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What’s in store for Bulgaria’s net-zero future? – interview with Bulgaria’s Minister of Environment and Water, Julian Popov

Earlier in June, Julian Popov was appointed Bulgaria’s Minister of Environment and Water, succeeding Rositsa Karamfilova. During the handover ceremony, he highlighted “climate, energy transition and industrial decarbonisation” as his key priorities.

CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Mr Popov about what the Ministry will focus on in the short- and long-term, Bulgaria’s main environmental challenges and the role that the country (and the whole CEE region) can play in climate policy development.

Mr Popov reminds us that climate policies are part of his Ministry portfolio.

“I want to expand the climate department and engage all other Ministries in the short and long-term implications of the international net-zero targets,” he announces. “The different countries and economic blocks around the world also have different approaches to meeting the Paris Climate Agreement objectives. That means that they have different legislations and technological developments.”

He points out that Bulgaria has to be competitive in the new net zero world, which requires significant adjustment of corporate strategies, regional development plans and national policies in every single sector.

“Compliance and engagement with the climate-related EU directives are just one of the conditions that Bulgaria needs to fulfil,” he continues. “But it is not sufficient. Our companies need to understand better the implications and the opportunities the net zero trajectories require and offer.”

“More concretely, I would like to see an adequate amendment to the climate legislation adopted by Parliament, engagement by the business with the global climate policy process, commitment to an earlier net zero target by a significant part of the industry and more specifically – a network of carbon neutral industrial zones.”

Asked about the biggest environmental challenges in Bulgaria, Mr Popov mentions climate adaptation, air quality, water management and waste treatment as the main areas where they have to work harder and invest more.

“Transport and urban infrastructure are not always adequate even to current climate conditions,” he adds. “With the changing climate, stronger rains, droughts and heatwaves these challenges will become more serious. Urban air quality is improving but there is a lot more work to be done, especially in domestic heating which is still a significant polluter in the winter. We need to modernise our waste treatment cycle and improve water management across the country.”

Nonetheless, since Julian Popov’s last mandate as Minister, many things have changed at the EU level (for example, with the REPowerEU, the EU Green Deal, the Green Hydrogen delegated acts, increased CO2 emission reduction targets, increased renewables installed capacity targets).

“EU climate-related targets are getting more ambitious,” agrees the newly appointed Minister. “My view is that Bulgaria has a strong potential not just to meet them but also to exceed them and benefit from them economically. If we want that to happen we need to modernise our industry and be more innovative in our energy sector. We should engage much more with our neighbours, increase cross-border grid connectivity and support the energy transition in the Western Balkans.”

And following the more ambitious targets and the new regulations at the EU level, Member States are now updating their National Energy and Climate plans. What is in store for Bulgaria?

“The NECP is being reviewed now in the context of RePowerEU, the commitments related to the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and most importantly the changing market conditions,” Mr Popov says. “In the last couple of years, we saw big volatility and uncertainty in the European energy markets, a surge in renewables investments and changes in consumer patterns.”

“I expect that Bulgaria will update its NECP with higher ambition for renewables. My view about public funds is that they should be used as leverage for investments. Most renewable projects are attractive for commercial investments. They need a predictable and clear regulatory environment, not public funds.”

In the meantime, COP28 is getting closer and Mr Popov hopes that CEE will have a much stronger presence.

“For the first time Bulgaria will have its own pavilion where we want to present the technological advance of the country in the net zero related industries,” he mentions. “It is time Bulgaria and the rest of the region to take its place on the climate mitigation and adaptation technologies and policy map.”

Indeed, Bulgaria can play an important role in terms of fighting against climate change and leading the energy transition in CEE.

“Bulgaria has high renewables and energy efficiency potential,” Mr Popov recalls. “We don’t always realise that and often claim that climate policies might have a negative impact on our economy. Exactly the opposite is true.”

“If we want to boost our industry and the economy in general we need to attract net zero-related investments and to improve radically our energy efficiency. I hope that this political line will encourage other countries in the region.”

“Bulgaria also declared its interest to host COP29,” he concludes. “Russia has threatened to block us in the East European Group of UN. We continue our fight to host COP29 and I hope that, whatever happens, next year the CEE will play a critical role in the climate policies development.”

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