policy frameworks aimed at addressing the issue of energy poverty related to energy inefficiency of households. Providing energy security to all should be one of the main priorities of any strategy for a just and sustainable future.

However, one should be careful when advocating for greater energy efficiency within the current (green) growth developmental models. As the Jevons paradox in economics teaches us, when the efficiency of resource uses rises, the rate of its consumption usually rises with it, due to increasing demand. This is why when it comes to reducing GHG emissions through transformations of our energy systems, a necessary shift must be aimed at fundamentally transforming collective consumption patterns and infrastructure, rather than further enhancing ecologically destructive productivity capacities of existing modes of extractivist socio-economic (re)production. It is clear, however, that this can not be achieved by existing national strategies, as exemplified in the “Energy development strategy of the Republic of Croatia until 2030 with a view to 2050”, which fails to ambitiously respond to impending threats of climate change by legitimizing investments in new infrastructure projects based on fossil fuels extraction, such as Krk’s LNG terminal and the Adriatic-Ionian gas pipeline. This could have the ecologically undesired consequence of rising oil and gas production for as long as until 2040, according to the Strategy’s projections, which is far from being in sync with internationally agreed-upon goals and ongoing climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

According to a research on Croatia’s renewable energy production potentials, there are scenarios according to which a full transition to 100% of domestically produced renewable energy is already attainable (Jerkić et al. 2015), which makes the identified shortfalls in renewable energy production even more alarming. Thus, major and prompt investments are needed in renewable energy technologies and infrastructure across Croatia, if we are to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals. Regarding Croatia’s cities, it is interesting to note that it is of no surprise that Zadar and Gospić are within the SJOS ring as their counties combined produce more than a quarter of total renewable energy produced in Croatia. This is important as this implies that the produced renewable energy is not necessarily consumed in these regions and cities, which may point to unsustainable levels of renewable energy consumption. On a national level, a portion of that energy may even end up being exported, while importing energy that may not come from renewable sources. This, however, only additionally strengthens the argument that Croatia has the capacities to develop networks that can produce and distribute adequate amounts of renewable energy across the national territory. At the same time, municipalities should be nationally incentivised (Wu et al., 2018) to develop localized and decentralized modes of renewable energy production and dissemination, in order to aid in strengthening local self-governance for achieving energy self-sufficiency.

Some of the negative impacts of climate change can be combated by focusing on increasing the size and qualities of green open spaces in Croatia’s urban areas. Again, better performance on these biophysical indicators is achieved in Zadar and Gospić, compared by the poor performance of Zagreb and Slavonski Brod. Adequate amounts of quality green spaces accessible to the general public are important for building healthy and more resilient urban communities. Although civic initiatives, like the recent “Plant a Tree” are important, green urban infrastructure development should be given high priority in the very process of urban planning and systematically documented in the city’s official strategies and action plans. In this sense, local governments should be discouraged from unilateral and uncooperative conversions of public spaces for private projects not benefiting the majority of citizens. In Zagreb, local authorities have met such resistance earlier this year, when architects and activists voiced their concerns as the latest general urbanistic plan of Zagreb included conversions of close to 420,000 m² of public green spaces used for sport and recreation to construction sites for residential and other purposes. In contrast, local governments should entice lower levels of local decision-making to proactively incorporate local knowledge and experiences into initiatives of neighbourhood planning and corresponding infrastructure design, while making sure that these processes are aligned with strategic environmental and sustainability standards. At the same time, in the context of green open spaces, it is important that projects designating new green urban spaces, or developing existing ones, do not result in “eco-gentrification”, forcefully displacing and negatively impacting long-term, low-income residents living in areas of (new) urban greenery (Black and Richards, 2020).  

Socio-economic performance

For us to achieve sustainable levels of resource use that will ensure a good life for all in the 21st century, biophysical capacities of nation-states and lower spatial units have to be complemented by adequate social dynamics and physical infrastructure. Indicators discussed in this section display relatively uniform performance across the sample of Croatia’s cities, with the most significant exceptions refereing to fluctuations in indicators gauging sustainable levels of medical infrastructure and municipal waste production. From the grouped overview of the visual doughnuts, it is noticeable that the socio-economic performance patterns of Zagreb and Gospić are more alike, with the exception for indicators of democracy than the socio-economic dynamics of Slavonski Brod and Zadar. At the same time, we can notice that the doughnuts for Zagreb and Gospić more resemble the national averages presented in the doughnut visualization for Croatia, and are in this regard more representative than the cities of Zadar and Slavonski Brod. From the national doughnut visualization, major shortfalls and significant overshoots are identified. The most significant transgressions are noticeable in the set of indicators contained in the theme of “materials and infrastructure”, with the other two themes displaying relatively similar levels of overshoots and shortfalls when visually compared.

Indicators for material use and infrastructure are approximated with quantifications of per capita municipal waste generated in a year, and hospital beds available per 1000 capita. In the case of waste, similarly as in the case of green open spaces, sustainable waste management in cities has to be adequately regulated by waste management strategies and plans that are in line with positive national guidelines and existing examples of good practice. In the context of EU, targets for recycling, packaging and landfilling are tied to overarching strategies aiming to achieve the circular economy model across the EU. Some degrowth proponents have criticised the circular economy model as being another de-politicizing strategy of growth-driven capitalism, especially relevant for business models based on the cheap flow of energy and materials. Certainly, as the circular economy model tends to give more emphasis on technological improvements in order to achieve sustainability, rather than complementing such infrastructural changes with a necessary cultural shift, as emphasized by degrowth-oriented thinkers, the same caution related to the rebound effect of the Jevons paradox, identified in regards to energy efficiency measures, should be exercised. However, as the circular economy model is currenty a political reality for EU countries, calls for synergies (Schroder et al., 2019) between the two conceptual and political frameworks should not be ignored if we are to successfully move towards sustainable levels of material use.

Although municipal waste contributes to less than 10% of 2.5 billion tonnes of waste annually generated in the EU, the issue of unsustainable waste management is important as it is inextricably tied to our everyday consumption patterns and existing waste management infrastructure supporting them, contributing significantly to climate change. The urgency of changing both our consumption patterns and waste management systems is highlighted by the fact that in 2019 in Croatia only 37% of waste was being sorted for recycling, which is well below the target of 50% for 2019 set out in Croatia’s Waste Management Plan, and the target of 60% for 2022 if Croatia is not to pay millions of kunas worth of penalties imposed by the EU. Particularly devastating facts for the health of Croatia’s environment are stated in reports of more than 60% of municipal waste being stored underground, with the EU target for 2035 being less than 10%, and only slightly above 20% of municipal waste being recycled and composted, with the EU target for 2020 being more than 50%. In the local context, according to the Ministry of Environment and Energy 2019 Municipal Waste Report, only the city of Prelog (66.7%) achieves the desired 60% of municipal waste being sorted, with even seven cities not sorting waste at all. In the case of major Croatian cities, Varaždin is the top performer with more than 40% of waste sorted, with Slavonski Brod coming second with 29.23%. These findings are in line with the findings of this research that identifies Slavonski Brod as the top performer when it comes to annual per capita municipal waste generation. On the other hand, Zadar being by-far the worst performer in the sample is compatible with the finding of only 7% waste being sorted in this city in 2019, along with an established (Zorpas et al. 2015) understanding of the negative impact of the tourist sector on waste generation.

While is important to adopt zero waste habits on the individual level, at the same time emphasizing the “refuse” and “reduce” components in the waste generation cycle, it is equally or more important to sustainably manage our waste collection and processing systems. This is especially evident in Zagreb, one of the worst performers on the MW indicator in the sample. In Zagreb, an unsustainable and unjust waste collection system is in place by which mixed municipal waste is charged according to the reserved amount of the volume inside the tank, and not according to the actual disposed waste of each household. This creates problems in apartment buildings with shared containers, as it is not possible to determine, for example, who threw hazardous waste. More importantly, the current system is not financially stimulating citizens to recycle in order to pay less for the waste collection service as the fixed amount of the price represents a significantly larger share (70%) than the variable share (30%) in the overall price of the service. Moreover, the variable part of the price in apartment buildings that share a container is, in case there is no agreement among the tenants, divided into equal parts for each apartment, no matter how much each apartment is recycling. If there is an agreement, it is divided depending on the number of occupants in each apartment, but again regardless of how much each apartment is recycling. This issue goes along with another problem of not having the technology, in the form of chipped containers nor waste bags, to individualize waste collection billing.

All of the above makes it hard to decipher why has the cost of disposing separately collected waste in the City of Zagreb increased almost four times, compared to the price in 2018. The problem is highlighted by a publicly often cited fact that Zagreb, in 2016, because of its poor waste management system has “thrown away” 156 million kunas of valuable resources in the form of biowaste, paper and plastics and glass, metal and textiles. A major part of the issue is also that a significant share of the public waste disposal service in Zagreb is performed by subcontractors, which negatively affects the quality of the service. Not only that separately collected waste in Zagreb is “privatized” by the city’s “Čistoća” who hands over the collected waste to recoveries who further process it. This results, among other things, in the over two-times increase of the collected waste, while the price of handing over waste to recoveries has risen almost fourfold. All of the above stated makes it obvious that the City of Zagreb needs to push for sustainable waste management systems, with adequate technologies and just distribution of costs and benefits that would make the process transparent and just. This would increase the overall quality of the service, stimulate citizens to contribute to achieving sustainability targets by ultimately lowering the price of the service, and improve the overall aesthetic and health of the urban environment.

When it comes to other measured aspects of the socio-economic infrastructure conceptualised in this research, major inadequacies are detected in regard to the performance on Overwork (OW) and Educational Attainment (EA) indicators of all units of analysis. Regarding the OW indicator, of course, there are many ways to conceptualise sustainable levels of work. This can be achieved not just by measuring hours of work per week, but ideally could be conceptualised to reflect the quality of work, in the sense of the absence of many known issues at the workplace, like discrimination, mobbing etc. However, this research focused on overwork in terms of hours of work per week, as this measure is recognized by national and international policies and discussions when defining an ideal workload and when discussing sustainable levels of work. As the society is currently dominantly embedded in fossil technological and institutional infrastructure, it is reasonable to expect that reducing the hours of work would minimize the negative impacts on the environment, social dynamics and individual health, as demonstrated above in the indicator justification section.

However, one of the limitations of this research regarding the operationalization of an indicator displaying sustainable levels of work is the absence of publicly available data on actual hours of work per week, meaning those hours that would account for “unofficial”, extra hours spent at the workplace. This is why all units of analysis display similar overshoots, as the method for calculating the input parameter relied on officialy reported hours of work to CBS, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t reach the value above the legally determined maximum of 40 hours per week, defined by Croatia’s labour law. However, although even other studies identified the lack of publicly available data on overtime hours in Croatia (Zavalić, 2013), some researchers conclude that a significant portion of the (researched) workforce (25%) spends 10 or more hours at the workplace in various key professional fields in Croatia (science, education, health services) and that 75% of employers are in breach of the 8-hour workday defined by the provisions of Croatia’s labour law (Petričević and Medarić, 2014).

This, in conjunction with lowering the amount of work per week to 32 hours, the so-called 4-hours work week, or potentially lower depending on specific needs and posibilities, could result in even more drastic visual overshoots which would more adequately reflect many issues ingrained in contemporary working environments of Croatia and its cities. That way, some differences are to be expected among units of analysis, as it is to expect that different workforce structures of different cities affect the overall overwork structure if we are to assume that some professions tend to result in more overtime hours than others. In this sense, there are some key recommendations to be extracted, one of which is to improve the process of data collection and availability regarding overtime hours. This could help with creating overall better regulation that will ultimately reduce working hours to improve the health of citizens, increase collective care capacities and positively impact the environment. This is associated with better inspection of existing regulation of the workplace from governing bodies and institutions, at the same time not endangering the autonomy of social partners to regulate this area themselves via collective agreements. At the same time, employers should be encouraged to adhere to all positive regulations and to respect the balance between the personal and private life of their employees by communicating transparently and consulting with relevant workforce representatives.

Of course, the workforce structure, along with all the positive and negative consequences resulting from it, is in many ways affected by the educational structure of society. In this research, education, as one major component of achieving better futures for ourselves and generations to come, is measured in terms of the percentage of young people holding university-level (or equivalent) degrees. In this sense, it is of no great surprise that the more developed cities (in county-level HDI terms) of Zagreb and Zadar achieve better results than Gospić and Slavonski Brod on the EA indicator, which in turn display values more similar to the national average. It would be useful, however, to avoid simplistic interpretations, as the mere number of university graduates does not guarantee a sustainable future if the quality of those educational programmes is not aligned with existing challenges and specific requirements of the 21st century. In any case, there are arguments that the drastic expansion of the system of higher education, more precisely the increase in the number of students by 82% in the period from 1990 to 2005, had negative consequences for Croatia’s higher education system in terms of enrollment and development policy not being clearly defined (Babić et al., 2006). Furthermore, Rodin (2009) sees a discrepancy between the way the Bologna reform is conceived and the way it is implemented, primarily due to the different understanding of its fundamental determinants by key stakeholders, which resulted in negative effects in the overall higher education system and, consequently, educational attainments.

Many existing issues with Croatia’s (higher) education system are well-reported and often politically debated. Some analysis identify the impossibility of significantly influencing the government through political participation, which often results in political indifference, as one of the major repressive factors of a society that is encouraging the worryingly intensifying “brain drain” of Croatia’s highly-qualified young people (Troskot et al., 2019). There are many driving factors of emigration, one of them being the perceived unfavourable perspective in Croatian society, along with negative employment perspectives. From a perspective of achieving a just and sustainable future, however, at a young, highly-educated population must have a sense of being able to influence political dynamics in society. In this regard, it is necessary to not just keep increasing the share of highly educated people to sustainable levels but making sure that Croatia builds an environment of opportunity and flourishing to retain the highly-skilled workforce fit to drive the much-needed transformation efforts to come. At the same time, Croatia’s educational policy should be critically assessed to determine misalignments between the purpose of Croatian higher education and the challenges of the transition to come. This is evident as some analysis (Brajdić Vuković, 2017) demonstrate that researchers in the biotechnical and technical sciences are significantly less worried about climate change, even than the general population, and are more anthropocentric in their worldviews than their colleagues in the social sciences, humanities, biomedical, health and natural sciences. In the context of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts and the scale of the necessary transition, such insights should find a way into many already existing outcries for a better conceptualisation and functioning of Croatia’s higher education system.

The above-identified and shortly discussed political resignation of Croatia’s highly-educated population is perhaps somewhat reflected in the poor results on the VT indicator. On a general level, voter turnout is a complex phenomenon that is influenced by many factors, and increased voter turnout may be the result of many differing societal characteristics, such as compulsory voting, the importance of the elections at hand and small population levels (Stockemer, 2016). On a national level, the negative voter turnout trend is a well-established phenomenon in Croatia and has been steadily dropping since the first parliamentary elections on 1990, with an exception of the elections of 2000. This trend is aligned with an established view that in post-socialist European countries the national voter turnout percentage is lower than Western Europe’s, along with the fact that voter turnout percentage drops after the founding elections and continues to drop (Kostadinova and Power, 2007).  Moreover, in the case of local elections, the voter turnout is usually lower than those for the national parliament as they are perceived by citizens as less important (Morlan 1984). In this sense, it is of no great surprise that all units of analysis display significant shortfalls in regard to this aspect of democratic functioning as the threshold value of 80% visually accentuates low turnout on the doughnuts for the last local elections of 2017 in Croatia. This low voter turnout could partly be interpreted in the context of the negative trend (Čular and Šalaj, 2019) of increasing dissatisfaction with the functioning of Croatian democracy among Croatia’s citizens.

It is beyond the scope of this research to discuss the possible reason for the decreasing satisfaction with democracy in Croatia, as this question could and should be further explored in separate research. Furthermore, although an in-depth analysis on the motivation of Croatian citizens for political participation on all levels of decision-making is lacking, some research do suggest that it could be due to the lack of relevant political competencies among the younger population (Kovačić and Vrbat, 2014). If this is the case, educational content related to human rights and democratic citizenship could be introduced and/or further developed in (existing) educational curriculums to strengthen and empower voters of all ages to actively participate in formal democratic processes, such as voting. On a local level, experts recommend that local communities develop projects, elective and non-teaching civic education activities as an example of good practice and involve students in social community engagement. On the other hand, if we are to accept the assumption that increasing the share of the younger population in (local) elections would result in an increase of the overall voter turnout, political parties should innovate on communication strategies in order to connect with their younger voter base to determine topics important and relevant to them.

One other troubling aspect of Croatia’s democracy detected in this research is the prevalence of gender inequality among all researched cities. All units of analysis display better results on the GI indicator than the national average of 27% of women in local representative bodies, ie city councils. One interesting result of the study is that the best result is achieved in the least developed city in the sample, Slavonski Brod (48% of women), while the most developed city of Zagreb is the worst performer with only a third of local representatives being women. This somewhat goes against the “Investing in Equal Opportunities for All: An Analysis of Gender Equality in Croatia” report by The World Bank, which finds that traditional gender roles and stereotypes associated with work in the household and some professions are prevailing in Croatia’s rural environments (mostly Dalmatia and Slavonia), but they are changing for the better in Zagreb and other urban concentrations of modern, educated and younger population. This may point to a need to strengthen the attention of political decision-makers and human rights advocates on political representation as well as on economic opportunities of women, as ultimately it is not reasonable to assume that true widespread gender justice can be achieved without a drastic increase of women representatives in key governing bodies.

In any case, gender equality should not be a politically marginalized topic to be called upon every four years when there are political gains to be had. Political parties striving for true gender equality should be the frontrunners in adopting equal gender distribution across their party’s electoral lists via gender quotas. In order to progress from the 97th place in the world’s ranking of representation of women in parliaments, and improve the overall conditions and opportunities for women in society, Croatia should strive for creating a new National Gender Equality Policy, which expired in 2015. Generally speaking, along with strenghtening existing governmental bodies and civic organisations focused on gender equality and promoting new ones, specific policies and strategies should be defined, adopted and integrated on all levels of politics and social life in order to achieve complete gender equality and enrich Croatia’s democratic institutions and the overall quality of political processes. In this sense, a positive move forward is certainly in the proposed, but not yet adopted European Union Strategy for Gender Equality for the period 2020-2025, which, among other things, states that one of its goals is the political empowerment of women, ie the achievement of gender balance in decision-making and politics.

Cultural performance

One interesting and most optimistic finding of this study is that all units of analysis display significant potentials for achieving a democratic transition to the desired state of a just and sustainable society in Croatia. As can be seen from the doughnut visualizations, the least overshoots and shortfall of all units of analysis can be observed in the cultural segment of the presented graphs. All analysed cities display sustainability in regard to demonstrating sufficient concern about the dangers of climate change, as operationalized in the CCN indicator. Moreover, all citizens adequately accept the view that renewable energy should be given priority in national policies and strategies, as is visible from the lack of overshoots in all cities, with the exception of Slavonski Brod. It is interesting to note, however, that almost uniform good performance on the cultural set of indicators is not necessarily associated with good biophysical performance, and this is even less the case for the results in the socio-economic segment of the presented doughnuts. Again, an interesting exception is the city of Slavonski Brod, as it displays the worst performance in all three measured segments and the ultimately by this analysis unexplored interconnectedness of these segments could be more easily observed in its case. This also somewhat refers to the least amounts of development, in county-level HDI terms, of this city when compared to the rest of the sample. Furthermore, the results of the cultural segment does not deviate too much from the national average, which means that the researched cities are to an extent representative examples.

The lack of anti-environmentalist attitudes (CCN and RED), which are attitudes and values that could hinder political climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, is one of the most optimistic findings of this study. However, it is not clear how this relates to other measured aspects of sustainability and this should be further explored in other studies. For example, it is to expect that low levels of educational attainment would negatively impact indicator values of CCN and RED, which is ultimately not the case in this study, with the possible exception of Slavonski Brod, which displays highest shortfalls in educational attainment but does not deviate much from the national doughnut which displays no shortfalls on indicators related to environmentalistic attitudes and opinions. Furthermore, we could assume that these positive attitudes towards the environment and climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts, like prioritizing renewable energy, would positively reflect in environmental-friendly practices, most notably in better results on the REP indicator in the biophysical segment in all cities. However, this is not the case for all units of analysis and could point to either individual consumption choices or the lack of accessible infrastructure to exercise the identified pro-environmental attitudes.

On the other hand, the perceived lack of political participation, as displayed and briefly discussed in poor VT performance across the sample, could to an extent explain these discrepancies between the relatively poor performances of the biophysical and especially of the socio-economic indicators. Along with the identified democratic shortcomings discussed in relation to the socio-economic segment, this could also somewhat refer to overshoots and shortfalls associated with indicators measuring the potential for a democratic transtion conceptualised in the cultural segment, as visible from the DT and DS indicator values. Although relatively minimal, these transgressions are prevalent across the sample, with only the town of Gospić being completely aligned with sustainable levels of acceptance of degrowth-oriented values and attitudes. This is somewhat a surprising result, as we could expect that less economically developed regions would foster more growth-oriented values and would be less inclined to sacrifice certain aspects of material consumption for the sake of the environment.

However, it should be noted that good overall performance on the DG indicator in this research is not the final proof of Croatian citizens’ support for degrowth, as this research included general questions that could be related to degrowth-oriented values and attitudes, for example, if they believe that economic growth always harms the environment, or if they believe that climate change or other environmental problems will result in an end to economic growth. In other words, this research did not inquire about the support for specific degrowth policies and, considering the wider political and socio-cultural context of Croatia, it would be reasonable to expect different results if such questions were included. On the other hand, degrowth support is only one factor in the higher-level construct of degrowth ideology which in recent studies significantly correlates with the need for a social change and the perceived need for a less materialistic-orientation of society (Brajdić Vuković et al., 2020). According to these findings, in Croatia, the degrowth ideology is one that recognizes the need for economic redistribution and provides a good life for all members of society. Furthermore, it is an ideology that promotes non-materialistic values contained in arts and culture and fosters care for the environment and friends (Brajdić Vuković et al. 2020). The study also establishes the potential for developing certain aspects of the inclination for degrowth attitudes regardless of some population demographics, for example, the place of residence (Brajdić Vuković et al., 2020) which could mean that all cities in Croatia have relatively equal potential to adequately support dimensions of the degrowth oreintation. However, their findings of reduced confidence in individual political power and overall perceived lack of interest in Croatian politics from degrowth supporters could somewhat hinder mobilization efforts to push for specific degrowth-oriented policies.

Another indicator used in the doughnut for gauging the potential for democratic activation of citizens is the indicator of distrust (DT). As previously stated, all cities fail to demonstrate sustainable levels of trust and this could prove to be an obstacle for a desired democratic and just transition to higher levels of sustainability. This is because trust is a central element of democratic political participation and democratic institutions, and is a key element for positive human relations overall (Lenard, 2008). Although social trust is a complex phenomenon and determining causes of distrust in Croatian society is out of the scope of this analysis, some studies find that higher levels of social trust in a country are generally found among citizens of good health, in possession of university degrees and who are gainfully employed (Holmberg and Rothstein, 2017). This would imply that to achieve higher levels of trust in society citizens should strive for improvements in the quality of public services. This, however, presents a sort of a paradox, as it is not obvious how to collectively achieve these changes for the benefits of the majority of citizens through existing democratic institutions, as distrust in itself is harmful to the proper functioning of democratic processes and institutions (Lenard, 2008). This problem affects Croatia, as some studies show that young people in Croatia are characterized by low levels of trust in institutions, especially when it comes to trusting political parties and politicians (Franc and Međugorac, 2015). Although the efforts of achieving higher levels of trust and political engagement should take into account all age groups, this could suggest to a potential for activation of young citizens Croatia in informal political and community engagement through volunteering and collaborations with NGOs and independent local initiatives in order to strengthen Croatia’s social capital for the transition to come.

As previously mentioned, trust is an important component of many positive aspects of life. In fact, some studies find that increased institutional trust positively affects subjective well-being (Hudson, 2006). In this research, subjective well-being is measured by the Flourishing Perception indicator, based upon the research of Huppert and So (2013) which identify well-being as “positive mental health”. In this study, shortfalls on the FP indicators are detected across the sample, seemingly regardless of the performance of biophysical and socio-economic indicators. This is worrying, as good mental health is in some sense both the prerequisite and the ultimate consequence of necessary transition efforts to sustainability. Throughout this analysis and discussions, calls for achieving greater levels of well-being have been made evident. However, studying wellbeing in the context of degrowth is challenging, as there is no significant historical example of the intentional reduction in material and energy throughput according to which we could model our expectations of the effects on wellbeing outcomes. Although the majority of growth-critical literature assume that the overall downscaling of our economies would result in increases in subjective well-being, some authors are sceptical in regard to these assumptions. Koch et al. (2017) argue that the empirical evidence does not necessarily agree with this prediction, as they find that although the happiness curve relative to GDP growth does flatten out for one country, comparisons with other countries show that the most environmentally unsustainable and richest countries are also the “happiest”. They also argue that setting “happiness” as the ultimate objective for societies is questionable, as doing so promotes economic growth and hides structural dynamics of inequality and domination (Koch et al., 2017). This is why they think that degrowth-policies should focus on satisfying basic human needs, as stipulated in the original Paris declaration, rather than focusing on subjective well-being. As their example of transitioning to vegetarianism demonstrates, the wide-scale nature of changes in almost all aspects of our everyday lives necessary to achieve a degrowth society will inevitably lead to a decrease in short-term subjective well-being. A switch to alternative methods of food production and consumption will not just cause changes in our everyday dietary habits, but also cause negative short-term socio-economic effects, like job loss in the conventional (industrial) food production industry. However, they do recognize that such a transition could result in satisfying other needs in such a way that the negative short-term subjective well-being outcomes are ultimately outweighed (Koch et al., 2017).

It is sometimes argued that it would be better to monitor objective concepts and measures of wellbeing in relation to a degrowth-oriented society, like health and life expectancy (Büch and Koch, 2019). This eudaimonic and needs-based approach to wellbeing argues that “real” needs of the people related to meaningful relationships and work, identity and opportunities to participate in political and communal aspects of public life can be achieved with relatively low levels of input resources utilized (Büch and Koch, 2019). However, as the growth-oriented paradigm has embedded itself not only in our economic system but in our social, cultural, technological and political practices, a successful shift towards degrowth would require successful management of social conflicts that will inevitably arise due to a gradual reduction of available resources to satisfy people’s need in the simultaneous transformations of the above-specified aspects of life. For this purpose, authors propose an establishment of regular deliberative forums that could raise questions and propose answers about the satisfaction of universal needs. These dialogues would not only promote a discussion for the ultimate purpose of consensual decision-making between experts and citizens but also between the rich and the poor (groups and countries), along with between present and future generations (Büch and Koch, 2019).

Having the above-stated limitations of subjective wellbeing measures in mind, the “flourishing” concept used in this research is nevertheless useful as, due to its multi-dimensional character, it combines hedonic and eudaimonic aspects of well-being. This way it can offer greater insights for policy interventions than the more commonly used “life satisfaction” measure (Huppert and So, 2013). As was stated in the indicator justification section, the questions used to derive the necessary calculations are centred around statements that indicate opposite psychological states to major mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. In this sense, the identified shortfalls on the FP indicator are troublesome, especially in the context of influental international organizations already recognizing the threat of the coronavirus outbreak exacerbating mental health issues caused by the cumulative impact of anxiety, stress and grief. The WHO warns that the coronavirus pandemic has caused disruptions or completely halted key mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide while, at the same time, the demand for mental health has been increasing. In Croatia, some major issues related to mental health problems have been increasing for some time, considering the trend of growing rates of hospitalization due to depression, among other mental health illnesses (Štrkalj Ivezić et al. 2018). An extensive epidemiological analysis concluded that the flaw in our system for treating mental health patients is contained in the fact that it is still based on (inpatient) hospital treatment. At the same time, a lack of availability of quality outpatient mental health services is causing barriers in the process of successfully treating eisting mental health patients and recognizing those in the process of seeking help (Štrkalj Ivezić et al. 2018). In this regard, to align the organization of mental health services in Croatia with European and WHO standards, we should strive to transform the model of hospitalization of chronic mental health patients to a system of prevention embedded in the community itself. Furthermore, along with conducting necesssary educational programmes, a national strategy could be developed and implemented by local governments to combat the stigma associated with mental health patients and illnesses, and to enable quality, easily accessible treatment and fight discrimination against people suffering from mental disorders.


The results of this explorative analysis demontrates how Croatia and some of its localities fail to reach the defined sustainability standards by functioning outside the safe and just operating space of the doughnut’s green ring. Although Croatia and its cities fail to operate sustainably in either of the three defined segments of their social metabolisms, this study reveals some key differences between the units of analysis. One interesting finding of this research is that, to an extent, two different patterns of (un)sustainability performance are observable from the doughnut visualizations. Gospić’s and Zadar’s pattern of social metabolism performance differs from those identified in Zagreb and Slavonski Brod, whose doughnut images more resemble that of the Republic of Croatia. At the same time, the visualised patterns of Zadar’s and Gospić’s social metabolism present a more sustainable state of affairs, with Zagreb and Slavonski Brod, and Croatia overall, performing substantially worse. These differences are most visible upon inspection of the biophysical segment. Although all cities fail to achieve sustainable levels of CO2 emissions and food production, Zadar and Gospić perform significantly better on all other indicators of climate change, pollution and access to natural resources. This leads to the conclusion that Zagreb and Slavonski Brod are further away from significantly contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts by adopting renewable energy production practices, reducing air pollution and increasing the share of green open spaces in their urban environments.

Another important finding of this study is that all units of analysis are especially unsustainable in their socio-economic infrastructure. Unlike their biophysical performance, this segment forms relatively uniform visual patterns accross the sample. None of the analysed units displays complete sustainability in any single aspect (indicator) of the socio-economic segment. This leads to the conclusion that in regard to the socio-economic segment, due to large(est) overshoots and shortfalls, there is no remarkable potential to quickly reach the defined sustainability targets, especially considering the low performance on indicators of democracy. The surprising exception is perhaps the worst overall performer in the sample, Slavonski Brod, which displays only minimal transgressions on indicators of waste generation, hospital beds and gender inequality.

Thus, swift interventions are necessary in order to successfully tackle the challenges that are ahead. Most remarkable potentials in this sense are detected in Croatia’s cultural segment, where least overshoots and shortfalls are detected. In other words, from a cultural perspective, there are no significant barriers for Croatian politics to implement changes that will drive Croatia to a more sustainable future. In addition, this good performance is relatively uniform across the entire sample. This is encouraging, as the analysis concludes that major policy interventions are needed on all levels of political decision-making. In previous sections, some possible trajectories for Croatia’s politics are discussed, ranging from interventions in existing national strategies to advocating for strategies based on the presented insights where no coherent and sustainable system is in place. However, for Croatia to achieve sustainability in the 21st century and ensure good quality of life for all within the existing biophysical constraints of its environment, its citizens need to realize that they hold the political power to change the conditions of their existence for the better. As visible from the presented doughnuts, such transition efforts will not come without its cost. However, as demonstrated in the discussion on increasing overall well-being from a degrowth perspective, an inclusive deliberative approach could be essential in overcoming potential costs and challenges that altering our production and consumption practices on a most fundamental level will definitely impose.

The presented application of the Degrowth Doughnut on the case of Croatia and its cities is just one contribution to the dialogues to ensue. Hopefully, insights derived from this research could provide citizens and, ultimately, policy-makers with the tools for understanding the desired transitional pathways towards just and sustainable configurations of Croatia’s social metabolisms. Although its holistic nature enables us to progress in understanding the deep and complex interconnectedness of our current modes of existence, the success of the Degrowth Doughnut ultimately relies on social partners of seemingly insurmountable social and cultural backgrounds engaging in meaningful and inclusive conversations about strategies for improving our own lives and providing a safe future for generations to come.

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