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Carbon lock-in snubs EU climate goal (again)

2019.06.27. 10:46 Világgazdasági Intézet

Climate Central has stylized the horror of rising yearly average temperatures into aesthetically appealing warming stripes, subtly reminding the broader public of the deteriorating climate of our Globe. Although, I am not sure if we need reminding, given rising levels of climate anxiety. The climate crisis may dominate news cycles, but action has been extremely slow to follow. The EU’s inability to agree on 2050 carbon neutrality is yet another failure on a long list of unsuccessful attempts to take decisive actions against climate change.

2050 EU plans are rooted in efforts to devise a roadmap that paves the way to a carbon neutral society. The undertaking is essentially based on the United Nations Climate Change Conference’s Bali Road Map, introducing a push for countries to devise long-term plans to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions. Delegates of COP 15 incorporated the initiative into the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, which the European Union and its member states ratified “with the objective of limiting the overall global annual mean surface temperature increase to 2ºC above pre-industrial levels”. Accordingly, the European Council agreed to introduce “aggregate developed country emission reductions of at least 80-95%” by 2050.

The European Commission developed A Roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy in 2050 in 2011, to which end the 2020 and 2030 goals are the first steps. On 20 June 2019, leaders of EU member states met to discuss and agree on the specifics of 2050 targets in preparation for the United Nations Secretary General's Climate Action Summit in September 2019. However, the quartet of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Poland vetoed the concluding document, because the agreement stated that the EU should take action “to ensure a transition to a climate-neutral EU by 2050”.

Vetoing countries claimed that the date was too close, to specific, while they were not provided with details about the forms of support they will receive to execute the transition. They forced the EU to conclude the high-level meeting by inviting the Council and the Commission “to advance work on the conditions, the incentives and the enabling framework to be put in place so as to ensure a transition to a climate-neutral EU in line with the Paris Agreement”.

Poland is the most staunch opponent of the four countries to introducing a hard deadline for carbon neutrality. This is unsurprisingly, given that the country of over 38 million relies on—primarily domestically-sourced—coal to meet 48% of its energy consumption. Poland has long been understood to “stand on coal”, as the consumption of the resource has become synonymous with industrialisation, economic growth, and national well-being since the Soviet era. The country’s carbon lock-in seems unfettered, as it emits 9% of EU greenhouse gas emissions and the government’s energy transition plans will keep coal in Poland’s energy mix for decades to come.

The sheer scale of Poland’s energy transition—exacerbated by the country’s relatively low GDP per capita by EU standards—leads Polish decision-makers to focus on the negative implications of phasing coal out. Politicians tend to emphasise the energy security risks when reducing domestic coal in the country’s energy mix, the need to facilitate a just transition as thousands of miners will lose their jobs, and the question of who will pay for the energy transition’s costs. The pervasiveness of these considerations highlight that Western European countries and EU-level institutions have been unable to convince Polish policy-makers that they will receive ample support in the energy transition. Warsaw’s decision is especially distressing, because it is the citizens of Poland have to deal with climbing respiratory health issues, beyond the climate impact, linked to burning coal.

The Czech Republic is in a similar situation to that of Poland’s. It is also a former Eastern Bloc country with lower levels of GDP per capita that relies on—mostly domestic—coal to meet 40% of its energy demand. Both Czechia and Poland deem coal a key national asset, that has been the organising principle of their domestic energy systems—making any sort of change a costly endeavour. Existing nuclear power plants ease pressure on the Czech Republic, but further projects are in limbo as rising costs, regulatory uncertainty, and European opposition to the technology may render it an unviable source of energy. Meanwhile, renewable energy’s costs may be declining, but their penetration in both Czechia and Poland remain low.

Estonia hesitated to back the goals proposed by the Commission, but it only took up its outright opposing stance when it became clear that other countries will veto the agreement. Tallinn may be seeking more flexibility on the target year, but sources close to negotiations confirmed that the country’s government can be swayed to back the initiative as talks continue.

Hungary, the fourth country to veto the EU 2050 targets, offers a peculiar case, as the country initially backed the 2050 initiative, but as talks progressed, it decided to withdraw support. One element of Prime Minister Orbán’s decision to reverse course was Hungary’s long-standing friendly political relations with Poland, which have continued under the Fidesz and PiS governments. However, PM Orbán’s opposition to an ambitious climate agenda is also deeply rooted in his political manoeuvring, which has intimate ties to the country’s energy policies.  

Coal only comprises a small portion of Hungary’s energy mix; instead, it is the hydrocarbons and the nuclear technology imported from Russia that consolidate the country’s path dependence. Hungary has remained reliant on Russian nuclear technology, reinforced in the government’s commitment to construct the Paks 2 nuclear power plant. Simultaneously, imported inexpensive and abundant Russian oil and natural gas have been focal to supplying the transportation as well as the household and industrial sectors, respectively.

Hungary’s energy mix has allowed the country to swiftly comply with EU 2020 goals, but challenges are now surfacing, as much greater action is necessary for the country to meet its (unambitious) 2030 targets. PM Orbán is having difficulties squaring energy transition goals facilitated by Western European member states and EU-level institutions with his domestic agenda that emphasises the need to maintain low utility prices or his foreign policy strategy which is intertwined with fossil fuel imports from Russia.

Hungary, like Poland and the Czech Republic, is increasingly wedged between the climate polices of western member states and EU-level institutions and the path dependence of their energy systems that emerged during the Communist Era. PM Orbán’s statement following his decision to veto the EU 2050 summarizes the Visegrád region’s approach to the energy transition fairly accurately: “We agree with the [2050 climate] goal, but until we see where the money for this will come from, we will not take on any commitments. So, let’s begin to discuss the money!”. Without the EU’s financial incentives provided by the EU, these member states seem unlikely to disrupt practices prevalent since the middle of the 20th century. Unfortunately, our planet is burning up in the meantime.

John Szabó

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