When EU leaders recently agreed to reduce carbon emissions by at least 55% by 2030, eastern European leaders returned home brandishing their usual negative rhetoric, that they had somehow been bullied into accepting the deal. Yet, this “them versus us” game makes no sense for anyone, not least for eastern European countries, which have much more to gain by transitioning their economies away from fossil fuels than they do from defending a set of outdated myths.

The popular view in Warsaw, Prague or Budapest is that eastern Europe is poorer and needs to catch up with the West without having to restrict emissions, that its energy system is much more reliant on coal and so it is more difficult to bring online renewables – and that given past suffering, it needs to be left in peace for a while. On top of all that, many in eastern Europe genuinely believe the region has already done a lot for the climate and even leads the world in reducing carbon emissions.

These ideas might be widely shared, but they are mostly deliberately or innocently misleading political negotiation positions, which hide the economic reality in eastern Europe, haze its industrial history and inflict long-term damage on the region’s development.

Remains of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 2020, the anniversary of its fall. (Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia, in particular, is very keen on recycling the notion that eastern European countries have reduced their emissions more than anybody else. Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, recently described Russia as the world champion in terms of emission reductions and Russian President Vladimir Putin frequently tells the same story.

However, the reality, as so often is the case, is a little less simple.

Yes, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, carbon emissions in eastern Europe dropped dramatically. This fact should not be ignored, but it should be remembered that it is not a result of any emissions reduction policies, but the consequence of diplomatic compromise and the collapse of the highly inefficient Communist industry, which would not have survived much longer. After 1989, the centrally controlled eastern economies crumbled under their own huge weight and inadequate operations.

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The 1990 baseline agreed for the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was picked not least to persuade Russia, a key party in the negotiations, to support the agreement. By this time the fate of the former energy-intensive Soviet industry was clear and Russian emissions were already down by 42% compared with 1990.

Russia was more focused on trying to extract diplomatic and financial benefits from the Kyoto agreement than finding and supporting a climate solution. Agreeing with the 1990 reference year, rather than the more logical 1997, was a good bet for Russia. It is sobering to keep this diplomatic horse trading in mind when assessing eastern Europe’s emission savings.

The CO2 reduction hides another major issue for eastern European countries – their demographic crisis.

Since 1990, Hungary has reduced its carbon emissions by 32%, but the reduction per capita is only 27%. A similar story can be told for Romania, which has reduced its total national emissions by 56%, but only by 47% per capita, while Latvia has seen its emissions shrink by 63%, but only by 49% per capita. The difference for Bulgaria is most stark. It has reduced CO2 emissions by 42% since 1990. However, the country has also suffered mass emigration, losing around a fifth of its population in the past 30 years. This means Bulgaria’s CO2 reduction per capita is only 27%.

The picture in many western countries is very different.

The UK has seen a 37% decrease in emissions, but an increase in the size of its population pushes this figure per capita up to 46%. The scenario is the same for Germany, where carbon emissions are down by 28% overall and by 31% per capita. The figures for Italy are, respectively, 23% and 27%. Interestingly, total emissions in Spain have increased since 1990 by 16%, but decreased per capita by 3%.

Another argument as to why eastern Europe should be treated more leniently in terms of emissions reductions is that these countries paid a high social price for the transition from Communism to a market economy and that another painful transition would be too much. There is no doubt these countries paid a high social price, but it is important to look at what they paid for. In short, for decades of abnormal economic management; they paid for the past, not for the future.

Need to learn lessons from the past

The post-1990 hardship should not be ignored, but its lessons should be fully learnt; namely that unprepared, unplanned and poorly financed change leads to social and economic calamity. Further, it should not be forgotten that the transition to a mature and socially just market economy in the East is still not fully complete. The European Green Deal and the EU post-Covid recovery plan can be carefully used to complete this transition.

What about the other myths? Does eastern Europe really use more coal? Some countries do, others dont. The share of coal in power generation is high in Poland (80% in 2018), the Czech Republic (54%) and Bulgaria (43%), but not that high in Croatia (21%), Hungary (18%) or the Slovak Republic (12%). Indeed, some western countries have a significant share of coal generation, such as Germany (43%) and the Netherlands (34%).

A high share of coal generation has not prevented old member states announcing the early closure of mines. Greece, with 35% coal power generation, has committed to end coal use in 2028, while in just eight years, the UK has managed to reduce its coal generation from more than 40% to almost zero, without increasing household electricity bills.

Perhaps most importantly, the myth that eastern European countries cannot commit to more ambitious climate targets is damaging the long-term prospects of their economies.

Reducing carbon emissions through cleaner energy sources is increasingly associated with industrial modernisation, high efficiency, cleaner air, better housing and generally higher living standards.

Contrary to the populist view that lower emissions reduction targets will help the economy, they are more likely to prevent high technology and high value-added investments, opening instead the space for low labour cost outsourcing and the continuing loss of competent workers choosing to move to more ambitious countries.

To change history, the European Commission and leaders of the most advanced European economies need to demonstrate to reluctant east European governments the potential major economic benefits that can come from respecting climate obligations.

Julian Popov is a fellow of the European Climate Foundation, chairman of the Buildings Performance Institute Europe and the former Minister of Environment of Bulgaria. He is a member of the Advisory Council of EIT Climate-KIC and sits on the boards of several European energy policy think tanks.