Last year, a major drought hit much of Europe, and some scientists claim it was the worst in 500 years. In France, a state of emergency was declared in five northern provinces; in Spain, water reservoirs have fallen to 36 percent of capacity; in Italy, the level of the largest Po river in the country was six times lower than normal.
Eastern Europe was also affected. Lakes and rivers disappeared in Hungary because 90 percent of the country suffered from drought. In Poland, the lack of rain had a devastating impact on agriculture, with the sector losing around 1.35 billion euros due to lower yields. In Romania, there were seven times the number of fires.
Despite these harmful effects, national policies in Central and Eastern European countries do not reflect the climate crisis we are facing. Governments have delayed meeting climate goals and implementing green policy goals within the European community.
Over the past year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided justification for a departure from 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 ecological development efforts have taken a back seat.
As a result, polluting energy production has increased in some parts of Eastern Europe. Poland, which before the war used coal for 70 percent of its energy mix, increased production of thermal coal – the most polluting fossil fuel – and subsidized the use of coal for household heating. Romania also turned to coal, delaying the retirement of 660 megawatt coal-fired units and cutting down 100 hectares (247 acres) of forest to expand a lignite mine.
Other countries have increased their reliance on nuclear energy, which is still undecided as to whether it is in line with the basic premises of the green transition. In January, Slovakia commissioned the new Mochovce 3 nuclear unit, soon to be joined by Mochovce 4, while the Czech Republic advanced Western partnerships to build the new Dukovany nuclear power plant. The new units are being built on the banks of the Danube in Hungary as part of the Paks complex in partnership with Russia.
But the region lagged behind its green transition goals even before the energy crisis. The use 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 could struggle to meet the EU’s next renewable energy target of 32 percent by 2030. The region’s carbon reductions over the past two decades have also been inadequate; on average, Eastern European countries reduced them by about 15 percent, compared to Western European countries’ 25 percent.
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 really. In the 2021 Eurobarometer survey, when asked whether climate change is a serious problem, respondents from the region mostly 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 worried about the losses their economies could suffer as they go through the green transition. A 2021 poll by the European Investment Bank found that 60 percent of Czechs, 63 percent of Slovaks, and 53 percent of Poles believe climate policies will shrink the economy, and 59 percent of Bulgarians and 54 percent of Romanians believe they will cut more jobs than they will create. . By comparison, 44 percent of EU residents believe that both of these statements are true.
Indeed, heavy industries that are usually large employers and make up a significant part of national economies in Eastern Europe will find it difficult to adapt to the reality of the green transition; many will have to undergo significant structural overhauls or even close, resulting in significant job losses. In this way, the EU’s green ambition is often understood as an existential threat to the functioning of the region’s economic models.
At the same time, various new regulations issued by Brussels that would require households to abandon cheaper, more polluting consumer products and services are facing resistance in the poorer countries of the East, where “green” alternatives are considered unaffordable.
Local politicians are eager to capitalize on this anxiety. Some present the Green Agenda as another policy in which the EU carelessly ignores the problems of the East; others portray it as an elitist idea that is too far-fetched for ordinary citizens. Political parties that might be open to green policies are wary because they understand that they involve comprehensive economic transformation – raising the bar for skills, jobs and innovation – which can be a difficult undertaking in a four-year election cycle.
The green gap between east and west is also visible in the support given to green parties in national politics. While the Greens are part of coalition governments in countries such as Austria, Germany, Finland and Ireland, in Eastern Europe they have had a hard time jumping the thresholds to enter parliament.
All of the above, thanks to the EU, Central and Eastern Europe has access to significant funds that can help it through the green transition. The National Recovery Plans – the centerpiece of post-pandemic EU funding – combine cash grants with reforms across a range of policy areas, including education, innovation, energy efficiency and greening the economy. Countries must allocate at least 37 percent of funds to meet climate goals.
But some of the biggest broadcasters in the region – notably Poland or Hungary – have been frozen by Brussels from the recovery fund due to democratic backsliding. Meanwhile, this year Bulgaria decided not to use 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 must realize that a green transition is essential to preserving the region’s international competitiveness and building economic resilience to weather future climate shocks. Complacency can be costly: it could spoil future improvements in living standards and well-being in Central and Eastern Europe and contribute to the global climate crisis.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.