Mariza-East Thermal Power Plant. Source: Stzagora
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A crisis such as COVID-19 calls for robust measures. The European Commission created the Recovery and Resilience Facility, which is comprised of over € 723.8 billion in grants and loans. To claim a share of this budget, member states had to present a plan of reforms and investments to foster the digital and green transition. In Decarbonizing Europe, we analyze and compare the different plans. What are countries spending the money on, what is their strategy and how are they tackling the climate crisis? This week: Bulgaria.

Bulgaria seems like a paradise on earth replete with beautiful nature. Yet that is only one side of the coin. Much remains to be done where sustainability and greening are concerned. And just when that is so important, there seems to be a countermovement going on. Inflation has already driven up prices in this country. To make matters worse, oil and gas have also become extremely expensive. As a result, some Bulgarians are buying wood-burning stoves again, because for them, electricity and gas are now unaffordable.

And there are many more problems that hinder the green transition. Bulgarian businesses, for example, have difficulties in making full use of the benefits that new digital technologies have to offer. Barely 6 percent of the small and medium businesses sell their products and services online while the EU average is 17 percent. Additionally, the Covid-19 crisis seriously hit the economy which lead to a decline in the GDP of 4.2 percent and an annual decline in employment figures of 2.3 percent.

The Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) that Bulgaria submitted to the European Commission is set to bring in €6.27 billion in grants. A total of 58.9 percent of the funds is aimed at supporting climate targets and 25.8 percent will boost the digital transition. So far, the plan comprises 56 investments and 47 reforms. Bulgaria will have to implement all of them within a tight time frame – the Recovery and Resilience Facility regulation stipulates that this must be done by August 2026.

Bulgaria’s Transport and Mobility

While Bulgaria has decided to spend millions of funding on improving the public transport systems there are still other issues that must be tackled. As a matter of fact, 74.4 percent of the registered road vehicles in the country are more than 15 years old according to the Bulgarian Open Data Platform. This is partially attributable to the amount of the minimum wage in Bulgaria. It was €332 per month in January 2022, the lowest in the EU.

The Bulgarian government has achieved results in expanding the motorways in the country, but the road safety levels are still low in comparison to the EU. It is no surprise why the government wants to invest so much in the public transport system. Sofia remains the only city with a metro line, while smaller towns and the provinces have very little to no public transport. The sum for improving mobility in Bulgaria is equal to €666 million. It is intended as a boost to the Bulgarian fleet and the public transport system as a whole.

Need for digitally literate citizens

The population in Bulgaria scores very low when it comes to digital literacy. People with the very least of basic skills account for 29 percent of the total population aged 16 to 74 reports DESI. In the EU, the average is 56 percent. A huge gap that Bulgaria is still struggling to fill. Unfortunately, there is more. Bulgaria continues to score at one of the lowest levels in terms of use of e-government and digital public services.

Source: DESI 2021, European Commission

Bulgaria’s RRP supports the digital transition by allocating €319 million to enhance digital skills and €15.7 million to fund the digitalization of businesses. According to the plan, administrative processes will be digitalized. In addition, a comprehensive electronic agricultural information system will also be created.

Endangered biodiversity

Urbanization and unstable agriculture pose the main risk to biodiversity. Constructions of buildings on the coastline endanger the habitat of many species. For example, there have been several warnings about illegal construction in Strandzha park which are in violation of the law for protected areas, reports News.bg. In addition, the Ministry of Environment and Public Works confirmed last year that a violation of the law had been committed in the construction of a hotel in the “Polyanite” area (Weiden). This area is located within the boundaries of two protected Natura 2000 areas.

Despite efforts by local groups to stop the construction, the situation has remained more or less the same. Bulgaria plans to allocate 48 million euros to address some of these problems. The aim is to restore wetlands and river connections in addition to the habitats of certain species. The key goal of Bulgaria is also to raise the percentage of protected areas, in line with the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.

NextGeneration EU

The corona crisis is one of the biggest challenges of our time. The European Union, through NextGenerationEU – the largest recovery plan ever at €806.9 billion – aims to help its member states emerge stronger from the crisis. The Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) is at the heart of this plan (€723.8 billion).

The RRF has two goals: first, to pull the European economy out of the recession caused by the corona pandemic. At the same time, it is designed to give an impetus to important investments for the future and measures for rolling out reforms.

All 27 member states have submitted plans. Whether all the money is actually disbursed depends on a final assessment of the projects. For example, countries must spend at least 37 percent of their budgets on climate action and 20 percent on digitalization.

Renewable energy sources

The economy in Bulgaria consumes 3.5 times more energy resources per unit of its GDP than the EU average. That may not sound so alarming but Bulgaria is “quite dependent on coal and nuclear power,” according to Todor Todorov, energy transition coordinator at Za Zemiata (‘For the Earth’). The energy sector is the biggest greenhouse gas emissions polluter in the country. It is responsible for 70 percent of the total greenhouse gasses nationwide. The amount of the minimum wage also contributes to many people being unable to afford more sustainable means of heating during winter.

Todor Todorov
© Za Zemiata

Todor Todorov

NATIONAL COORDINATOR ENERGY TRANSITION ZA ZEMIATA (FOR THE EARTH) AND COORDINATOR FOR BULGARIA IN BANKWATCH

As part of the “Energy and Climate” team, he works in the field of energy transformation.

More than €2.5 billion will be invested in making the economy greener and more efficient. Part of the RRP is to increase the use of renewable energy in the household sector by financing the purchase of new solar power systems. €71.57 million from the budget will be dedicated to this. Approximately €342 million will be invested in a scheme to support the construction of a minimum of 1.4 GW of renewable energy sources and batteries. “It is not clear who will be producing these batteries, at what cost, and with what resources,” says Todorov. “Now, this looks like a project which will only be possible with the help of very large companies, which will invariably limit the participation of small and medium businesses in the production of energy,” explains Todorov.

Severe shortage of proper healthcare

What you need for a fully-functioning country is a healthy population. And the Bulgarian healthcare system is not doing a great job. The life expectancy in Bulgaria is the lowest in the EU and a full 7 years below the European average. People usually have “to choose between income and health” Todorov notes. He explains that many people work and live in areas that have highly polluted air.  High-risk factors such as smoking contribute to the low life expectancy. In fact, Bulgaria has the highest rate of smokers in the EU. Deaths from preventable and treatable causes are also well above the EU average. This reflects the poor level of primary prevention and health promotion efforts. Added to this is the lack of medical respiratory services, low rates of breast cancer screenings, and outdated hospital equipment.

Bulgaria has a multitude of health care issues that need serious government attention. The RRPis addressing several of these. Approximately €368 million in funding is allocated for improvements. One of the projects is to provide medical respiratory services which would potentially reduce death cases by 20 percent. The government aims to provide modern equipment for treatment and diagnosis as well. This should contribute to the job satisfaction of the medical staff, which is crucial to reduce the rate at which doctors and nurses are leaving the country.

The state that Bulgaria is currently in can be attributed to several factors, one of which is the high level of corruption. According to the available data, the country ranks 78th in the world in terms of corruption levels. Large amounts of money have disappeared in mega-projects and highway construction. Hopefully things will be different this time. According to Todorov, a proposal has been made to create an oversight committee that would be responsible for monitoring the European funding. However, a clear answer has not been forthcoming from the government as of yet. “This is not a 100 percent guarantee, but it is something that has not been done so far,” Todorov explains.

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