Eastern Europe must not lag behind on the green transition

Doing so could be costly and dangerous for its future development.

Wind turbines are seen in a wind farm near the town of Babolna, 100 km (62 miles) west Budapest May 18, 2011. There are about 160 wind turbines operating in the flatlands of Hungary with most of them in the northwestern areas. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo(HUNGARY - Tags: SOCIETY)
Wind turbines are seen in a wind farm near the town of Babolna, 100km west of Budapest on May 18, 2011 [File: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo]

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

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

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 goals within the European community.

During the past year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provided a justification to side-track the green transition, as the whole continent faced a major energy crisis. In the scramble to keep the lights on, homes warm, and industry afloat, decarbonisation and greening efforts took a backseat.

As a result, polluting energy generation has increased in some parts of Europe’s east. Poland, which used coal for 70 percent of its energy mix before the war, ramped up the production of thermal coal – the most polluting fossil fuel – and subsidised the use of coal for household heating. Romania also turned to coal, postponing the retirement of 660-megawatt coal units and cutting down 100 hectares (247 acres) of forest to expand a lignite coal mine.

Other countries have increased reliance on nuclear power for which the jury is still out on whether it is consistent with the basic premises of the green transition. In January, Slovakia put online a new nuclear unit Mochovce 3, which will be joined by Mochovce 4 soon, while Czechia has advanced Western partnerships to build a new Dukovany nuclear plant. New units are being built on the banks of the Danube River in Hungary as a part of the Paks complex in partnership with Russia.

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

Does this foot-dragging on climate action mean that citizens of Central and Eastern European countries are less concerned about climate change than their counterparts in the west? Not really. In a 2021 Eurobarometer poll, when asked whether climate change is a serious problem, respondents from 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 incur while going through the green transition. A 2021 poll conducted by the European Investment Bank found that 60 percent of Czechs, 63 percent of Slovaks and 53 percent of Poles believe that climate policies will shrink the economy and 59 percent of Bulgarians and 54 percent of Romanians believe that they will remove more jobs than they will create. By comparison, 44 percent of residents of the EU believe both of these statements to be true.

Indeed, heavy industries which tend to be big employers and make up a significant part of national economies in Europe’s east will find it hard to adjust to the realities of the green transition; many will have to undergo significant structural overhauls, or even shut down, resulting in significant job loss. 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, various new regulations issued by Brussels which would require households to abandon cheaper, more polluting consumer products and services are facing resistance in the more impoverished countries of the east, where the “green” alternatives are seen as unaffordable.

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

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

All that said, thanks to the EU, Central and Eastern Europe do have access to significant funds that can help it through the green transition. The national recovery plans – the centrepiece of the post-pandemic EU funding – combine cash handouts with reforms, across various policy areas, including education, innovation, energy efficiency, and economy greening. Countries have to earmark at least 37 percent of funds to fulfilling climate objectives.

But some of the region’s greatest emitters – notably, Poland or Hungary – had their allocations under the recovery fund frozen by Brussels due to democratic backsliding. Meanwhile, this year, Bulgaria chose not to make use of another source of EU funding for green policies – the Just Transition scheme.

While green policies may not be an easy sell in Central and Eastern Europe, governments need to understand that the green transition is crucial to the region retaining its international competitiveness and building economic resilience to be able to weather future climate shocks. Complacency can be costly: it could mar future gains in Central and Eastern Europeans’ standards of living and wellbeing and contribute to the climate crisis at a global scale.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.