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CEE leaders at COP26: commitments, hopes and fears

Around 120 leaders came together in Glasgow on Monday at the start of COP26, launching two weeks of global negotiations to help determine whether humanity can drive forward the urgent action needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“The science is clear that the window of time we have to keep the goal of 1.5℃ alive and to avoid the worst effects of climate change, is closing fast,” said COP President Alok Sharma. “But with political will and commitment, we can and must, deliver an outcome in Glasgow the world can be proud of.”

The World Leaders Summit

In particular, the World Leaders Summit’s goal is to send a clear signal to negotiators to be as ambitious as possible and agree to a negotiated outcome that accelerates action this decade. Moving from the promise of Paris, announcements in key sectors will start to show how Glasgow will deliver. This includes new commitments on consigning coal to history, electric cars, reducing deforestation and addressing methane emissions. Building on the publication of the 100 billion US dollars delivery plan, which the Presidency requested the Canadian and German governments lead, finance will remain a key priority. Discussions are focusing on how the countries most vulnerable to climate change can access the finance needed to deliver climate adaptation and boost green recovery from the pandemic. 

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson already announced a funding package, as part of the UK’s Clean Green Initiative, to support the rollout of sustainable infrastructure and revolutionary green technology in developing countries. This includes a package of guarantees to the World Bank and the African Development Bank to provide 3 billion US dollars for investments in climate-related projects in India, supporting India’s target to achieve 450 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy installed capacity by 2030 and across Africa. 

Governments’ leaders from Central and Eastern Europe all recognised the urgency of the fight against climate change, reiterated their commitments and, in some cases, expressed some disappointments regarding regional and European policies which are not really helping in reducing CO2 emissions.

The climate crisis is real

The world has experienced record temperatures and extreme weather during the past year pushing the planet dangerously close to climate catastrophe. Real-time examples of the climate crisis were mentioned by Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis which reminded us of the record temperatures above 40 degrees which were experienced during the summer and the huge amount of forests fires that Greece had to deal with.

Or the Caucasus, a beautiful land of mountains, glaciers and rivers, which has already lost 40 per cent of its glaciers. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili recalled that during the last two decades alone, the speed of glacier loss in Eastern Georgia has exceeded projections from the end of the 20th century.

“We fully share the alarm presented by the UN Secretary-General’s latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that declared a code red for humanity,” he said.

Big emitters must be on board too

“Now it is high time we deliver a realistic pathway towards the goal of 1.5 degrees,” said Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Janša. “Slovenia, in the role of the Presidency of the Council of the EU, is working with its European partners towards this goal. However, with only 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions, the EU cannot solve this problem alone. We are committed to forming our offer and we call on everyone else to do the same.”

The same call was made by the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Andrej Babiš, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, on arrival to COP26 World Leaders Summit. Photograph: Karwai Tang/UK Government.

“The EU can achieve nothing without the participation of the largest polluters such as China or the US that are responsible for 27 and 15 per cent, respectively, of global CO2 emissions,” he reminded the audience.

Indeed, China published its long-awaited national plan on greenhouse gas emissions just days before the opening of COP26. However, experts noted that the plan represents little progress on the previously announced ambitions. Despite his claims that he was not allowed to deliver an online speech, the absence of President Xi Jinping was not seen as a good sign.

“We are here because none of us can meet these challenges alone,” added Georgia’s Mr Garibashvili. “Leaders from government, industry, academia, subject-matter professionals, technical experts and stakeholders in every community from every country and from every region must act jointly to solve the climate crisis by building a low-carbon and resilient economies. From small towns and villages to large urban areas, we must all pledge to the younger population today and for future generations, that preserving our planet is non-negotiable. We must act.”

CEE commitments

But, how do we act? Has enough been done? Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said that there have been many calls for action in different walks of life, from abandoning coal to increasing biodiversity.

“Some might say that these are only words,” she continued. “But those words have led to action.”

For Estonia, a country that is almost completely dependent on oil shale, it means having successfully reduced its emissions by around 70 per cent.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia, at COP26 World Leaders Summit. Photograph: Karwai Tang/UK Government.

“Green transition is a reality in Estonia,” Mrs Kallas highlighted. “We aim to stop production of electricity from oil shale by 2035 and phase out oil shale based energy entirely by 2040.”

Greece, despite its small carbon footprint, is also ready to contribute to the EU targets, thanks to several initiatives mentioned by Prime Minister Mitsotakis. These include how to decarbonise the maritime sector, as Greece represents 20 per cent of the world fleet. Or, how to combine emissions reduction and tourism, making the Mediterranean islands 100 per cent green and sustainable.

“In terms of renewable sources, in addition to the traditional wind and solar energy, we intend to be pioneers in offshore wind energy with an installed base power of 2 gigawatts (GW) by 2030,” Mr Mitsotakis pointed out.

Georgia has committed by 2030 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than half compared to its 1990 levels and to deepen the understanding of its adaptive capacity to climate change through international partnerships.

“For its part, Georgia will achieve this by diversifying its renewable energy sector; expanding the share of wind and solar segments in its energy market; transforming the country’s urban mobility; developing low-carbon approaches in the construction, industrial, and waste sectors; advancing climate-smart technologies and services; and increasing the carbon-capturing capacity of Georgia’s magnificent forests,” explained Prime Minister Garibashvili.

Some questions raised

Serbia has raised one billion euros at the first green bonds auction, which clearly confirms the trust of international investors in the country’s green agenda, but also in the economic and political stability of Serbia.  However, President Aleksandar Vučić raised also some questions for those that are coming from big powers and that haven’t answered them yet several. Among those, how to finance all these activities? Or how to treat the nuclear power plants? And how to look at natural gas?
All important questions for a region like CEE which still rely on coal, nuclear and natural gas.

From Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janša’s point of view, nuclear energy as a transitional source could replace coal and oil.

“More investments must be directed into new technologies and to support innovations that would lead to a cleaner, safer and more efficient energy, such as hydrogen and fusion power,” he said. “In any case, we need to present realistic action plans on the matter as soon as possible.”

Awareness: a key pillar of the just transition

Realistic plans that will take each situation into account and won’t leave anyone behind. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki emphasised that actions to counteract climate change must take into account social and economic conditions. 

“We are heading towards climate neutrality, but we must not forget both the economic effects of the pandemic and the developmental differentiation of individual countries and regions,” he said. “It is worth emphasising also what is the starting point of the rich countries of Western Europe compared to countries that could not develop normally after World War II. This shows how important it is to apply the principle of just transformation. Today, Poland must catch up and pursue a climate policy so that the Polish economy does not lose its competitiveness against other economies.”

And for the transition to be just, Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenković highlighted the importance of raising awareness of the general public on this topic, especially the young generations “because they deserve the future we had and the generations ahead of us.”

The Czech disappointment

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš turned out to be very disappointed with EU policies. While acknowledging the importance for the EU to become the first climate-neutral continent, he mentioned what he considered to be “dangerous policies” proposed by the Commission, such as the ban on combustible engines in 2035, or carbon allowances for transport and individual housing.

“Due to improper legislature and speculation, the price of emission allowances has gone out of control, resulting in the surging costs of electricity,” he started. “As a result and in connection with rapidly rising prices of natural gas, mostly caused by power games between states, many Europeans could be threatened by energy poverty. Instead of negotiating long-term contracts with Russia, European politicians are busy blocking the transit capacity of the Nord Stream 2 and Opal pipelines citing worries that the EU will become dependent on Russia. Ladies and gentlemen, this might seem like news to you, but we already are dependent on Russian natural gas and will be for at least another 20 to 30 years. Frankly, there is no other way, as the EU annually needs 400 billion cubic metres of natural gas, but produces a mere 50 billion.”

Echoing what Poland’s Prime Minister said about not leaving anyone behind, Mr Babiš shared concerns about the fact that the Fit for 55 package pays no heed to the conditions and dispositions of individual Member States or the ratio of the industry to GDP.

“[…] It is absolutely crucial for individual States to choose their own energy mix to achieve carbon neutrality,” he noted. “The Czech Republic cannot rely on renewable energy alone, our landscape and climatic conditions simply do not permit this. For the Czech Republic, nuclear power and natural gas are the only possible means of achieving zero CO2 emissions.”

Therefore, more actions are needed. Not just any actions, but the right ones, taken at the right time. Aspoet Yrsa Daley-Ward put it while addressing the world leaders: “anything less than your best is too much to pay. Anything later than now, too little, too late. Nothing will change without you.”

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