This Briefing Paper presents an assessment of the political economy of Slovakia regarding the low-carbon transition. It is part of a series of briefings on the four Central European countries forming the “Visegrád Group”.
Slovakia is generally passive with regard to driving forward a low-carbon transition and possesses little leverage within the EU to influence the European climate debate in either direction. While often aligning with other members of the Visegrád Group in watering down EU energy and climate policy, Slovakia is more open to discussion and pursues a stronger pro-EU stance than Poland or Hungary. The implementation of climate change legislation therefore usually does not arise voluntarily, but Slovakia rarely blocks EU obligations either.
There is an internal divide within the Slovak government and parliament concerning low-carbon development. While Prime Minister Fico has repeatedly spoken out in favour of safeguarding coal, the Ministry of Environment is more progressive and has even broached the topic of a coal phase-out in the past. It therefore constitutes one of the most progressive Ministries of Environment in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region. Moreover, Slovakia is currently developing a 2050 low-carbon strategy with support from the World Bank. In general, however, climate change is not a high-priority topic in Slovak politics nor among the public or media.
Thus far, Slovakia has easily achieved its emissions targets due to reaping low-hanging fruits. Through its high share of nuclear energy but also hydropower in its energy mix, the Slovak energy sector is less carbon-intensive than that of its CEE neighbours. This also helps to explain Slovakia’s repeated appeal to Brussels for greater flexibility in the choice of energy to achieve its emissions targets. However, as one of the most energy-intensive economies in the EU due to its high-carbon manufacturing sectors, the protection of industry is preferred over low-carbon ambition. Being home to a major hub of automobile assembly within Europe as well as possessing metal, steel and chemical industries, Slovakia relies on high-carbon industries for both GDP and employment. Energy-intensive industry therefore dominates in the Slovak economy and, correspondingly, political support and protection are strong. However, energy-saving potential through energy efficiency measures not only in the industry, but also in the housing sector remains largely underexplored thus far, hereby offering future avenues for low-carbon development.
Lignite still features prominently in the Slovak energy mix and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The mining industry enjoys strong political support through coal subsidies, with a feed-in tariff bolstering the otherwise uneconomical production of lignite. Moreover, high membership numbers in both coal and steel unions create additional political pressure to protect the mining industry. At the same time, Slovakia is nearly completely dependent on Russia for oil and gas imports; energy security thus constitutes a significant concern and helps explain the ferocious support of not only lignite, but also nuclear and hydropower.
In general, there is lack of trust in the reliability of renewable energy sources (RES) and their viability in supporting the energy-intensive Slovak economy. Complex regulation paired with a problematic history of a RES feed-in tariff with corruption allegations helps foster a wide-spread belief that RES are not the answer to Slovakia’s energy security concerns. Aside hydropower, biomass constitutes a substantial chunk of the country’s RES; however, its production is becoming increasingly unsustainable and poses a threat to Slovak forests.
Given the high reliance on both nuclear and hydropower, the necessary market reforms and grid extensions to incorporate a greater share of solar PV or, potentially, wind power are not being propelled forward. Although RES associations currently lack political access and support, climate action may be increasingly leveraged at the municipal level, where interest in adaptation and low-carbon growth is on the rise.
Taking into account that Slovak electricity prices are among the highest in the EU, a further decarbonisation through the expansion of RES and ensuing decentralisation of power generation would not only assist in driving down electricity bills, but would also help safeguard energy security and reduce fossil fuel imports. As sectors such as agriculture or tourism may increasingly feel the negative impacts of climate change due to more frequent floods and droughts, this could provide the low-carbon transition with a leg-up on the political, media and public agenda.