HomeMiddle EastEastern Europe must not be left behind in the green transition

Eastern Europe must not be left behind in the green transition

Last year a severe drought hit much of Europe, and some scientists claimed it was worst in 500 years. In France, a state of emergency was declared in five northern provinces; in Spain, the water reservoirs were reduced to 36 percent capacity; in Italy, the level of the Po River, the largest in the country, was six times lower than normal.

Eastern Europe was also affected. In Hungary, lakes and rivers disappeared as 90 percent of the country suffered from drought. In Poland, the lack of rain had a devastating impact on agriculture, with the sector losing some €1.35 billion due to lower yields. In Romania, there was a seven-fold increase in forest fires.

Despite these damaging effects, national policies in Central and Eastern European countries do not reflect the climate emergency we are experiencing. Governments have been dragging their feet on meeting climate targets and implementing green policy objectives within the European community.

Over the past year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provided a justification to sidetrack the green transition, as the entire continent faced a major energy crisis. In the struggle to keep the lights on, homes warm, and industry afloat, decarbonization and greening efforts took a backseat.

As a result, polluting power generation has increased in some parts of Eastern Europe. Poland, which used coal for 70 percent of its energy mix before the war, increased production of thermal coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, and subsidized the use of coal for domestic heating. Romania has also turned to coal, postponing the retirement of 660-megawatt coal units and clearing 100 hectares (247 acres) of forest to expand a lignite coal mine.

Other countries have increased their dependence on nuclear energy, so it is not yet known if it is compatible with the basic premises of the green transition. In January, Slovakia commissioned a new Mochovce 3 nuclear unit, soon to be joined by Mochovce 4, while the Czech Republic has made progress Wesyouern associations to build a new Dukovany nuclear plant. New units are being built on the banks of the Danube river in Hungary as part of the Paks complex in partnership with Russia.

But the region was falling behind on green transition goals even before the energy crisis. The deployment of renewable energy sources was below the EU average in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary before the war, according to Eurostat. These countries may struggle to meet the next renewable energy target set by the EU: 32 percent by 2030. The region’s carbon emission reductions over the past two decades have also been inadequate; on average, Eastern European countries have cut them by 15 percent, compared to 25 percent in Western Europe.

Does this delay in climate action mean that citizens of Central and Eastern European countries are less concerned about climate change than their counterparts in the west? Not precisely. In a 2021 Eurobarometer survey, when asked if climate change is a serious problem, respondents in the region overwhelmingly answered in the affirmative. In Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovakia, only 4-5 percent said that it is not a serious problem, while in Poland, 7 percent of respondents said so, which is equal to the EU average.

But Eastern Europeans are anxious about the losses their economies may suffer as they go through the green transition. A 2021 survey by the European Investment Bank found that 60% of Czechs, 63% of Slovaks and 53% of Poles believe that climate policies will shrink the economy and 59% of Bulgarians and the 54% of Romanians believe that they will eliminate more jobs. what they are going to create. By comparison, 44 percent of EU residents believe both statements are true.

In fact, the heavy industries that tend to be large employers and constitute a significant part of the national economies in Eastern Europe will find it difficult to adapt to the realities of the green transition; many will have to undergo major structural revisions, or even close, leading to significant job losses. In this way, the EU’s green ambition is frequently understood as an existential threat to the functioning of the region’s economic models.

At the same time, several new regulations issued by Brussels that would force households to ditch cheaper and more polluting consumer products and services are facing resistance in the more impoverished countries of the East, where “green” alternatives are seen as unaffordable.

Local politicians are eager to capitalize on this anxiety. Some present the green agenda as yet another policy in which the EU negligently ignores the problems of the east; others present it as an elitist idea that is too far-fetched for ordinary citizens. Political parties that may be open to green policies are wary, understanding that they involve comprehensive economic transformation (raising skills, jobs, and innovation), which can be a formidable undertaking in a four-year election cycle.

The green east-west divide is also palpable in the support given to green parties in national politics. While the Greens are part of coalition governments in countries like Austria, Germany, Finland and Ireland, in eastern Europe they have struggled to jump the threshold to enter parliament.

All this said, thanks to the EU, Central and Eastern Europe has access to significant funds that can help it through the green transition. National recovery plans, the centerpiece of post-pandemic EU funding, combine cash handouts with reforms in several policy areas, including education, innovation, energy efficiency and greening the economy. Countries have to allocate at least 37 percent of funds to meeting climate goals.

But some of the largest emitters in the region, in particular Poland or Hungary, saw their allocations frozen in the recovery fund by Brussels due to democratic backsliding. Meanwhile, this year, Bulgaria opted not to make use of another source of EU funding for green policies: the Just Transition programme.

While green policies may not be an easy sell in Central and Eastern Europe, governments need to understand that the green transition is crucial for the region to retain its international competitiveness and build economic resilience to weather future climate shocks. Complacency can be costly: it could undermine future gains in living standards and well-being for Central and Eastern Europeans and contribute to the global climate crisis.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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