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Central Europe should aim for green strategic autonomy in the wake of Russian aggression

This opinion editorial was co-authored by Tomas Jungwirth, Head of the Climate Team, at the Association for International Affairs, Czechia.

CEE countries are among those most exposed to Russian President Putin’s power plays. It is in their national interests to cut their dependency on Russian energy and material exports as swiftly as possible. They should embrace green strategic autonomy as the foundation of peace and security in the region.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine combined with the elections in Hungary is set to mark a growing rift among the four Visegrad countries. While all four States are heavily reliant on Russian gas, oil, coal and – except for Poland – nuclear fuel, their established relationship is starting to be redefined. Poland has signalled a strong commitment to ending Russian energy imports, with Czechia and Slovakia also expressing concern about their energy import dependency while Hungary has insisted on leaving energy out of the EU sanctions. Yet in the context of the escalating climate crisis and the re-emergence of traditional security threats in Europe’s neighbourhood, only green strategic autonomy can ensure long-term peace and security for the region.

The Visegrad countries are not alone in facing this challenge. Europe as a whole faces severe security threats after decades of failing to fundamentally reform its energy sector and heavy industries or substantially reduce its dependence on foreign energy. In fact, Europe’s energy dependency – or reliance on imports to meet its energy needs – has actually increased by 5 percentage points since 2000, reaching 61 per cent in 2019.

This dependency is made worse by the concentration of supplies from just a few countries, several of which are governed by authoritarians or are highly unstable. In 2019 three authoritarian countries accounted for 42 per cent of the EU’s imports of crude oil (27 per cent from Russia, 8 per cent from Saudi Arabia and 7 per cent from Kazakhstan), while Russia accounted for almost half of its imports of solid fuel (mostly coal).

Central and Eastern European governments are right to be concerned about how severe sanctions on Russia will affect households, which are already reeling from a huge rise in energy prices across Europe in recent months. While current estimates suggest that the EU’s reserves of fossil gas are sufficient to see households through the next few months without major disruptions, the big challenge is in preparing for next winter without Russian supplies of coal, gas and oil. With the exception of Hungary and driven by Poland, the political will should be in place across the Central and Eastern Europe region.

Today, almost 50 per cent of all buildings in the EU are equipped with boilers. Fifty-eight per cent of these boilers are fired by gas. One in three households across the continent use gas burners. Accordingly, in the short term, the EU’s priority should be to urgently reduce this household dependence on all fossil gas, not just that from Russia. European governments will search for alternative sources of fossil gas – be it from Azerbaijan, Qatar or the USA – but this will only be a temporary measure that perpetuates the EU’s energy dependency. More broadly, the EU will also have to reconsider the role of gas as a transition fuel in its energy decarbonisation pathway scenarios to 2050, which will have major implications for the industry.

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