This article is part of our special report Polluted air: the invisible killer.
EU cohesion funding for environmental measures has not been spent as planned and EU member states are reluctant to apply the “no environmental harm” principle. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.
“If you think the economy is more important than environment, try holding your breath while counting your money,” said American scientist Guy McPherson.
McPherson did not come to the EU Clean Air Forum in Slovakia, but the European Commission’s Director General for Regional and Urban Policy quoted him in what turned out to be a critique of the very policy he oversees.
Indeed, in the eyes of Marc Lemaître, current cohesion policy “is not particularly impressive”, one of the reasons for that being that “member states are pushing back”.
But Lemaître’s hosts, the State Secretary at the Slovak Ministry of Environment and the mayor of Bratislava, tried to show determination. While Norbert Kurilla praised the EU-funded replacement of old polluting boilers, Matúš Vallo showed willingness to take measures “unpopular” with drivers.
Huge investments needed
The EU’s key debate platform whose second edition took place in Bratislava on 28 and 29 November, was attended by one of the European Investment Bank’s new vice-presidents, Lilyana Pavlova, who took office in November.
She said that the EU Bank “has been at the forefront” of climate action which, according to her, is closely related to clean air measures.
In order to reach climate neutrality in 2050, the EU will have to invest extensively into energy, transport, industry and agriculture, sectors which also produce most of the air-polluting substances.
In Bratislava, Pavlova confirmed the EIB’s commitment to unlocking investments into climate action and environmental sustainability worth €1 trillion by 2030.
“At the same time this is an opportunity to improve the European economic model and to make it more competitive as we are undergoing a technological revolution,” said EIB’s Vice-President.
In 2018, the EU Bank invested €16.2 billion into climate and environmental projects, which represented 30% of its new financial commitments.
Its new lending policy, approved in November, should raise the share to 50% by 2025. By 2022, this will have largely excluded fossil fuels including natural gas, an abundant and affordable alternative to coal for the East of the EU.
Pavlova indeed recognised that “not all member states share the same pole position in their transition to carbon neutral economy and the investment needs for such transition are huge”.
Not the right speed
Marc Lemaître presented a gloomier look at EU’s climate and environmental action. “We will reach the 2020 climate target thanks to the deepest recession we have known since World War 2. In the future, we will have to be extremely determined,” he told the international audience in Bratislava.
Of the €350 billion dedicated to cohesion policy in the EU budget for 2014-2020, €2 billion have been made available to climate and environment.
“Clearly, it is not particularly impressive,” the Director General acknowledged. “In terms of implementation in the sixth year, we are not very far advanced. This is the type of action, which today is lagging behind other types of investments,” Lemaître complained.
Moreover, member states have not even been able to fully spend the funding available for air quality measures in 2014-2020.
By 2019, Poland used 65% of the planned amount, Slovakia 56%, Romania 17% and Bulgaria only 2%. Leading by example, Croatia came in at 102%.
“We are not exactly at the right speed and pace to make the kind of difference our citizens now demand with more and more force,” Lemaître commented.
Erasing environmental criteria
Yet, the Commission official also insisted that “we don’t have to feel the shame when it comes to cohesion policy.” In the next seven-year budget, the Commission has proposed almost €400 billion for cohesion.
“Not exactly peanuts,” Lemaître said adding that with the obligation of co-funding the total spending can be brought to €500 billion.
Within the cohesion chapter, up to €100 billion should be earmarked for climate action and environment. At least the Director General hopes so.
“Because member states – and I am sorry to say Slovakia is one of them – are pushing back. They are saying yes (to environmental measures), but we need other things – roads, all types of other infrastructures,” he said in front of his hosts.
When Slovak environmental activist Daniel Lešinský asked why the horizontal principle of “no environmental harm” is not applied in EU’s cohesion funding as it continues to fund fossil-fuel projects, the Director General responded that “it’s the member states who are responsible for cohesion policy”.
Lemaître even accused some of them of “trying to erase the environmental criteria”.
Unbankable and unpopular measures
But Norbert Kurilla of the Slovak Environment Ministry was there to present the successes of EU cohesion policy in his country.
Slovakia used €30 million of EU money with national co-financing worth €5 million to launch the replacement of old boilers and thus reduce pollution from heating, the main source of PM2.5 and PM10 in the country.
Lemaître confessed such government subsidies are necessary since for the Poles or Slovaks that burn domestic to heat themselves, “loans will not do”. He admitted “not all projects are ultimately bankable”.
In total, €200 million are to be spent for air quality projects in Slovakia with funding coming mostly from EU’s cohesion policy.
The Director General at the Commission turned also to city administrations which, according to him, will be indispensable in fighting climate change and air pollution. But richer cities like Bratislava do not have the right for the cohesion funding.
Bratislava Mayor Matúš Vallo explained at the EU Clean Air Forum he must sometimes decide on measures that are “unpopular” with drivers as he tackles the main source of pollution in the Slovak capital: transport.
Bratislava as a result is extending bus lanes and changing its parking policy.
Vallo, elected as an independent candidate last year and member of Slovakia’s new political generation, said such measures are good for inhabitants. “But not for me as a politician,” he added.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]