In Slovakia, the bill on climate protection is currently being discussed in the parliament. The bill is set to include umbrella clauses to help the country stay true to international commitments made, ensure a comprehensive approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and at the same time break down barriers that slow down practical climate protection actions. The bill, however, was submitted in a period of great political instability with snap election just around the corner. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step – the bill. Nevertheless, the bill will have to withstand strong external pressures. The question remains whether or not the bill will become a strong law – a game-changer in the field of environmental protection.
On January 30, the Slovak Ministry of the Environment submitted the first Slovak national climate bill to be discussed and commented on under the so-called interdepartmental comment procedure. The bill is accessible to the public, too. Slovakia joined the ranks of approximately half of the EU countries that already have adopted or are drafting their own climate laws. Most of the countries with climate laws already adopted are from the Western Europe region. Thus, Slovakia’s law would be the first of its kind to be adopted in the region of the Central and Eastern Europe.
Slovakia needs to introduce its own clime law for the same reason other European countries did so. Not only is Slovakia obliged to meet its international obligations and comply with European legislation, but the country also lacks a comprehensive legal framework in this regard. Some industries and sectors do not even have emission reduction plans in place and, unfortunately, there is no mechanism to force them to do so (as yet). The lack of a comprehensive approach is also evident throughout government departments. Although the Ministry of the Environment is in charge of the climate issue, it has practically no power over ministries that actually draft emission-related bills.
It was the Friends of the Earth-CEPA who first started to advocate for the Climate Act. Later on, they were joined by the Climate Coalition (Klimatická koalícia), VIA IURIS and Climate Needs You (Klíma ťa potrebuje). When the bill was being drafted, the group organized numerous meetings with representatives of various NGOs and private sector firms at which they raised awareness of the issue. Using the power of media, social networks and public discussions, the group increased their reach even further.
When drafting the bill, the ministry looked to other European nations for inspiration (German laws being the most influential in this regard). As each country is specific, climate laws must be tailor-made to and penned with the country’s needs in mind. Every solid (and enforceable) climate law stands or falls on three pillars – goals, checks and enforceability. It is these three pillars that are going to make it or break it in the turbulent years to come. The goal of these laws is not only to ensure the path towards carbon neutrality is free of obstacles but also to solve cross-cutting issues which often prevent climate laws from being truly effective. Poor data management, departmentalism and the role local governments plays are the most pressing issues. According to the non-governmental sector experts, the current bill tackles the vast majority of the pressing matters and just needs a few touch-ups.
The bill enshrines the goal of achieving goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and several smaller goals that are to be reached by 2030 in Slovakia’s legislation, including those tackling road transport, construction and agriculture. The bill particularly addresses sectors that are not included in the emissions trading system and introduces a continuous two-year reporting obligation and some crucial control mechanisms. One of the shortcomings of the proposed bill, however, is that it only concerns sectors that are outside the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).
While the ministries see the set goals as unrealistic, some organizations claim the goals are not bold enough. When setting the targets (a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030), the MoE relied heavily on the models of the Slovak Hydro-Meteorological Institute (SHMU). However, Slovakia has what it takes to reduce its carbon emissions even further – that is the official stance of the representatives of the Ministry of Environment.
The bill also stipulates new obligations, including data reporting and elaboration of strategic documents. Under new legislation, all ministries are to draw up sectoral climate plans. Regions, cities and municipalities must abide by obligations thus introduced. In doing so, they will be assisted by the Regional Centers for Sustainable Energy. These centers will provide advice on decarbonization and assist municipalities with reaching their goals.
A new “secret weapon” in the fight against climate change is the Council for Climate Responsibility. The Council will supervise the process of drawing up strategic documents, enforce compliance, and watch over meeting individual climate goals. In addition, it will also act as an advisory body for public administration bodies. The Council is envisaged to act as a supra-departmental, independent and transparent body led by experts.
Enforceability of law is crucial here. The proposed bill introduces financial sanctions for ministries if they fail to meet climate targets in their sectors. Also, fines for legal and natural persons, municipalities, ministries and other state administration bodies for failure to fulfill the obligation to provide information are also to be introduced. Another way of monitoring whether or not the bodies are meeting their obligations is a judicial review. Judicial review brings along an opportunity for the public to ask the court to review whether strategic documents adopted by state administration bodies are in line with climate goals. In addition, the bill allows citizens to file climate lawsuits against the state if it does not fulfil its obligations in meeting climate goals.
Discussing key legislation with the general public is not the norm in Slovakia. Very often, the public gets to discuss legislation in the so-called interdepartmental comments procedure only after the laws are published. When the bill was being drafted, the Ministry of the Environment established a working group to discuss the most pressing issues (this is not a standard procedure). However, the working group met only a few times and all it did was provide information (no two-way communication or a debate has ever taken place, though). Despite that, subjects concerned could send their comments on different versions of the bill. Thanks to the persistent efforts of the organizations involved, intensive cooperation between them and the MoE eventually bore fruit.
There have been more than 700 comments registered in the interdepartmental comment procedure. A large part of them is of a technical nature. The rest is either constructive comments aimed at improving individual provisions and defining the responsibilities of ministries in greater detail, or proposals to withdraw the bill altogether (some even questioning the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050).
It should be noted that the bill was introduced at a very turbulent time for the Slovak government. At the end of 2022, Slovakia went through a period of serious government crisis. The events culminated in the resignation of the government. Over the past five years there has never been a "good" time to pursue any climate-oriented agenda. Since the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak, Slovakia has been lurching from one crisis to another. The general public is known for showing a lukewarm attitude towards the climate change and related issues.
The parliament decided to hold the snap elections on September 30, 2023. It is already clear that the Slovak political scene will, yet again, face a lot of conflicts and tensions until then. It is too early to say whether the bill has a chance to reach the parliament by the summer, as was originally planned by the MoE. Given the current political climate, it is literally impossible to say whether the bill will gather any momentum or not. All we can do is wait and hope for the best.