Updated: Dec 14, 2019
By Adam Zamecnik
In a press release published by the non-governmental organization Social Watch this September, the government of the Czech Republic was reported to be doing very little to tackle climate change. Rather, the release states that the Czech government is, in many ways, doing the exact opposite: it is ignoring the harmful impact of its reliance on coal-powered thermal power plants, as well as of the carbon-intensive nature of the nation’s economy. As such, this report highlights the defining problem of Czech environmental policy: the politics needed to address the Republic’s environmental problems clash with the economic goals of its government. Whilst there is no doubt that the country has enjoyed steady economic growth, there is equally no doubt that environmental issues are becoming more noticeable and more threatening to the country’s future. Indeed, the signs of the country’s environmental challenges are not only caused by its reliance on fossil fuels in energy and industry, but also by the wider changes seen throughout Europe, best defined by heatwaves, droughts, and the death of many forests.
Recently, long spells of drought and decreasing water levels across the whole country have become a matter of significant debate both in the general public and the media. Headlines featuring catastrophic predictions run across all types of publications and websites. The science behind them seems clear – the Czech Republic is currently facing the most significant drought in its history, beginning in 2014 and becoming ever clearer in 2018 and 2019. The growing drought of 2018 has led to the complete inability to restore water levels to normal this year and, as such, over 63% of the country showed signs of drought in July. Despite the return of rain, academic platforms such as Intersucho, a joint project of the Mendel University in Brno, the Czech Academy of Sciences and others, have estimated that there is no end in sight to future droughts in some regions. In terms of longer term predictions, some scientists have estimated that drought will remain a fixture of the Czech environment, and have predicted the desertification of agricultural land, dying forests, and tropical temperatures.
With that in mind, it would seem obvious that there is a desire in both academia and the public to reverse the damage that has been done. However, according to the director of the Institute of Hydrodynamics Martin Pivokonský, the Czech Republic has only recently begun to acknowledge the implications of climate change. Whilst other states registered signs of climate change almost three decades ago, it was not until Czechs saw their reservoirs dry up, claims Pivonský, that they began to question the health of their environment.
Indeed, the daunting prospect of drought has inspired a number of ventures led by both NGOs and the government. The Czech Ministry of Agriculture announced earlier this year that it intends to create over 100 projects specifically aimed at retaining groundwater, a key feature of preventing future droughts in the Czech Republic. In this sense, protecting and reshaping the natural landscape can, to some extent, retain water in drought-prone areas, be it through the construction of ponds and natural corridors or through the restriction of new industrial development. Nevertheless, some have argued, such as Pivokonský, that whilst undoubtedly beneficial for natural systems, many of the projects will actually not properly retain water in the landscape, citing the construction of ponds as inefficient. Rather, it is the ways in which arable land is being utilised that must change, in particular high-intensity farming . By leaving some strips of land unused or by establishing small biological corridors for wildlife and the growth of wild plants, farmers can avoid increasing desertification as well as widespread biodiversity loss. This method is becoming particularly important in the production of high-value monocultures such as rapeseed; cash crops which are both contributing to the problem and suffering from it. Rapeseed production did not avoid the impact of recent droughts, with farmers citing decreasing yields as a result of water shortages. As such, climate change and rising temperatures have directly affected the yields of a cash crop which, as of 2016, is grown on some 12.6% of all arable land in the Czech Republic.
Issues caused by the damaging impact of monocultures and growing temperatures have equally become increasingly relevant with regard to the continuing protection of Czech forests, nature reserves, and parks. In addition to covering the lasting drought, the Czech media have also frequently pointed out the damage caused by a recent epidemic of bark beetles. Affecting a broad section of Central Europe, bark beetles have been particularly damaging to many of the Czech Republic’s Norwegian spruce forests, infesting over 18 million cubic metres of spruce in the past year alone. Despite the fact that bark beetles form a natural part of coniferous ecosystems, they particularly thrive inside the Norwegian spruce monoculture, as well as in drier, warmer environments. As such, over half of all forests in the Czech Republic are currently at risk from the potential damage caused by the bark beetle.
A great deal of spruce has been planted in the Czech Republic over the last two centuries, namely in the Šumava National park in Southwestern Bohemia, and such forests form an integral part of the Czech ecosystem. They are vital for managing water retention in forested and mountainous areas, as well as serving as a valuable source of timbre. Witnessing the damage done by such a rapid and large-scale infestation of the bark beetle, forest owners have often been told to focus on preventative measures, rather than on actively logging trees in severely damaged areas, which are instead simply left behind to the bark beetle. The most damaged areas will require significant restructuring, particularly by planning more diverse and varied forests. Indeed, owing to the bark beetle’s incredible success in spruce monoculture, forest ecosystem diversity has become a managerial priority.
Despite agreeing with such preventative efforts, some non-governmental organisations have criticised the Czech government and the general public for ignoring the root causes of the country’s climate problems. According to Jan Skalík, the director of the ‘Save the forests’ campaign, it has become clear that some offices, namely the Ministry of Agriculture, have previously avoided or ignored calls for more substantial measures in preventing the impact of climate change on the Czech environment. This becomes increasingly apparent when looking at the open petition made by 240 Czech natural scientists on environmental issues in 2006, requesting the government to undertake satisfactory response measures. Rather, it seems that the problem continued being postponed until it became impossible to ignore. Indeed, the 2006 petition specifically emphasised the issue of spruce monocultures in Czech forests, one that has haunted Czech environmental politics for the last decade. And whilst the government continues to launch new projects tackling these increasing challenges, it is becoming more apparent that they are acting on borrowed time, as well as having to retroactively combat the damage from previous policies.
The ecological challenges facing the Czech Republic provide a unique perspective into the state of environmental politics in Continental Europe, particularly in comparison to the more active and driven response to such challenges in Austria and Germany. Despite witnessing calls to action by the country’s experts and scientists, the government’s response so far has been to delay action until it became impossible to delay again, affecting numerous communities and ecosystems in a clear and tangible way.
Adam Zamecnik received his BA in History from University College London. His writing focuses on exploring current socio-political and environmental issues through a larger, pan-European perspective.
Illustrations by Lewis Campbell-Smith
This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V.
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