Opportunities for Honest Exchange

A comment by Péter Vigh, founder and editor of the climate awareness campaign ‘Másfél fok’. As one of the participants in the EUKI Academy and CAN Europe Study Tour to Brussels from 30 May to 1 June 2023, he reflects on the tour and the obstacles and possibilities of climate action in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

by Péter Vigh, Masfelfok

Published: 22 June 2023

The importance of climate action in Central and Eastern Europe

The CEE region must play a vital role in fulfilling the goals of the Fit for 55 package and the European Green Deal. However, will power and imagination will not be enough on their own. What we NGO representatives need in particular are tools, best practices, knowledge transfer, networking opportunities and general support (not just financial assistance, but emotional and psychological support as well).

Why? The reason is simple yet complex. The immense task of rapidly achieving climate neutrality is unprecedented in human history. This is major challenge even for long-standing democracies and countries with progressive climate policies, but in the CEE region the obstacles are even greater.   

There was a clear – if understated – hope among the organisers and the EU representatives that we, the participants, would spread the word about the importance and benefits of climate action and energy transition. They wanted us to influence our societies and decision-makers with a view to aligning policies with EU goals.

Civil society operates under increasing pressure in the CEE region from political agendas and corporate lobbies, so the challenges that we face are numerous and sometimes overwhelming. And while only a handful of organisations are dealing with environmental and climate issues in these countries, we recognise our role and responsibility in the process.

The EUKI Academy Study Tour group visiting the EU Parliament in Brussels, Photo: ©Sina Goeschen | GIZ
Participants of the EUKI Academy Study Tour at a panel inside the EU Parliament, Photo: ©Sina Goeschen | GIZ

On tour in Brussels’ political backyard

During the study trip’s many interesting sessions, there were valuable takeaways for all the participants, who came from very different fields and backgrounds. The first day provided a recap of the current state of the Fit for 55 & REPowerEU packages as well as the upcoming revision of the National Energy and Climate Plans. The „Do No Significant Harm” policy and regulations can be crucial but only when used properly—it’s essential to identify any potential damage that activities might cause before implementation.

The second day was full of meetings with representatives from DG CLIMA and ENER. During these talks and roundtable discussions, valuable information was shared on how to speed up the transition to renewables and on the socioeconomic benefits of energy savings and the renovation of buildings.

There was a notable reality check moment when the participants from the CEE region realised EU institutions and policies wouldn’t save them. If the state itself doesn’t accept the terms and conditions of a given policy, the country won’t receive the available EU funding and their societies will have to live with the consequences. Thus, the question is: Why are governments withholding funding that could improve quality of life and reduce energy bills?

Participants of the EUKI Academy Study Tour in open discussions with Members of the EU Parliament, Photo: ©Sina Goeschen | GIZ
Participants of the EUKI Academy Study Tour in open discussions with Members of the EU Parliament, Photo: ©Sina Goeschen | GIZ

An open discussion on the future of climate policies

Everybody agreed that the energy transition would not be feasible without a just transition – and this was particularly hard to imagine in the CEE region. In addition, while more ambitious climate action based on the best available science is crucial and necessary, communication should focus more on success stories, achievements and benefits in order to avoid further pushback on climate policies. We should address people directly and emphasise that meaningful climate action and the energy transition are good for their living standards and wellbeing, improve their air quality and reduce their energy bills.

The overall openness and honesty of these discussions was not entirely expected and was greatly appreciated by the participants.

On the third day, participants visited the European Parliament (EP) and met with MEPs Martin Hojsík and Mikuláš Peksa. The upcoming EP elections in 2024 are particularly significant, since the newly elected Parliament and Commission will be tasked with introducing and adopting the EU climate goals for 2040. The goals are being prepared by the current Commission.

Field trip to Eeklo

Later, we visited the Eeklo energy community. The people in Eeklo are completely energy self-sufficient based on the wind and solar energy they produce. They have shown that the energy transition can be achieved through hard work and planning, by ensuring ownership among the local community, and by partnering with the municipality. This benefits both the climate and the economy on a genuinely local level.

To further raise the bar, we were told that they wanted to expand their energy community to include households living in energy poverty. After paying reduced energy bills for a few years, these households would become full members of the energy community. If this project works, they want to disseminate it as a best practice all over Belgium.

Self-sustaining town Eeklo in Belgium, Photo: ©Sina Goeschen | GIZ
Participants of the Brussels Study Tour visiting Eeklo, Photo: ©Sina Goeschen | GIZ

Opportunities for climate action in CEE

When we talk about the CEE region, we usually focus on the “no-can-do’s”, but it is extremely important to address the possibilities as well. By rapidly implementing the right policies and solutions – and leveraging the “late-starter advantage” – the region can make use of the best available technologies and frameworks and avoid further lock-in effects. Policy- and decision-makers in Brussels and in Western Europe should always keep this in mind when thinking about the region.

After three very busy days in Brussels, tasked with more responsibilities but also equipped with tools and possible ways out of our domestic circumstances, the study tour came to end, and the participants left for our home countries to face the challenges that were patiently waiting for us.

While the general conditions for ambitious climate action and energy transition are not particularly favourable in CEE, the biggest strength we already have is each other. We don’t just share the same burdens, we also share the good things, like viable projects. This study trip was a step forwards in empowering us. Let’s hope that it will be beneficial for our countries and for the EU – we will do our best.

The study tour participants met with representatives from the Directorate-General for Climate Action (DG CLIMA), the Directorate-General for Energy (DG ENER), the cabinet of EC Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans, MEPs, important NGOs and think tanks from all over Europe. From 30 May to 1 June 2023, they discussed various topics related to climate and energy policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and neither reflect the views of the European Climate Initiative nor the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action.