Risks of a reckless energy transition for Eastern Europe

Harmful projects may dominate Central and Eastern European energy proposals if the EU relaxes environmental protections to accelerate renewables. Case-by-case environmental impact assessments have proved crucial in the past to curb abuse of power and speculation on this side of Europe.

Alberto Vela reports together with Cosimo Tansini, Andras Luckas (Clean Air Action Network – Hungary) and Dana Marekova (Climate coalition Slovakia).

Similar to the recovery funds, the RePowerEU package is seen as a springboard for the green transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). But not all that glitters is green on this side of the bloc.

Civil society watchdogs have reported that Central and Eastern European governments have been allocating EU recovery funds to projects with significant negative impacts on nature. There are strong indications that this will also happen with the RePowerEU funds if certain safeguards are not secured.

Aimed at phasing out Russian fossil fuels, the RePowerEU plan is centred on two legislative proposals. One to speed up energy efficiency and the deployment of renewables. Another to change the rules on how Member States should use EU money (mainly from the recovery funds) to phase out Russian fossil fuel.

The first proposal introduces an exemption from environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for renewables projects in ‘go-to’ areas designated by Member States. An EIA evaluates the effects of a public or private project on the environment and involves the public concerned as a prerequisite. The second proposal puts forward a waiver of the ‘Do No Significant Harm’ (DNSH) principle. The DNSH provision was introduced for the recovery funds to ensure any investment does not cause significant damage to the environment.

However, what the EU officials see as shortcuts may become pitfalls for the energy transition in the heavily fossil-fuel-dependent CEE region.

Crucial EU protections

Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) have stood, in many cases, as a key firewall against abuse of power and nature trashing in Eastern and Central Europe.

From the recent court case between Czechia and Poland over Turów mine pollution to the litigation case won by Slovak civil society against the hydro plant Hronský Benadikt – one of 42 hydro projects proposed on this river – environmental legal safeguards have played a crucial role in citizens’ access to justice.

Currently, the EU environmental legal framework provides democratic tools and protections in the CEE territories. For this reason, it has become a target of illiberal governments. In Bulgaria and Hungary, the EIA procedure has been already weakened for projects declared of “strategic national importance”, while two-stage litigation processes were reduced to just one, reducing room for citizens’ control. Similarly, Slovakia has put on the table a regulation to decrease the powers of nature protection authorities while directly removing EIAs for projects resulting from the energy crisis.

Project-specific EIA’s must be defended and preserved in the EU legislation. They are not only crucial for civil society to confront harmful projects, but also act as a first psychological barrier for investors. Problematic investments are dropped before applying for a permit when planners realise in the EIA process that their project is breaching too many environmental rules or that local communities are against them.

Barriers lie elsewhere

Central and Eastern European countries lag behind their western neighbours in renewable energy deployment. This is due to, among other reasons, obstacles that can be overcome by the EU repowering plans.

Yet none of these barriers relate to nature protection or public scrutiny. The EU can do more to ease the energy transition in CEE member states by addressing the lack of infrastructure and grid interconnection in the region.

The RePowerEU plan aims at mobilising €300 billion (mainly from the already existing EU Recovery Fund) and represents a unique opportunity to address some of the most critical gaps for renewables in Eastern Europe. Since Russia turned off the gas tap, the demand for renewable heating technologies has boomed, revealing the lack of skilled workforce (heat pump installers, photovoltaic technicians, etc) for undertaking this shift in several CEE countries.

Bureaucracy is an issue indeed. RePowerEU funds must be channelled to hire more staff for permitting authorities to shorten approval times for renewable projects. These processes must be streamlined, become more predictable and less complicated.

Enhancing digitalisation in permitting procedures for energy projects is also key. A functional and easily accessible online platform could kill two birds with one stone by easing planning for project developers and making it possible for citizens and communities to timely access information regarding planned and ongoing permitting processes.

More money for gas

Opening the door to investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, albeit on a temporary basis, entails long-term risks that need to be carefully considered by the EU institutions.

The ‘Do Not Significant Harm’ exception is “strictly circumscribed” to fossil fuel infrastructure when there is not a feasible alternative to maintain energy security. But any investment on fossil gas and oil infrastructure, beyond being extremely costly, may have a lock-in effect in the long run.

For this reason, it is imperative for the Commission to urge Member States, under the coordination framework of the European Semester, to prioritise investments in energy efficiency and renewable over those on more gas infrastructure.

Nature-positive transition

Unequivocally, CEE Member States must shift away from gas and coal, which still dominate their energy mix, as soon as possible. But another fast-track route out of fossil fuels is possible without paving the way for malpractice.

Citizens and civil society organisations must be involved in the process of identifying and designating renewables ‘go-to areas’, as this would increase public acceptance of renewables and thereby reduce the risks of lengthy legal challenges later down the line.

Careful environmental mapping and sound spatial planning are a key process to identifying suitable and unsuitable areas for renewable projects, and therefore must be participatory. In Bulgaria, for instance, a recent study shows that the Balkan country has enough available degraded areas (disturbed land, open cast mines, abandoned industrial sites, car parks and transport corridors) to roll out the required photovoltaic capacity to decarbonise its energy grid.

Central and Eastern EU States can decarbonise their economies and energy systems in harmony with nature and local communities. We must simply not deprive them of the opportunity to demonstrate it.