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COP26 and Central and Eastern Europe: Views from the region

A climate summit may not be the most obvious place for regional states to make their diplomatic mark. Certainly, the area’s capitals have often been viewed as simply disinterested in such matters. Despite this, November’s pivotal COP26 talks have seemingly sparked a new wave of political engagement.

October 29, 2021 - Niall Gray - Articles and Commentary

COP 26 Glasgow 2021. Illustration: urbanbuzz / Shutterstock

More than 100 world leaders will soon meet in the Scottish city of Glasgow for “COP26”, this year’s iteration of the United Nations’ annual conference on climate change. The event will consist of two weeks of intense negotiations and is now increasingly viewed as a “make-or-break” chance to set ambitious targets for emissions reductions. This is especially true given the time lost to COVID-19, with 2021 representing the first time countries will be asked to upgrade their emissions plans or “Nationally Determined Contributions” in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement. As a result, interest has been expressed by far more groups than the event’s naturally enthusiastic British hosts. Indeed, the conference has been discussed at length by influential world figures such as Pope Francis, who recently stressed the need to confront “the unprecedented ecological crisis and the crisis of values that we are presently experiencing”. This international appeal naturally reflects the truly global nature of the problem faced by states, societies and citizens in every corner of the world.

Despite such international realities, little attention has been paid to Central and Eastern Europe’s own engagement with the upcoming conference. Home to relatively small populations, the region may not seem like the most influential when it comes to shared climate issues. International media has continued to focus on more populous countries such as China and the United States, whose intermittent climate talks could prove pivotal to the summit. At the same time, the region’s governments generally remain apathetic to environmental issues, with grassroots social movements still hampered by a pervading sense of official disinterest. Such limited success has left room for expressions of outright hostility. Polish President Andrzej Duda even went so far in 2015 as to say that tackling climate change was simply “not in our [Poland’s] interest”. Nevertheless, it is still important to understand regional views considering the truly global nature of climate change, with every nation’s contribution likely to matter during the long nights of negotiation in Glasgow.

A green curtain?

Any discussion of the region’s approach to the summit would of course be incomplete without first looking at the collective policies of the European Union. A long-time pioneer of crucial agreements such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the organisation has remained at the forefront of multilateral efforts to tackle emissions. This is reflected in the ambitious targets set in the run up to COP26. For example, the EU recently agreed to push for countries to adopt a regular five-year “common timeframe” for reductions during the conference. Upon closer examination, however, this agreement appears to disguise fundamental disagreement between the EU’s East and West. According to a recent Reuters report, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania all expressed reservations regarding this target. Instead, these Eastern states preferred to offer countries a choice between timeframes of five or ten-year intervals at COP26. A crucial compromise stating that such five-year cycles would not begin until 2031 was also added in order to gain the support of these newer member states.

Whilst this agreement may have averted potential infighting in November, the question remains as to why regional capitals have generally shown less enthusiasm for the event compared to their counterparts in Western Europe. Ultimately, the answer may simply be that any potential successes at COP26 may affect regional economies where it hurts the most. Whilst Central and Eastern Europe experienced a record drop in emissions following the end of the Cold War, many states remain reluctant to part with the last vestiges of communist-era heavy industry. This is particularly true in relation to the use of coal power, something that richer nations must “consign… to history” according to British minister and COP26 President Alok Sharma. Doubts subsequently persist in states such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Serbia, where coal remains the leading source of electricity. This enthusiasm has even provoked regional infighting, with Poland’s Turów coal mine a constant source of worry for Prague. Overall, this wider conflict of interest has caused allegations from member states that Brussels is hampering the region’s chance for development. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently blamed the EU’s climate reforms for a surge in energy prices. Discussions of “climate finance” for nations in the Global South are likely to feature heavily at COP26. It would be no surprise, then, if regional states view further talk of similar EU funding as an acceptable trade-off for a dutiful performance in November.

A Russian volte-face?

Furthermore, it is also important to understand how Russia may approach the upcoming negotiations. Such discussion may naturally attract scepticism given the state’s continued economic and political reliance on oil and gas. However, no potential agreement at COP26 will be truly effective without participation from the region’s most populous state. This sizeable population corresponds to an equally large emissions record, with the country only lagging behind major polluters such as China, India and the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rather mixed track record of comments regarding climate change, has also been well documented by local media. Despite this, recent reports now increasingly paint a picture of a Kremlin deep in contemplation regarding the possibilities of the Glasgow meeting. Leaks suggest that Moscow may formally commit to a plan to achieve “net-zero” by 2060 at the summit. It also looks likely that the country could make an offer to European states regarding cooperation on carbon measurements.

So, why this sudden change of heart? Much like its sceptical neighbours in the EU, it appears that maintaining economic prosperity lies at the centre of Moscow’s approach to climate reform. This is best seen with regards to the European Commission’s recent decision to implement plans related to a “carbon border tax” as early as 2023. This would affect an increasing number of imports to the bloc over several years, with importers subject to tariffs in line with their goods’ carbon footprint. As a result, fears have seemingly grown in the Kremlin that this de facto protectionism could do real damage to Russia’s economic relationship with its biggest trading partner. Ironically, such overtures may also have given Moscow a unique chance to build on its more realist links with the continent in a similar manner to Nord Stream 2. For instance, Putin was likely left bemused in the summer following flattering comments from Alok Sharma, who visited the country in an attempt to win support from this “essential player in the fight against climate change”. EU climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans is also visiting Moscow in the run up to COP26. This charm offensive has naturally placed Russia in a rather novel position. Whilst hopes for movement on issues such as Ukraine remain distant, these fractured relations could well be maintained through “decoupling” climate change as a shared abstract enemy in the coming months. 

Overall, it remains clear that the region’s capitals are still playing catch-up when it comes to tackling issues related to climate change. This is perhaps best seen with regards to their overwhelming preoccupation with the problem’s more national and political aspects. For example, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, could not resist calling some of the EU’s green policies “madness” just over a week before the talks. However, the area as a whole does now seem to be making tentative steps to engagement, as concrete actions slowly start to back up ambitious global rhetoric. COP26 in Glasgow will be a pivotal moment for the international community to come to an agreement on emissions before many environmental changes become practically irreversible. Whilst by no means the natural habitat of Central and Eastern Europe’s diplomats, the climate summit subsequently presents an opportunity for these states to develop their influence beyond established geopolitics. Such thematic diversity also extends to geography, with the region’s countries now presented with a chance to forge links with states and societies beyond their traditional horizons.

Niall Gray is the copy editor and proofreader of New Eastern Europe. He holds a master’s degree in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies from the University of Glasgow.

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