There was plenty of evidence in 2000 of the distance that Central and East European (CEE) societies still have to travel in order to deal with the environmental legacy of Communism and meet EU environmental standards. But particularly for those CEE countries tilting toward EU accession, there was a realization that they may have as much to lose in environmental terms as they have to gain.
Death of a river
Last year began with a string of largely man-made disasters that pummeled the environment in Southeastern Europe. Persisting problems with environmental standards and risks on the eastern half of the European continent were underlined most dramatically by a series of mining accidents in Romania that sent hefty doses of first cyanide and then heavy metals down the Tisza and other rivers. The cyanide immediately wiped out all life in and around a long stretch of the river in Romania and Hungary before becoming diluted to less toxic levels. The less predictable effect of the cocktail of heavy metals, which gradually accumulate in living tissues and get passed from one organism to another in increasingly toxic concentrations, will not become fully apparent for years.
Shortly after, in late April, in what seemed a sign of displeasure from above, the heavens opened and sent down a deluge of water. The resulting flooding, which displaced over 20,000 people and caused millions of US dollars in damages in Romania, Hungary and former Yugoslavia (Hungary is seeking roughly USD 108 million in compensation; Yugoslavia USD 2 million), was compounded by deforestation and development, as well as intensive agricultural practices.
Palm trees in Prague
The deluge that swept Romania, Hungary and former Yugoslavia was only the latest case of flooding in the region in recent years, and a possible sign of more extreme weather to come to Central and Eastern Europe as a result of global climate change.
Despite such ominous signs, as well as predictions of palm trees in Prague by the middle of the next century, Central and East Europeans did not take much heat at the world climate talks that took place at Den Haag in November. Because the emissions baseline for the talks had been set in 1990, the highpoint of Communist soot-energy policies, emissions reductions for the post-Communist countries was a cinch, and the countries continued to benefit from this windfall. Central and East Europeans could promise substantial decreases in 1990 levels of carbon dioxide emissions while maintaining a level of energy use two or more times greater than in West European countries.
While a number of West European countries pushed ahead in developing renewable sources of energy, particularly wind, solar and biomass, most private homes and public buildings east of the Oder still lacked basic energy conservation measures such as window insulation. State energy policies, which continued to emphasize energy production from nonrenewable sources like coal, oil and uranium, rather than price reforms, renewables and conservation, gave little hope for change.
The final decision by the Czech authorities to put the Temelín nuclear power plant on line in September forced not only Czechs, but also their EU neighbors, to confront the controversial question of the future of energy policy and nuclear power on the European continent.
Other persisting environmental problems in Central and Eastern Europe were highlighted by the European Commission in its annual appraisal of the progress made by applicant countries toward EU accession in 2000. Water continued to be a major area of concern, despite significant improvements since 1989.
Improving water quality and addressing other problems like waste management will require massive investment. Implementing the EU's urban wastewater directive, for example, could bring a 40 to 50 percent reduction in nutrient inputs, but will cost the accession countries more than an estimated USD 8.3 billion for related infrastructure.
Even with considerable EU assistance, the lion's share of the burden will fall on Central and East Europeans, both through public and private investment. Water treatment and waste management in particular will require huge outlays on the part of communities and governments. At the same time, for example, the EU's Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC), based on the principle of Best Available Technology, will require massive private investment in coming years to revamp existing technology.
The enormity of the challenge facing CEE applicants to the EU in the area of the environment is daunting. Yet while government ministries and parliaments kicked into overdrive in order to transpose large sections of EU environmental legislation, they made little effort to mobilize and enlist the help of other sectors of society in the undertaking.
At the same time, little was done to integrate the environment into all areas of public policy, from energy to transportation and spatial planning. Germany's careful attempts to reform taxation in order to discourage energy waste and encourage hiring of labor made no waves in the East, where energy subsidies remained firmly in place. A Danish measure requiring companies to submit an environmental audit each year as part of their financial reports seemed outlandish among the CEE countries lining up to join the European club.
Indeed, CEE governments in 2000 continued to regard the environment as a special interest, and an unimportant one at that. In terms of accession to the European Union, they saw the environment only in terms of a costly liability rather than as an opportunity, both for their own countries and for Europe as a whole.
In December 2000, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) amplified what many Central and East European environmentalists had been saying all along: that the popular image of CEE as a region of belching smokestacks and sickly forests is false.
"EU Enlargement Week," a series of events organized by the WWF in Brussels on 2-7 December, showcased the prodigious natural wealth that exists between individual environmental black spots on the CEE landscape - a collection of flora, fauna and landscapes far richer than any other on the European continent. The natural splendor, from the teeming wetlands of the Danube river delta to the Carpathian mountain range, the last bastion of large predators on the continent, presents a rich dowry from Central and East European countries for the new Europe.
This could be threatened unless far-reaching reforms are introduced in the European Union. If the experience of recent EU applicants, like Greece and Portugal, is anything to go by, economic growth, new highways, the intensification of agriculture and explosive consumption will come at a steep price in ecological terms.
A study published on 4 January 2001 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a UK-based conservation group, linked the intensification of agriculture in EU countries to steep declines in bird populations, and warned that the same fate could befall Eastern Europe. "We are... gravely concerned that the likely accession of a further ten East European countries to the European Union in the next few years represents a severe threat to these countries' farmland birds, which include species, like white stork, corncrake, great bustard and red-backed shrike which have almost disappeared from northwestern Europe," said the RSPB's Paul Donald, one of the report's authors.
To avoid this fate, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, in particular, needs to be further reformed in order to firmly place agriculture in the broader context of sustainable rural development. Environmental considerations also need to be more effectively connected to investment decisions, for example in transportation and development. Pricing systems for energy, waste and natural resources need to be changed, for example through reform of tax laws, in order to take environmental impact into account.
Indeed, if there was one clear lesson concerning the CEE environment last year, it was that assuring a clean and healthy environment, and preserving wilderness east of the Oder is a daunting challenge, not only for Central and East Europeans, but for Europe as a whole.
Andreas Beckmann, 12 February 2001
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