The excuses are wearing thin: Eastern Europe must tackle its climate impact

Comment: The Czech Republic overtook Germany in emissions per person three years ago; it is time to stop pleading poverty and start cleaning up the region’s pollution

Countries like the Czech Republic are expected to increase their efforts to cut emissions (Pic: Flickr/David McKelvey)


If you had to guess, which country would you say emitted more greenhouse gases per person, Germany or the Czech Republic?

If you guessed Germany, you are quite mistaken, as the Czech Republic overtook Germany in 2015 on this measure. Poland is projected to surpass Germany by around 2022.

Central and eastern Europe is rapidly catching up and in some places overtaking the western part of the continent in its contribution to the destruction of Earth’s climate.

How has this come to pass? What does it mean for climate policy in the EU and in the CEE region?

Economies in the CEE region have been doing relatively well since the financial crisis and consumption of goods and transport has been increasing, at least for a good number of their citizens. Coupled with the moderate enthusiasm of CEE governments towards fighting climate change, growing wealth means that the pace of emission reductions is lagging behind that of western Europe.

Of course, the EU’s 2050 decarbonisation goals apply to CEE as well, thus, these countries will very soon find themselves in an unprecedented situation: they will need to make a serious attempt at cutting their emissions.

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For the past decades, CEE countries liked to portray themselves in the EU and in international climate conferences as poor countries still recovering from the ravages of communism, with economies that need rebuilding and therefore cannot really be expected to invest their own meagre funds in the green transformation of their economies. This perception is largely shared by public opinion in these countries.

Until recently, the governments of western Europe and the rest of the developed world have tended to accept such claims out of tradition, habit or historical guilt. The argument is wearing thin, however: after all, 1990 was really almost 30 years ago, in a world very different from today’s.

There is still a lot of poverty in central and eastern Europe, especially when compared to western Europe. But in the last 30 years, globally competitive industries have sprung up.

To give the most obvious example, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are first and second globally in car production per capita, and Hungary is not far behind, only bested by Germany, Japan and Slovenia. There are significant portions of these societies with consumption levels at Western European standards.

Disparities in wealth are increasing within these societies, not at least due to a disdain for strongly redistributive policies. Also, massive injections of EU funds over 14 years of EU membership has given these countries better roads and stronger economies, not to mention a wealthy business elite. There are many people in these countries who are certainly capable of bearing the burden of more ambitious climate policies.

European climate policy for decades has consisted of pushing the brunt of reductions on the West, and minimising obligation on new member states, or in cases where economic impacts were unavoidable, compensating them with extra development funds. This did make sense: the west was richer, and there also was a stronger public demand for climate action. The share of CEE emissions in the EU total was also relatively small, thus there was less to gain from reducing them.

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But with the EU’s climate protection efforts intensifying and the need for an almost complete decarbonisation in the EU by 2050, such lenience is no longer sustainable. The EU has recently adopted its non-industrial emission targets (or “effort sharing targets” in EU jargon) for the 2020–2030 period, and it is becoming clear that many CEE countries will have to engage in significant emission reduction efforts to meet their targets.

Compared to its 2005 emissions, Poland will have to reduce by 7%, the Czech Republic by a massive 14%, and even Bulgaria, the poorest of the CEE region, is expected to hold emissions steady. This is a marked departure from the period between 2012 and 2020, when Bulgaria was allowed to increase its emissions with 20%, Poland with 14% and Czech Republic with 9% —at that time, the EU’s way of acknowledging that these countries want to become wealthier and in the process consume and emit more.

In the 2020–2030 period, by contrast, only Hungary is certain to hold sizeable surplus allocations, while other CEE countries will have to reduce their emissions.

At the same time, eastern member states are likely to get less EU funding than before. Negotiations have begun on the EU’s multi-year budget for the period after 2020, and there are already indications that the CEE region will see a significant reduction in EU support

The prevailing view of “we are too poor to be expected to spend our own money on climate change” must change to “climate change is also our fault, our risk and we are not that poor, so we must spend our own money on it”. This will not be an easy transition — public opinion in these countries is prone to blaming others for their perceived misfortunes, and that extends to climate change.

Because the benchmark of social and economic development is always Germany, Austria or the UK, most citizens fail to perceive that even those with modest means are well-off compared to the global average. A lack of a colonial past means that there is no historical precedent of taking responsibility for global affairs  – these countries after all used to be essentially Soviet colonies themselves and thus do not feel the guilt and moral responsibility of western Europe towards the world.

There is also the problem of persistent widespread poverty in the CEE region: alongside the newly wealthy classes there are also many people living below the poverty line. In a region with bitter winter colds, simple carbon tax on fuel or power could push a lot of people into destitution. Thus, more complex, socially sensitive climate policy measures will be needed.

On the other hand, CEE countries have a long history of importing and domesticating western European norms. From nationalism, socialism, animal welfare and gay rights to the latest fashion trends, ideas in this region tend to be imported rather than home-grown.

Recent massive waves of migration to western Europe, and the eventual return of many emigrants only serve to reinforce this commerce in ideas. Thus, there is a good chance that if climate change is important in western Europe, it will eventually also become a priority in the east.

István Bart is the founding director of Climate Strategy Institute 2050

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