The Puzzle of “Greening” the Three Seas Economies 

Our region's countries are often considered less advanced at greening their economies than other parts of the developed world. Is this really true?

Little boy and his father gardening in spring
Though some countries in the 3Seas region fall behind in current 'green' statistics, the progress made and the speed at which they are catching up is astonishing. Photo: iStock.com / ArtMarie

Many simple questions do not have simple answers, and this is a case—the process of “greening” an economy can be implemented in various fields and ways. For example, by increasing the share of low emission energy sources in total energy generation, increasing sales of electric cars, promoting other ecological means of transport, and improving the energy efficiency of industrial processes and buildings themselves.

Greening also means introducing more efficient use of water and fresh air resources and efficient waste management processes. Probably not last and surely not least, it also means more “natural” agricultural technologies. All of those processes can be measured by various indicators, and they all support the environmental sustainability of our economies. However, here, we will focus on one.

Greening economy: a focus on CO2 emissions

Due to observed climate changes and their visible devastating effects, global public opinion and policymakers strongly focus on lowering CO2 emissions. We will concentrate on that. So, to make the leading question more precise: are the CO2 emissions in the countries of our region exceptionally high? How do they compare to the benchmarks?

Taking into account the effort taken to overcome the communist legacy, one has to admit CEE countries have been greening much faster than the average European economy over the last 30 years

First, let’s take a look at the current data. The most recent figures measured and published by the European Commission in EDGAR (Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research) come from 2020. Total emission levels are not practical to compare, given that larger economies tend to emit more, so we’re going to look at these figures in relative terms – per capita and per GDP.

Estonia records the highest emission rates both per capita and per GDP. In per-GDP terms, it is the only country in the region with emissions above the world average. Unfortunately, most of the region’s countries record per-capita emissions above the EU average. Only Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Austria fall below. It is also worth noting that Germany, which is included in the analysis as one of the global leaders of green transition, also emits above the EU average per GDP terms.

The per-capita perspective

Per-capita emissions in three countries of the region, Croatia, Latvia, and Romania, are below the world average. The per-capita emissions are below the EU average in seven of the 3Seas countries. However, from a per-capita perspective, the countries of our region are “average” European polluters. They are, however, slightly above the EU average level from the per-GDP point of view. However, this is not the most interesting aspect of the story.

Unfortunately, most of the region’s countries record per-capita emissions above the EU average

What is really interesting is the historical perspective. When speaking about the greening of the region’s economies, you can’t separate the present from the “dirty legacy” of centrally planned communist economies, the transformation from which only began in 1990. In communist countries, environmental issues, energy efficiency, and emissions, in particular, were severely neglected. Thus the starting point in this region was far below that of the rest of the European countries. What matters here is the emission reduction effort.

From a per-capita point of view, the effort to reduce emissions taken by the vast majority of countries in our region over the last 30 years has been far greater than average for the EU; for six countries, in particular, it was greater than the effort taken by Germany. Romania reduced its per-capita emissions compared to 1990 by more than 56%, closely followed by Czechia, Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Bulgaria.

Heading in the right direction

The scale of the greening effort taken by the economies of our region also seems impressive if we look at it in relation to GDP. Once again, the vast majority of these countries reduced their emissions significantly more than the average EU country (Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria are the exceptions here). Six countries reduced their emissions per GDP dollar by more than 70% during the transition times. All of them, except for Austria, reduced emissions by more than 40%.

The answer is not obvious even if we reduce the question about the greening of the regional economies to CO2 emissions. Yes, the countries of our region can currently be viewed as at least average “European polluters. On the other hand, taking into account the effort taken to overcome the communist legacy, one has to admit they have been greening much faster than the average European economy over the last 30 years. One should simply not forget about this fact.

Mateusz Walewski

Chief economist of BGK (Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego) since 2018. Previously worked among other for PwC and CASE - Center for Social and Economic Research. Participant of numerous research projects and advisory services for the private sector and governments across Central and Eastern Europe. Member of the Team of Strategic Advisors to the Prime Minister of Poland in years 2008-2010. Author of publications and consultancy reports on macroeconomics, labor market and social policy issues. A graduate of the University of Warsaw and the University of Sussex.

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