One step forward, two steps back? | WWF

One step forward, two steps back?

Posted on
25 May 2003
The ten 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 socioeconomic terms. But will they last? The European Environmental Agency’s latest survey of the European environment suggests that they will not — unless European leaders show more committed leadership.

Sisyphus accession?
In 1997 the European Commission estimated that it would cost the Central and Eastern European applicant countries some €127 billion to meet EU environmental requirements, including among other things, beefing up environmental ministries and inspectorates and, especially, building wastewater treatment plants and waste management facilities. That is about €1000 per capita, compared with an per capita annual income for example in Poland of about €9,500. A subsequent estimate has revised the total cost down to €80–110 billion; but in any case, it is no small 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, with less than 10 per cent coming out of EU or other foreign coffers. 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 long-term in nature and is projected to yield savings of anywhere between €134–681 billion by 2020 (the wide span in estimates reflects the inherent difficulty, even impossibility, of putting an accurate price tag on things like 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 its new report, 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 EEA’s latest survey of the state of the European environment was launched on 21 May in Kiev on the occasion of the fifth ministerial conference in the Environment for Europe process, a pan-European process for environmental cooperation begun in 1991. It follows on previous reports on the status of Europe’s environment that were released on the occasion of ministerial conferences in 1995 and 1998. The present report covers 52 countries, including not only the existing and future EU member states but also for the first time the Russian Federation and 11 other East European and Central Asian states. Also for the first time, the report not only surveys the relative state of the environment, but also examines progress made in integrating environmental concerns into various sectoral policies and activities, like agriculture, energy, and transportation. The report points to substantial improvements in a number of areas, but notes that many of the advances are due to end-of-pipe solutions rather than addressing actual causes of problems. Bright spots include drops in air and water pollution, as well as ozone depletion. Greenhouse gases have been brought down across Europe as a result of concerted efforts as well as industrial decline in the former Soviet bloc.Significant improvements in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States are mainly a result of industrial decline and economic recession following the crumbling of communism. Water in these countries is less affected by agriculture thanks to the farm crisis and rising costs of pesticides. But land abandonment as a result of economic restructuring has become a new problem, threatening the viability of many of the habitats, flora, and fauna that depend on extensive farming. At the same time, however, environmental policies to curb waste have made no headway, and pressures are still increasing on some natural resources including fish stocks, top soil, and land. Urban development and transport infrastructure is covering over productive soil and fragmenting major animal and plant habitats across the region. This is particularly a 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 outstanding areas of nature value, including the Biebrza National Park in northeastern Poland, and the Kresna Gorge in Bulgaria. Referring to the improvements made over the past decade, Gordon McInnes, EEA Interim Executive Director, said: “We know from the past that these gains 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. 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 recognised the challenge of breaking the link between economic growth and environmental destruction. The EU’s own Sustainable Development Strategy, agreed by EU leaders at the Gothenburg Summit in June 2001, calls for fundamental changes to the way the EU approaches development, factoring not only economic and social concerns, but also the long-term integrity of the environment. The Strategy calls for integrating environmental considerations into all aspects of EU policy and activity, 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, though, 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 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 Mr McInnes of the EEA. 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 the EU’s enlargement. Like their predecessors, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, the current accession countries now tend to view environment as a luxury, and competing with economic development — simply assuming that 'western' model of economic development at the cost of massive loss in natural wealth and erosion of longterm sustainability is the only route to follow.

CEE leadership?

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 of the region put their signatures to a convention seeking to protect the Carpathian Mountains, the great arc of mountains stretching from the Czech Republic to Romania that are 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 holding onto and restoring these spectacularly rich wetland areas.In fact, the Environment for Europe process was brought to life at a meeting held at Dobris castle outside of Prague that was initiated and hosted by former Czechoslovak Minister of Environment Josef Vavrousek in June 1991. 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 Josef 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 Coordination for WWF.
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