By Axel Threlfall and Isla Binnie
LONDON/MADRID (Reuters) - East European nations are thinking more seriously about how to reduce carbon emissions to make use of a 750 billion euro ($880 billion) European Union economic recovery fund, the EU's top climate official said on Friday.
The bloc has set up the Next Generation EU war chest to support economies hammered by the coronavirus crisis, with a focus on helping shift the EU's 27 nations away from using fossil fuels and improving energy efficiency.
East European nations are among the biggest users of coal in the bloc and have been slower than richer nations, such as Germany, in drawing up plans to shift away from the fuel.
"I see quite a sea change, also in Central and Eastern Europe, in terms of the climate crisis," European Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans told Reuters in a live interview. https://www.reuters.com/livevideo?id=P2hH
"If they delay and don't link it with the financial possibilities offered by Next Generation EU, they might lose out in terms of the support they can get from Europe, so I think that is speeding up their thinking," he said after an EU summit that edged towards a deal on climate targets.
Germany, France, the Netherlands and other states in West Europe are pushing for investment to help a "green" economy emerge after the pandemic-induced slump. But Poland and the Czech Republic worry that racing to reduce emissions could harm communities dependent on activities such as coal mining.
The European Commission has said 37% of the Next Generation EU package should back projects to help reduce greenhouse gases.
Timmermans said Russia, a major gas supplier to Europe, remained "a particularly tough nut to crack" on the issue of emissions but he said Moscow expected the energy transition to change its position on the world stage.
"Sometimes in Europe people think we depend on (Russia) because they deliver the gas to Europe, but I would rather see it the other way around: they depend on us because we are buying their gas," he said.
"Our economy is more diversified and our dependency on fossil fuels will diminish. Our position vis-a-vis Russia will become stronger and stronger and they know this perfectly well."
The EU wants to renovate buildings to save energy and emissions, an area Timmermans said could make a huge difference in Central and Eastern Europe where "so much of the housing is still heated with coal, or wood even."
He called for swift climate action by Europe, which has positioned itself as a leader in climate action while contributing about 9% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
"We have a huge opportunity. To say it in blunt terms, we could screw this up in a terrible way, but we could also make this a success for our society and bring back a bit of optimism if we show that we will leave no one behind."
(Reporting by Axel Threlfall and Isla Binnie; Editing by Edmund Blair)