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Earth Day 2020: climate actions in CEE

The theme chosen for the 50th anniversary of the Earth Day is climate action, both seen as an enormous challenge, but also as a vast opportunity. The Earth Day Network is displaying numerous initiatives worldwide, including in Central and Eastern Europe. However, when it comes to the region, those are mostly small and local events organised either by individuals or universities and NGOs.

Go, municipalities!

Wojciech Szymalski, CEO of Poland’s Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD), mentions the city of Bydgoszcz, which is heading towards a 100 per cent non-coal energy use already in 2021.

“There are small municipalities in Western Pomerania region (for example Łobez), which have already welcomed so many RES [Renewable Energy Source] investments, that they produce over 100 per cent of the electricity they need via renewables,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS.

Unfortunately, he adds, although they produce it, it is more difficult to use it due to the national laws and regulations.

“All Western Pomerania relays for over 60 per cent on renewables, most of which is wind energy,” he continues. “There are municipalities also generating renewable heat (Kisielice) from biomass or geothermal (Mszczonów, Poddębice, Uniejów) or with a considerable number of solar water heating installations (Sucha Beskidzka).”

Gennady Kondarev, the coordinator of the Public Funds for Sustainable Development campaign at the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Bulgaria, recalls some major game-changers in the country too.

“Bulgaria developed a good renewable energy sector and many companies managed to gain good resilience to the political hurricanes in the past years while managing to export their services abroad,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS. “The country has also managed to establish massive renovation programmes and several municipalities started their programmes for replacement of the inefficient forms of domestic heating.”

The role of governments and the EU

“Can you imagine that all those initiatives have not been ever promoted by the national government?”, asks Mr Szymalski.

As also recognised by Denis Hayes, the organiser of the first Earth Day in 1970 and Chair Emeritus of the Earth Day Network’s Board, “despite that amazing success and decades of environmental progress, we find ourselves facing an even more dire, almost existential, set of global environmental challenges, from loss of biodiversity to climate change to plastic pollution, that call for action at all levels of government.”

Brandon Pytel, communications manager of the Earth Day Network, reminded that the Earth Day 2020 coincides with a big election year, with 65 major elections worldwide. In 2018, the United Nations warned that we only had 12 years to reduce carbon emissions. But world leaders seem to be going in the wrong direction.

“It looks like only Poland is the country with a hand on a break and maybe Romania and Bulgaria could follow a bit,” says Mr Szymalski.

It is a question of how many coal mines are still in those countries and how big is the voting power of this economical branch.

“Only in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, this power might be significant, therefore, only in these countries, there are governmental doubts about going forward with RES or energy efficiency,” he continues.

According to Mr Kondarev, overall, the CEE region is living a reality where economic growth is still considered inseparable from the use of primary resources and fossil fuel energy.

The countries are often the major opponents of higher climate ambition in the EU.

“Taking Bulgaria as an example,” he explains. “It did support the goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050, but the country’s scenarios show reluctance to step out of coal till 2030, as there is a lot of push for fossil gas infrastructure, exploration for new oil and gas resources in the territorial waters and unrealistic nuclear dream for new nuclear capacities that will divert the little public resource away from the real solutions.”

On the other hand of the political chain, Mr Szymalski recognises that societies are quite positive about renewables and in Poland over 90 per cent of the people support RES development.

Environmental support in the EU has been rising. According to the latest Eurobarometer data, 53 per cent of EU citizens believes that supporting the environment is a top priority. However, when it comes to decision-makers, only 36 per cent believes that national governments should intervene, while 60 per cent considers the EU the right actor to come up with an answer.

At the beginning of April, environment ministers from ten EU countries called on the European Commission to make the European Green Deal the blueprint for the economic recovery measures. They warned against short-term solutions to the current crisis that risk locking the EU into a fossil fuel economy for the decades to come.

“To make our societies resilient to future shocks and our economies more sustainable, the Commission must set up a Paris-compliant economic recovery and put forward an ambitious climate target of at least 65 per cent emissions cuts by 2030,” commented Wendel Trio, Director of Brussels-based think-tank Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe. “This is the only way to protect citizens and economies from another, ongoing and worsening crisis: climate change.”

The EU’s current target of 40 per cent emissions cuts by 2030 is off track with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

What energy companies do…

To reach such targets, all energy companies are increasing their support for the environment and climate change.

Since 2008, CEE leading oil and gas group MOL has been producing a yearly sustainability report. In 2019, the company’s total direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from operated facilities reached 6.8 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents (CO2-eq), a year-over-year decrease of 8 per cent compared to 7.4 million tonnes of CO2-eq in 2018.

Also, total hazardous waste amounted to 97 th tonnes during 2019, a 33 per cent decrease compared to 2018. That’s also thanks to a project launched by MOL in 2011 to simplify the process of collecting used oil from households by converting it into bio motor fuel across the service station network.

As another leading player in the regional market, Romgaz acknowledged, on one hand, the possibility to promote the use of natural gas as a fuel for the electricity generation in the process of transition to a low-carbon economy. On the other hand, the gas industry must minimise methane emissions in the production process. In this regard, the company’s management system helps to constantly monitor all the environmental factors that may be affected by its activities. And through the greenhouse gas emission monitoring procedure, Romgaz keeps the emission levels under control, reporting the results on a yearly base.

In 2018, it was registered a 7.3 million gigajoules (GJ) decrease in the energy consumption due to the implementation of certain measures including the modernisation of indoor and outdoor artificial lighting in the administrative buildings, the modernisation and replacement of thermal heating systems and the reduction of water-steam losses.

“Romgaz is aware of the implications of its activities and the impact on climate changes,” Adrian Volintiru, Romgaz CEO tells CEENERGYNEWS.

The Green Deal 2050 is in our attention, understanding that natural gas is a deployable natural resource and at the same time the cleanest hydrocarbon resource.

In this respect, Romgaz is looking for investment and development opportunities that increase the value of the methane molecule while preparing to transform and to adapt to future needs and global demands.

“An example, therefore, is the new Iernut Power Plant which is reaching the end of the investment, replacing the old power plant to achieve considerably increased performances by using gas for electricity generation, maintaining also the climate impact in the EU standards and requirements,” Mr Volintiru adds. “Consequently, these concerns existed within the company before the crisis generated by the coronavirus pandemic, but the crisis has given us the opportunity to reduce and prioritise costs better.”

…and how their actions are perceived

Local NGOs and think-tanks look at these companies with mixed reactions.

“There are businesses that have established environmental schemes and are showing the way ahead and others that are dragging everyone back into the race where the environment is considered a pie that can be grabbed for free,” Mr Kondarev points out. “There are companies that have developed great social and environmental policies and built upon them over the long-term. Others are the passenger without a ticket.”

Mr Szymalski believes that the Polish law is constructed in a way that money paid by big energy companies go to local municipalities and regions which, in return, use them for the protection of the environment.

“One of the richest municipality in Poland is Kleszczów, the one which welcomes the biggest open-pit mine in Europe,” he says. “And for this money, the municipality has the best roads and individual RES energy appliances for its citizens. With such a system energy companies already are tempting some municipalities with a perspective for creating new mines.”

“At the same time some companies do a lot in an area of corporate social responsibility (CSR) although the energy ones usually are not making CSR about climate, but might make things about nature protection,” he continues. “Many energy companies have already for years been investing in air pollution filters on their chimneys. So, they do actions, but those are not necessarily the actions we would like to see in the face of the climate crisis. Climate protection aims against their core business.”

Mr Kondarev describes the energy field in Bulgaria as unfortunately dominated by companies more in the wrong side of the spectrum: on one hand, hard to reform state-owned enterprises that are so encapsulated they completely reject the new global reality; and on the other hand, companies that could be off-shore registered, bearing no responsibility of the consequences coming from their activities, risking the life of their workers, and polluting the environment.

“When the rules of the game are different for everyone then the companies that want to be the engines of change find it hard to compete and often just leave the market,” he concludes.

After all, he remains positive, thinking that we are all living in a time when climate change and environment can no longer be ignored and are ever more defining factors of the global business.

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