Czech elections: is climate change a key issue in a coal thirsty Czech Republic?


The Czech Republic’s environmental record has not been too hot lately, but there are signs of gradual progress and it is a matter of increased attention for most political parties ahead of the general election this weekend.

“Czech political parties have turned green since the last elections, under pressure from the worsening climate crisis,” said a recent report from Greenpeace Czech Republic.

The Czech Republic had the third highest number of total greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the EU in 2019, after Ireland and Luxembourg, according to data collected by the European Environment Agency. It is also one of the top three coal burners in the EU, after Germany and Poland.

Coal still accounts for around half of the Czech Republic’s electricity production and a quarter of its residential heating demand, although its importance has declined in recent years, according to a detailed report released this month by the agency. Energy International (IEA).

The predominantly state-owned CEZ, the country’s largest utility, said in May that it plans to reduce the percentage of coal in its production mix to 12.5% ​​by 2030, from 36% in 2020.

Under the current coalition government, led by Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his ANO party, the Czech Republic is determined that it can only meet the EU’s increasingly stringent climate targets if Brussels gives it a little slack.

Babis played a leading role, alongside Hungary and France, in pressuring the EU to officially declare in December 2019 that nuclear power was acceptable as part of the bloc’s efforts to create a carbon neutral economy by 2050.

In March, the Joint Research Center, a group of experts from the European Commission, also said in a report that nuclear power was a “sustainable” source of energy. The Czech government this year approved plans for the ‘6.2 billion euro extension of the Dukovany nuclear power plant, and there are ambitions to expand the country’s second nuclear power plant.

However, experts believe that the Czech Republic cannot depend on the EU which continues to take a soft approach, and any move from Prague to carbon neutrality could affect the Czech economy, especially as Brussels has linked climate action to EU access to EU funds.

A national coal commission set up by the government last year suggested 2038 as the end date for phasing out coal use, later than the EU average but about the same as Germany’s plans.

The current coalition government’s junior partner, the Social Democrats (CSSD), has said they would prefer 2033 as a deadline and the government returned the review to the Coal Committee in May to find alternatives to a more exit. fast.

The aforementioned IEA report also argued that the Czech Republic needs to move forward with its plans to phase out the use of coal due to the EU’s changing climate plans, which will further increase the prices of CO2 emissions. and make the use of coal economically uncompetitive.

“I encourage the Czech government to start making better use of the various low carbon energy sources that can help it make a safe transition to a cleaner energy system and fuel its economy for decades to come,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. A press release.

What role does the climate crisis play in the elections in the Czech Republic?

In light of the growing urgency for climate action, the majority of political parties vying for power in next month’s general election have announced rather positive green agendas, especially compared to policies proposed in the last poll. national in 2017, said Daniel Vondrous, director. du Cercle Vert, a local NGO.

According to a study of party manifestos released earlier this month by the environmental organization, the Green Party and the new progressive-centrist coalition between the Pirate Party and the Party of Mayors and Independents (STAN) have the “strongest programs” for the climate. and environmental protection.

The CSSD has been praised for its green credentials, but the center-left also boasted of an equally positive manifesto in the last general election, according to the report. At the other end of the spectrum, the campaigns of the new conservative alliance TSS and the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party have been weakest on environmental issues.

Prime Minister Babis’ ANO party, which is expected to be the largest party in next month’s poll, was “weak” on environmentalism, but its positive commitments outweighed the negatives, according to the study.

Karel Polanecky, an energy expert from the Rainbow Movement, another environmental organization, attributes the changes in political attitude to public sentiment. “Opinion polls show that the public considers environmental issues to be relatively important,” he said.

A survey released in late 2020 by Behavio, a local pollster, found that 69% of Czechs believe life on Earth will become more difficult by 2050 compared to today. Almost three quarters of those polled thought climate change was a major problem.

But according to the latest opinion polls, the main issues for the Czech electorate are the economy, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and immigration. Climate change comes at the bottom of the list.

Vondrous, of the Green Circle, agrees that public sentiment is one of the reasons for the change in the way most political parties now approach environmental issues. But he believes there are two other explanations.

Politicians have realized that funding for EU programs, which is vital for the Czech economy, is now directly linked to how the country’s authorities meet environmental targets. The Czech Republic has been a net beneficiary of EU funding since joining in 2004, but Brussels is tightening environmental conditions attached to certain funds.

In July, the EU agreed to the Czech National Recovery Plan, which will see the country receive around € 7 billion in investment over the next five years from the € 750 billion Brussels Resilience and Recovery Fund. . Under the agreement, the Czech Republic is to devote 37% of the funding to projects related to climate change.

The EU is also cutting its teeth on climate issues. Last week, the EU Court of Justice ruled that Poland should pay the European Commission around € 500,000 a day as a fine after failing to comply with an EU order in May d ‘immediately stop the operations of the lignite mine in Turow, near the Czech border, on environmental concerns.

Polish authorities say they will not cease operations. The Czech Republic had challenged the mine’s permit over claims it affected groundwater levels on the Czech side of the border.

Another reason is the creation of two new political alliances which “try to come up with more ‘European’ common electoral programs,” Vondrous said. As a result, individual parties that were previously weak on environmental issues had to adapt their programs to their new political partners.

Prague wants to triple its renewable energy production by 2025

In the 2017 general election, the center-right Civil Democratic Party (ODS), currently the largest opposition party, had one of the worst manifestos in environmental policy, according to the aforementioned Greenpeace report. But due to its partnership with two small parties that were previously better on green issues, the ODS through the new SPOLU alliance now has a “strong green agenda,” the report adds.

The same goes for the new pact between the Progressive Pirate Party and the centrist Party of Mayors and Independents (STAN). The Green Circle study noted that STAN’s environmental program was weak before the 2017 general election, but it has improved significantly as it is now in alliance with the Pirate Party, which has always had strong environmental credentials.

But despite all the talk about going green by political parties, Vondrous warns that pre-election promises “aren’t concrete enough” and that some of the country’s top politicians may not have a long-term stake in climate protection . “So the real future results are still not clear,” he said.

The Green Circle study found that only the Green Party and the Pirate and Mayors alliance have specified in their manifestos a date to end the use of coal for power generation, in 2030 and 2033 respectively. Most other major parties have pledged to gradually reduce the use of coal, but are not respecting the dates and have not proposed concrete means to achieve it.

The NOA manifesto says it wants to triple renewable energy production by 2025, but the Green Circle study noted that this was a “very ambitious goal.”

Only the Green Party has opposed the use of nuclear power, which the current government has identified as the silver bullet to reduce dependence on coal. There appears to be a broad bipartisan agreement to move forward with the planned expansion of the Dukovany nuclear power plant

The outcome of this weekend’s elections is far from certain. ANO currently leads the polls but may struggle to find new partners with whom to form a coalition government. The two electoral alliances could form a government themselves, although it is not clear whether President Milos Zeman, whose role is to appoint a prime minister, will even allow them to try.

The latest opinion polls place the Green Party between 1.7 and 2.5% of the votes cast, which is not enough to win a seat in parliament. The CSSD, another party known for its green credentials, may also fail to win parliamentary seats for the first time since the founding of the Czech Republic in 1993.

What this means for the country’s climate action is waiting to be seen, but the next government is certain to face a more demanding EU and a lot more pressure to accelerate carbon neutrality plans.

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