Green views: the burden of Sisyphus?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The future Member States are breaking the bank to come into line with EU environmental standards. Yet any improvements made are likely to be lost unless European leaders show more committed leadership.

The 10 countries in line to join the European
Union next May are spending a fortune meeting EU environmental
requirements. The benefits will be substantial, not only in
environmental but also in social and economic terms.

But will the benefits last? The European
Environmental Agency’s latest survey of the environment
suggests that they will not–unless European leaders show more
committed leadership.

In 1997, the European Commission estimated that
it would cost the Central and East European applicant countries
some 127 billion euros to meet EU environmental requirements,
including beefing up environmental ministries and inspectorates
and, especially, building wastewater treatment plants and waste
management facilities.

A subsequent estimate has revised the total cost
down to 80 to 110 billion euros, but whatever the figure, it is not
peanuts–and the lion’s share of this investment will be
shouldered by the accession countries themselves, through a mixture
of public and private financing. Less than 10 percent is coming
from EU or other foreign coffers.

Still, the hefty price tag should be well worth
the investment. According to a study by Ecotec in 2001, the
benefits for public health and reduced damage for instance to
forests and fisheries is projected to yield long-term savings of
anywhere between 134 and 681 billion euros by 2020 (the wide span
in estimates reflect the inherent difficulty, even impossibility,
of putting an accurate price tag on things such as public health or
healthy landscapes).

This all assumes, however, that all other
factors remain at least the same. But as the European Environmental
Agency (EEA) points out in a new report published in May,
Environment in Europe: The Third Assessment, any progress made
risks being wiped away by economic growth. Despite a decade of
rising concern over the global environment, governments and people
have yet to make a significant step toward seriously decoupling
environmental pressures from economic activities.

TREATING SYMPTOMS, NOT CAUSES

The report, which for the first time in its
12-year existence provides details sector by sector, points to
substantial improvements in a number of areas in the 52 countries
that it covers. Bright spots include drops in air and water
pollution, as well as ozone depletion.

Major improvements such as these, both in
Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, are mainly
a result of industrial decline and economic recession following the
collapse of communism.

Water in these countries is less affected by
agriculture thanks to the farm crisis and rising costs of
pesticides, while the reduction in greenhouse gases is principally
due to industrial decline (though concerted efforts have
helped).

However, the EEA, set up to encourage
pan-European environmental cooperation, also notes that many of the
advances are due to end-of-pipe solutions rather than to addressing
actual causes of problems. Environmental policies to curb waste
have made no headway, and pressures are still increasing on some
natural resources including fish stocks, topsoil, and land. Urban
development and transport infrastructure is fragmenting major
animal and plant habitats across the region and causing arable land
to be cemented over. Land abandoned because of economic
restructuring is another new problem, threatening the viability of
many of the habitats, flora, and fauna that depend on extensive
farming.

Infrastructure projects are a particular problem
in Central and Eastern Europe, where transportation is shifting
from rail to roads and airways, with the active encouragement of
the accession process to the EU. Plans for extension of the
EU’s pan-European transportation network, the so-called
Trans-European Network, are already threatening areas of out
standing natural value, including the Biebrza National Park in
northeastern Poland and the Kresna Gorge in Bulgaria.

Gordon McInnes, EEA interim executive director,
said: “We know from the past that [the] gains [made over the
past decade] will be lost again if economic development continues
to be based on traditional, environmentally damaging activities,
still prevalent, rather than on more sustainable, eco-efficient
options.” He added, “This is a particular risk for the
EU accession countries and the Eastern European, Caucasus, and
Central Asian states, to which large amounts of manufacturing
industry have been transferred from Western Europe and
elsewhere.”

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY

EU leaders have recognized the challenge of
breaking the link between economic growth and environmental
destruction. The EU’s own Sustainable Development Strategy,
agreed upon by EU leaders at the Gothenburg Summit in June 2001,
calls for fundamental changes to the way the EU approaches
development, factoring in not only economic and social concerns,
but also the long-term integrity of the environment.

The strategy calls for environmental issues to
be considered in all aspects of EU policy and activities, from
transport to energy and agriculture. Regular reports based on clear
indicators tracking progress were to be tabled at each spring
summit of the European Council.

However promising, unfortunately relatively
little progress has been made on seriously promoting the
Sustainable Development Strategy. The past two spring summits of
the European Council have paid little more than lip service to the
need for a long-term approach to the use of the earth’s
resources.

“The EU Sustainable Development Strategy is a
step in the right direction but needs more operational action by
the relatively well-off EU member states to remain environmentally
credible,” said McInnes.

NEW MEMBER STATES AS THE NEW LEADERS?

What is needed is committed, farsighted, and
thus courageous political leadership. Unfortunately, if present
trends are any indication, the already shaky commitment of present
EU leaders to achieving sustainable development is likely to slip
further as a result of enlargement.

As for leaders of the current accession
countries, they–like their predecessors, Spain, Portugal, and
Greece–now tend to view the environment as a luxury that detracts
from economic development. This assumes simplistically that the
“Western” model of economic development, made at the
cost of massive loss in natural wealth and erosion of long-term
sustainability, is the only route to follow.

The positions of the accession countries in
their negotiations for EU membership have largely underscored their
governments’ intention to repeat existing member
states’ worst mistakes, including a faith in intensive
agriculture that in Western Europe has devastated the countryside
and failed to secure healthy food or sustainable livelihoods for
rural populations.

There is, though, some reason to hope for more
inspiring leadership coming from Central and Eastern Europe. At the
conference in Kiev at which the EEA’s report was launched,
five countries in the region signed a convention to protect the
Carpathian Mountains, the great arc of mountains stretching from
the Czech Republic to Romania and home to the bulk of the
continent’s virgin forests and large carnivores.

At a side meeting, the ministers of Romania,
Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine underlined their commitment to an
ambitious project to preserve and restore large parts of the lower
Danube and Danube delta–in part out of recognition, apparently,
that a cheap and effective approach to water treatment and flood
control is maintaining and restoring these spectacularly rich
wetland areas.

The Environment for Europe process began at a
meeting held in June 1991 in the chateau of Dobris outside Prague
at the instigation of former Czechoslovak Environment Minister
Josef Vavrousek. At the time, Czechoslovakia and other accession
countries were the environmental pace-setters for the continent,
and indeed the world.

The EEA’s newest report shows that
Vavrousek’s farsightedness and courageous leadership in
facing present challenges is desperately needed, now more than
ever, for Central and Eastern Europe as much as for an enlarged
Europe, and the world. Andreas Beckmann is EU Accession Coordinator
for the World Wildlife Fund, the global conservation
organization.


Andreas Beckmann is EU Accession Coordinator for
the World Wildlife Fund, the global conservation organization.

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