Green recovery after COVID-19: Last chance for V4 to climate transition?

The recovery of European economies after the coronavirus pandemic may become – thanks to national recovery plans financed by the EU funds – a prelude to catching up with climate goals. Are the Visegrád countries ready to seize the opportunity?

The Visegrad Group countries – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia – are not among the EU leaders in terms of climate policy. EU funding, including Next Generation EU and national recovery plans, offers an opportunity for change.

In the Czech Republic, 37% climate spending under the Next Generation fund is considered a burden rather than an opportunity to transform the economy. So far, the government has fought for the most flexibility possible when it comes to distributing EU funding. Now the government says it is ready to invest a large portion of cash from the EU recovery fund in green transition.

“We have allocated 40% to the green projects, we exceed the mandatory quota by 3%,” said Industry, Trade and Transport Minister Karel Havlíček, who is responsible for preparing the Czech recovery plan.

When it comes to fight against climate change, the Czech government wants to invest in sustainable mobility, including e-mobility or railway electrification, and energy efficiency, especially building renovations.

However, the Environmental Ministry raised objections during the comment procedure and pointed out that the plan does not reflect the “do no harm” principle set by the European Commission.

Moreover, experts criticize the government for a lack of strategic vision. “The government has delivered a compilation without any strategical discretion,” said Anna Kárníková, head of environmental organisation DUHA.

The Czech energy and heating systems are still dependent on coal. The plan mentions the need to transition to low-emission and local sources of energy such as biomass, waste, secondary sources or gas.

It also mentions investments into renewables, including accumulation. However, according to the Czech Renewable Energy Chamber, the government wants to invest only 3-5% of the Next Generation EU fund to renewable energy sources.

The Czech government remains committed to nuclear power and the same approach can be observed in Hungary. Hungarian pro-government think tank Századvég points out that nuclear energy is carbon neutral, and reservations about it have led to a failure to reduce fossil fuel-based electricity production in several countries.

Hungarian actors differ on how to achieve the country’s climate goals, the main difference being their approach to nuclear and wind energy. Viktor Orbán’s government will likely end up tailoring the use of EU green funding to its own climate strategy.

Hungarian climate protection action plan approved earlier this year focuses on terminating illegal waste disposal sites, banning single-use plastics, forcing large companies to downsize their economic footprint, planting ten new trees after every newborn, and supporting electric transportation – among others.

According to Benedek Jávor, the head of the Representation of Budapest in Brussels, the government’s climate strategy cannot be understood as a comprehensive climate policy agenda.

He added that the green EU funds should be used to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, including those of the poorest families; supporting green energy investments, including the use of wind power, decarbonizing transportation; and a thorough water and forest management reform.

In terms of transport, Greenpeace says that besides improving infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, electronic vehicle manufacturing must be developed, too.

Poland is still working on its recovery plan. The Deputy Minister of Funds and Regional Policy, Waldemar Buda, stressed that many projects in the plan will be related to environmental and energy issues.

“We want to focus primarily on projects concerning flood protection and water retention, the transition to a closed-loop economy or the development of renewable energy and improvement of energy efficiency,” said Buda.

It is already known that the plan is to finance, among other things, the modernisation of residential buildings, the introduction of sustainable transport and support for renewable energy. Among the projects submitted by the regions, many focus on revitalising mining areas or supporting their inhabitants in the process of transformation towards a greener economy.

However, environmental organisations are appealing to the Polish government for the plan to cover all sectors of the economy.

WWF Poland points to the need to improve water management, increase the role of forests in climate protection, create a system of energy self-sufficiency for schools and public buildings, convert vans into zero-emission ones, improve public transport and cycling infrastructure and decarbonize energy and develop energy storage.

Poland has not yet officially supported the tightening of EU CO2 reduction targets and the EU’s commitment to achieving climate neutrality by 2050. MEP Adam Jarubas (EPP) pointed out that the lack of support for the EU’s climate objectives may make it more difficult for Poland to access funding and therefore make it harder to achieve green transformation.

Slovakia was the first V4 country that openly supported the climate neutrality goal. It was also among the first EU countries that have already published a framework document which will serve as a roadmap for a national recovery plan.

Veronika Remišová, Slovakia’s minister of investments and regional development, confirmed four green policy priorities: drinking water, clean air, waste management and climate – which means support for renewables, energy efficiency and green transport.

However, a number of activists and politicians including MEP Martin Hojsík (Renew Europe) criticize the document for showing a lack of ambition. “The 53% emission reduction by the end of 2030 is insufficient and not based on the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050,” Hojsík said.

On the other side, Lívia Vašáková, an economic counsellor to the Slovak government, disagrees. She claims that measures proposed in the document are so ambitious that it will be a challenge to enforce them

The areas pinpointed by the government as some of the most promising when it comes to lowering emissions are industry and heating. In both, the government counts with gas as a transitional fuel.

The executive director of Slovak Gas and Oil Association Richard Kvasňovský also calls for investments in the gas infrastructure. Unlike environmental groups, Kvasňovský considers these investments useful to prepare the country for future transport of biomethane and hydrogen.

According to Lucia Szaboová from Green Restart organization, Slovakia should focus on local energy sources and gas should only be considered as the last option. One of these local sources is geothermal energy. Szaboová claims that if Slovakia used more geothermal energy in heating, it would not only decrease emissions, but also dependency on Russian gas.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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