Will the Czech Presidency speed up or slow down the implementation of the European Green Deal?

The Czech Presidency started on 1 July 2022 and coincides with the halfway point of the current Commission’s mandate and its plan for the European Green Deal.

When Ursula von der Leyen presented one of the most ambitious political projects to date in EU history, aiming at making Europe the first climate-neutral continent, nobody could imagine that just a few months later, an unprecedented pandemic would lock down the whole EU. Yet, and despite strong pushes to derail the European Green Deal agenda as an immediate reply to the crisis, the Green Deal stayed afloat and was even slightly boosted through the national recovery and resilient plans.

And in fact, almost half of the sustainability experts who answered IEEP’s Green Deal Barometer survey in 2021 thought that the pandemic had accelerated the green transition overall.

But the EU had no time to turn off crisis mode, as Russia invaded Ukraine in February and started a war at the border of the EU. This war had immediate consequences on the European Green Deal agenda. On one hand, it sped up the energy transition as a response to President Putin’s energy weapon; on the other, Putin’s attempt to weaponize food to win the war led to short-term and concerning answers from the EU block, which turned toward prioritising unsustainable productivity over resilient and necessary changes in both consumption and production.

When asked again this spring about the chance of the European Green Deal being implemented by 2024, sustainability experts became far more sceptical, with almost half of the respondents now believing that the Green Deal will not be implemented (i.e translated into legislative proposals, regulation, science-based targets) by 2024. Of the 300+ experts who responded to the survey, 73% think that the war will have negative consequences on the Green Deal implementation in the short term (so over the next 12 months). This is very concerning: even if the geopolitical situation has significantly changed over the past couple of months, science has not. If the world does not take immediate action to cut emissions, overshooting 1.5°C of global warming is inevitable. By putting forward the Green Deal as the answer, the EU can increase energy and food security and accelerate the green transition to limit global warming to 1.5°C at the same time. It is imperative that leaders don’t walk into the trap of short-term solutions that hamper the green transition in the long term.

Therefore, the question is whether the Czech Presidency, which traditionally is not amongst the most climate-ambitious countries in the EU and is perceived by over 60% of Green Deal Barometer survey respondents as not committed to the implementation of the Green Deal, will accelerate the Green Deal agenda in the coming months or, on the contrary, if it risks slowing it down. We aim to anticipate this in the below analysis, looking first at the Czech Presidency’s plans for the energy transition, sustainable food systems and climate diplomacy. Each section contains recommendations that the Presidency should take into account to ensure they double down on the Green Deal.

Energy security: Winter is coming

When representatives of the first Czech Presidency successfully managed the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute in 2009, they probably didn’t expect that the second Czech Presidency would have to deal with a Russian fossil fuel crisis again, 13 years later.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which exacerbated the energy crisis that Europe has been grappling with over the last year, fundamentally affected all priorities of the Czech Presidency and determined its priorities in the European Green Deal as well.

In the short term, the invasion is believed to have been detrimental to the implementation of goals of the Green Deal as it reshaped the way policymakers thought about the crisis. However, in the long-term, the invasion may paradoxically speed up the green transition, as the EU and its Member States prioritise their energy security. Energy security is also one of the top priorities of the current Czech Presidency and the main task for the Czech diplomats will be to break dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

It is clear that one of the main short-term objectives of the current Czech Presidency and the main task for the Czech diplomats will be to break the EU's dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The Czech Presidency will put an emphasis on an accelerated implementation of REPowerEU that should bring European citizens closer to the goals of energy security. That is why the Presidency plans to work on the implementation of the regulation of gas reserves, i.e. filling storage towards next winter, and the promotion of voluntary joint purchases. Moreover, the Czech Presidency will deal with energy efficiency and renewable energy as well as with the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) on the table. Finally, the Czech Presidency will deal with the role of nuclear energy in ensuring EU’s energy security while meeting EU’s climate goals. As at the end of June, under the French Presidency, the Council agreed on general approaches for many of these legislative pieces, the role of the Czech Presidency will be to manage the trialogue talks between the EU’s institutions.

According to the European Commission, between 2019 and 2021, wholesale electricity prices increased on average by 230 % across the EU. What is more, gas prices rose by 430 % during the same period. This has badly affected energy suppliers. For example, in the Czech Republic alone, since October last year, 17 companies in total have folded. As a result, about one million customers lost their energy suppliers. It might then come as no surprise that according to the recent polls, Czechs are more afraid of the rising prices than of the war.

One of the questions European leaders should ask themselves what the adequate price to deprive the EU of Russian fossil fuels is and who would bear the cost. It is of vital importance that low-income households are protected from high price increases. For the energy transition not to be seen as an elitist project, to be supported by the Czech and European citizens, it is clear that the social aspect needs to be a transversal part of the European Green Deal and the “Fit for 55” climate package.

According to both European and Czech energy policy representatives, the Russian invasion made the European Green Deal even more relevant and is considered as the solution that will help us get rid off, or at least reduce, our dependency on Russian fossil fuel imports. In order to continue our advancement towards the Green Deal goals, Czech representatives need to realise that energy security and transition can go hand in hand and focus on areas where the two are closely connected.

In view of this, the Czech Presidency should:

  • Successfully moderate the debate and lead trialogue talks in key aspects of the “Fit for 55” climate package, such as the Energy Efficiency Directive, the Renewable Energy Directive, the EU ETS Directive, the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive and other pieces of legislation that would help the EU reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels.
  • Advance the implementation of the REPowerEU initiative, promoting joint purchases of gas and the compliance with regulation on gas storage.
  • Make sure that prioritising energy security does not exclude social implications of decarbonisation from the debate, advocating for a just transition for European regions with the help of the Social and Climate Fund and the Just Transition Fund.
  • Show commitment towards clean mobility and an alignment of goals of the public and the private sectors in this field. The Presidency offers an opportunity for this, as the Czech Republic is an export-oriented economy with a strong industrial presence, especially in the automotive industry.

Shift to sustainable food systems: a step backwards? 

While the stated general goals under the Czech Presidency in the area of agriculture and food systems don't omit to mention climate and biodiversity protection, development of sustainable farming and sustainable food production, current food security concerns might result in weakening the ambition of some of the concrete targets drafted in the Farm to Fork strategy.

The main priority of the Czech Presidency in the food systems area is to ensure food security both in and outside the EU in the context of the war in Ukraine. This priority will be reflected in most of the agricultural agenda. First, an important task for the agri-food sector under the Czech presidency will be to finalise discussions around CAP Strategic Plans, revised in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Second, following the recently unveiled proposal by the European Commission on the reduction of chemical pesticides, the Czech Presidency should aim to successfully lead the negotiations with the goal of setting legally binding targets to reduce pesticide use across the EU. However, since the introduction of Farm to Fork, the Czech Republic has been calling for these targets to acknowledge different starting positions of Member States, and to allow milder targets in cases where significant pesticide reduction had already been achieved before the targets' introduction. Other food system related items on the agenda include negotiations of next year's fishing rights in both EU and non-EU waters, adoption of the principles for sustainable marine and freshwater aquaculture, food labelling, and animal health and welfare.

In this area, the Czech Presidency should:

  • Push for legally binding targets for pesticide use reduction, leading to a minimum of 50% reduction EU-wide by 2030, while enforcing integrated pest management and diversification of agroecosystems.
  • Finalise the discussions on CAP Strategic Plans as soon as possible, ensuring that the European Commission’s remarks in its observation letters are well taken into account, without further compromising environmental ambitions, including the upcoming proposed requirement for 10% of agricultural land earmarked for high biodiversity landscape (under the Nature Restoration Law proposal).

Climate diplomacy: A hidden priority

Climate diplomacy is not on the list of the Czech Presidency priorities introduced by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Nevertheless, green diplomacy is mentioned under the topic “Energy”, and this is a positive signal that the environmental aspect has been identified as relevant in relation to EU partners. However, considering the complexity of global decarbonisation and global climate resilience and all the cascading impacts of either achieving or failing to reach these goals, it would have been more accurate to see climate diplomacy explicitly mentioned, even as an overarching priority (the only one being as such is the topic of transatlantic relations).

In more practical terms, climate/green diplomacy under the MFA stands on two pillars: a) the adoption of Council conclusions and its contribution to COP27 success, and b) focus on climate security in the context of human security, especially regarding disaster risk reduction and triple nexus (humanitarian-development-peace nexus). Geographically, attention should be given to the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries, as well as the Indo-Pacific and Sahel region. Further, several events should take place in Prague to bring attention to and open the debate on green/climate diplomacy. For instance, a meeting of EU climate ambassadors may take place in September (including the conference ‘Striving for Climate Security in the midst of Multiple Crises’), and the Green Diplomacy Network should meet in November, covering for instance topics such as the use of space data to tackle climate change.

It is important to stress that the Czech Presidency will have to lead the EU delegation on several global events; the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), COP27, and the CITES COP in November, and the Convention on Biological Diversity COP in December. Ironically, though, “green”, ”energy”, “climate diplomacy” are not explicitly mentioned in the overarching governmental priorities or in the priorities of the Ministry of the Environment.

In this area, the Czech Presidency should:

  • See this occasion to build capacity for climate diplomacy coordination which is currently neither institutionally anchored nor fully recognised by relevant ministries.
  • Contribute in a more constructive manner to global decarbonisation and global resilience in the future, bilaterally as well as multilaterally.

Apply climate-mainstreaming to all fields, including international trade and export policies, defence, international cooperation, amongst others. In light of the energy crises, various planned events and expected processes should demonstrate that climate change is an intersectional issue, and an overarching strategy is needed to align various ministries and actors.

Conclusion

Whether or not the Czech Presidency will accelerate the implementation of the European Green Deal agenda in the next 6 months remains very uncertain and varies from issue to issue. What remains certain is that the timing of the Czech Presidency is crucial. Depending on its strategy in setting the agenda, determining priorities and leading discussions in the Council of ministers, it can contribute to making an EU that is not only resilient to the current crisis but also to future crises.

Photo by Jack Hunter on Unsplash