After long months during which COVID-19 has dominated every policy agenda in Europe and elsewhere, the roll out of vaccines finally gives policy makers the opportunity to focus on other priorities as well.
Beyond the challenge of repairing the economic damage left by lockdowns and mobility restrictions, Europe is expected to deliver on its flagship initiative, the European Green Deal. Adopted shortly before the pandemic hit the continent, it is set to become Europe’s most transformative project, by putting the continent on the path to become climate neutral by 2050.
The adoption process of the European Green Deal was not without its ups and downs. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have initially opposed the agreement, motivating their position by fears regarding the amount and the availability of transition funds and the difficulty to protect coal-dependent regions. In a similar fashion, Poland and Hungary have first threatened to veto the EU’s breakthrough deal on the coronavirus recovery package and the Multiannual Financial Framework, that were including obligations for member states to align their expenses with the EU’s climate objectives. These hurdles shed light on one of the key challenges that the EU will face in achieving its climate goals: convincing its Eastern members that decarbonization is a feasible and beneficial goal for them too.
While this was not the first time that Poland and Hungary clashed with the common EU line, their objections regarding the EU climate objectives might turn into a deeper rift, as governments in the region tend to see climate policies differently than their Western European counterparts or EU officials. The argument most often invoked is that emission reduction policies clash with economic growth policies, and that countries in the region need to pursue growth above everything else in order to converge with the development level in the West. Other concerns are related to the preponderance of coal in the energy mix, ensuring a just transition for the coal regions, financing the energy transition while keeping energy prices low for consumers, now also in a difficult economic context prompted by the pandemic.
Until now, Eastern Europe did not take a very active role in the Union’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Through the effort sharing mechanism, higher income countries took higher emission reduction objectives, while also taking into account principles such as fairness, cost-effectiveness and environmental integrity. In consequence, countries from the former communist bloc were even allowed to increase their CO2 emissions between 2013 and 2020, and have a reduction target comprised between 0 and 7% for the 2021-2030 period, in relation to 2005 levels.
The renewable energy targets were also divided according to similar principles, by taking into account the existing renewable capacities, as well as the income levels of member states. These mechanisms enabled the EU as a whole to achieve a 24% reduction of CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2019, and share of renewable energy in the final energy consumption of 19.7 % in 2019. However, to meet its very ambitious emission reduction goals – raising the emissions reduction target to 55% from 1990 levels by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 – the European Union will need Eastern Europe on board, and the countries in the region taking ownership of their energy transition.
Beyond all the challenges, the pandemic might have brought just the answers and incentives needed by policymakers in Eastern Europe to step up their climate ambitions.
First and foremost, policymakers were warned that a latent crisis can quickly turn into a disaster. Unless it is urgently addressed, the climate crisis holds an even more devastating potential, as it threatens the very existence of humankind. Extreme temperatures and weather events, the durable degradation of water and soil will spare no one, with deep, long-lasting social and economic consequences. The less prepared, the heavier the impact, and the most acute consequences will be suffered by the most vulnerable citizens.
Secondly, while fossil fuels had a bad year in 2020, with coal use dropping by 7% and oil demand by 8% compared to the previous year, renewables proved their resilience. Having registered a slight rise in 2020, they are set to increase even more in the years to come. Technologies such as solar PV and offshore wind reached sharp cost reductions, enabling them to become competitive with new fossil fuel plants. Looking more closely at Eastern Europe, a BloombergNEF Report proposes two decarbonization scenarios for the power systems of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania, among the EU’s most coal-intensive economies, without a defined phase-out plan. Even in the least cost scenario, the four countries could reach a 47% share of renewables generation by 2030 compared to the 31% goal included in their National Energy and Climate Plans.
Beyond exposing the vulnerabilities of energy systems, the pandemic has also stressed out the importance of better public health policies. Air pollution entails significant risks to human health and ecosystems, and it is estimated to be responsible for 379 000 premature deaths in 2018. In addition, air pollution touches in particular the most precarious citizens, who are more likely to be exposed. The European regions with a lower GDP per capita, that are often in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, are found to have higher levels of fine particulate matter.
Decarbonization measures also help improve air quality and policies to tackle pollution can gather public support more easily, as they provide more immediate and tangible results.
All things considered, in the current context and through their EU membership, Eastern European countries have the unique opportunity to “build back better”, to develop their infrastructure needs while also bringing their contribution to fighting climate change and creating better conditions for current and future generations. For any emerging economy, the energy transition appears as a daunting task, as the link between investing to decarbonize the energy mix and other economic objectives such as growth and job creation is not always obvious. As EU member states, they have the privilege of access to funding and a significant pool of knowledge and technical support, that are often unavailable to countries with a similar income level. It is also an opportunity for the Union as a whole to prove the world that it is possible to reconcile diverging views about climate policy and work together towards a common goal even with various degrees of ambition and capacities.
 European Commission (n.d.). Effort sharing 2021-2030: targets and flexibilities: https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/effort/regulation_en
 Eurolex (2013). Commission Implementing Decision of 31 October 2013 on the adjustments to Member States’ annual emission allocations for the period from 2013 to 2020 pursuant to Decision No 406/2009/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council
 Eurolex (2018). Regulation (EU) 2018/842 – Binding annual greenhouse gas emission reductions by Member States from 2021 to 2030 contributing to climate action to meet commitments under the Paris Agreement and amending Regulation (EU) No 525/2013
 European Commission (n.d.). Progress made in cutting emissions. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/strategies/progress_en
 Eurostat (2020). Renewable energy statistics. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Renewable_energy_statistics
 IEA (2020). World Energy Outlook 2020. https://www.iea.org/reports/world-energy-outlook-2020
 BloombergNEF (2020). Investing in the recovery and transition of Europe’s coal regions. https://data.bloomberglp.com/professional/sites/24/BNEF-white-paper-EU-coal-transition-Final-6-July.pdf
 European Environmental Agency (2020). Air pollution: how it affects our health. https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/health-impacts-of-air-pollution
*Laura Camarut is an EPG Fellow. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EPG.