BELGRADE — The 6th Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe,” held Oct. 10-12 in Belgrade, Serbia, resulted in a joint ministerial declaration and an agreement to set up a regional climate change monitoring center in Belgrade. This is not a great accomplishment for a meeting of 56 environment and 20 education ministers from the countries of the UNECE’s European region, a territory populated by 800 million people. Discussions of the ecological situation and efforts to find joint ways to improve it and solve environmental problems were the key issues on the agenda of the sessions and debates in which more 2,000 people took part, among them ministers, representatives of international donor and environmental nonprofit organizations, businessmen, scientists, and journalists. One of the main tasks was to assess the “Environment for Europe” process.
ZERO EMISSIONS, ZERO TAXES — OR HOW TO TURN AUTOMOBILES INTO BICYCLES
The dozens of bicycles parked by the entrance to the SAVA international exhibition center, where the 6th Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe” was in session, were a call for action at the Serbian president’s level. In fact, the president of the Republic of Serbia, the environment minister, and his deputy rode their bicycles to attend the opening ceremony. This was President Boris Tadic’s way of campaigning for his initiative to cancel taxes on zero emission vehicles (such as bicycles). He believes that this will help produce, market, and use ecologically pure fuel on a voluntary basis and will influence the consumer’s attitude to zero emission vehicles. The objective is to lower transportation emissions by 20 percent before 2020. “Zero Emissions, Zero Taxes” is an agreement that should be proposed for signing by all UNECE countries, so that it will take effect within five years. The president’s initiative was met with applause, but it never became a document.
In order to graphically demonstrate ecological programs, such leading European environmental donors and international organizations as UNEP, the European Environment Agency, OSCE, World Conservation Union (IUCN), and Regional Environmental Center [for Central and Eastern Europe] had stands displaying their latest publications and findings. Among the more sizable documents was the Fourth Report On the Protection of the Environment in Europe. Besides charts and tables, this 400-page document contains a detailed analysis of the ecological situation, health, and living conditions of people in the Eurasian region, as well as the latest data on the atmosphere, biodiversity, stable consumption and production, statistics from various countries, international comparisons, and predicted climate changes in the 2020s-2030s.
CARPATHIAN CONVENTION: FROM SIGNING IN KYIV TO SECURING HIGHLANDERS’ WELL-BEING
The international participants were able to learn more about the Carpathians’ biodiversity from the reference source Carpathian Ecological Survey-2007. This is a small contribution to the implementation of the Carpathian Convention that was signed, on Ukraine’s initiative, during the 5th Conference of Environment Ministers in 2003. Since then several partnerships have been established with various international organizations. The convention has taken effect, having been ratified by six out of seven countries of the Carpathian region (except Serbia). This means that governments have adopted a serious attitude to their commitments and proceeded to implement it.
Harald Egerer, head of the CC Interim Secretariat, had this to say: “On the part of the [Interim] Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention we received money from the EU to determine the priorities to improve the implementation of the CC principles. Among the most important ones is recognition of the Carpathian region as a region that is important for a stable development of the European region as a whole, and the obligation of everyone to respect the natural and cultural wealth of the Carpathians. We call this the ‘Carpathian space.’ From the political standpoint, I think it is important for the governments of Carpathian countries to determine protection of the environment and preservation of biodiversity as one of the priorities, considering that a new protocol of the framework convention is being prepared as a new act concerning biodiversity. It is meant to establish a Carpathian network of nature preserves and help protect the biospheric systems. The third priority is to protect the environment for the benefit of the local highlanders — for example, by promoting ecotourism.”
This convention is a gift to the Carpathian environs that all Carpathian countries have pledged to preserve. However, its effectiveness can be discussed only if all the highlanders can be involved in the decision-making process and feel an improvement in their well-being and the state of the mountains.
HOW CAN DONETSK OBLAST BE REMOVED FROM THE MOST-POLLUTED LIST?
There were dozens of other interesting events during the conference, including methodological reports on the topic “Environmental Management on the Local Level.” Complex environmental assessment is a method being applied on the regional, local, and international levels in order to make a strategic analysis of the ecological situation, assess its consequences for the population, and draft several urban development scenarios in case environmental problems remain unsolved.
With UNEP’s assistance 40 reports have been prepared in Latin America, 3 in Asia, and 3 in Europe. In Ukraine, the local environmental management method has been applied in Donetsk oblast, a European region that shows the most damage from man-made factors. Producing 46 percent of Ukraine’s steel, 13.3 percent of electricity, and 45.5 percent of cast iron, the six cities in this region register 60 percent of pollution. A report prepared by Ukrainian and UNEP/Grid Arendal experts is the first step aimed at reaching this complex goal.
Serhii Tretiakov, head of the State Directorate for the Protection of the Environment in Donetsk oblast, says: “This report determines the ecological situation in Donetsk oblast, development trends, and priorities that must be observed. We also draft an environmental program for every year and for a certain period. It envisages the eradication of “hot spots” that we mention in our analysis. For example, this program includes such strategic tasks as the disposal of dangerous wastes — pesticides, yellow phosphorus (500 tons of it has been stored in Sloviansk since 1996). Unless we change our environmental technologies, and given production growth, we’ll have a constantly increasing pollution rate in surface water and air, and we don’t want any of this. Therefore, we need new technologies, some of which we have started using. There is a project underway in Donetsk oblast, which is aimed at recycling coal tailings by adding organic matter, in this case sunflower seed waste. We have 120,000 tons of it in our oblast.”
According to the experts’ findings, the owners of mining and steel companies are not paying enough attention to environmental problems. Current expenditures on basic environmental measures have increased by 2.2 times over the past 5 years, while these companies’ profits have gone up 4.5 times.
TRANSBOUNDARY PROBLEMS: COOPERATION IS UNAVOIDABLE
Such conferences are especially important for solving transboundary ecological problems, which were the focus of serious attention from the assembled ministers. On the second day of the conference the environment ministers of five countries (Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Serbia) announced their support for actions to protect the Tisza River Basin from pollution, floods, and drought. In particular, they supported the main recommendations in the Tisza River Basin Analysis 2007. Summary Report — a Call for Action, presented by Philip Weller, Executive Secretary of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), the organization coordinating the report and Tisza inter-governmental cooperation. The report reads: “Unfortunately, this region faces serious threats from pollution and river engineering as well as from floods and droughts... The substantial demands on water resources in the region — for drinking water, as well as for agriculture and industry — together with the impacts of climatic changes, can result in water shortages or excess water that can be disastrous.” The signatories anticipate that this river, home to 14 million people who live in the basin, a place of cultural, historical legacy and natural wealth, can be saved only by combining efforts.
The member countries undertook to have a draft Tisza Basin Management Plan ready for public discussion by the end of 2008, along with a plan of action to solve such pressing problems as organic and toxic pollution, and a list of potential infrastructural development projects.
NO ONE FORGOT ABOUT PREMIX
The Tisza River Basin has an area of 157,186 km?. The river is 966 km long, starts in the Carpathians, and flows through Zakarpattia (Transcarpathia) oblast, which is known to environment champions as a premix dump: 1,500 tons of these toxic wastes were brought here from Hungary in 2000-03. Clearly, the ministerial conference was an opportunity to ask the Hungarian side questions about the premix. However, Gabor Fodor, Hungary’s new environment minister, was not at the conference, so the official point of view came from Farago Tibor, director of the ministry’s environment and water management department. He was surprised and spent a long time questioning me about the Ukrainian periodical that is still interested in this.
“This is a very old issue. A contract was signed by a Ukrainian and a Hungarian company. The Hungarian company believed everything was legitimate. We were surprised to learn that the materials we had sent to Ukraine were not being used as specified in the contract and officially authorized in Hungary and Ukraine. The Ukrainian company made believe that it seriously intended to use the materials for the purpose set forth in the contract. How could this have happened without any reaction from the Ukrainian regional authorities? We checked all the procedural aspects on the Hungarian side and couldn’t find a single mistake on the part of the Hungarian company. We realize that it’s a political problem. We are prepared to cooperate and Hungary is awaiting the results of the investigation in Ukraine. Only then will we be able to continue the dialog. It is in our common interests as neighboring countries.”
In fact, the Hungarian official, in justifying the Hungarian company, hints at a negligent attitude on the part of Ukrainian bureaucrats, which resulted in the importation of this toxic waste. When asked if asbestos is prohibited in Hungary, he was at a loss for words. Finally he admitted that this material was banned in construction after Hungary joined the EU. If Ukraine proves that importing premix breached the Basel Convention, to which Ukraine and the European Union are signatories, our government will be in a position to demand the return of this waste and compensation for recycling expenses.
THE DNISTER RIVER: DEMARCATION OR COOPERATION LINE
During the conference considerable attention was focused on Ukraine. Deputy Environment Minister Sviatoslav Kurulenko, the head of the official Ukrainian delegation, spoke during the opening ceremony, which is no surprise, since the previous conference was held in Ukraine. At that time the ministers in Kyiv came up with an initiative called “Environment and Security: Transforming Risks into Cooperation.” During the 6th ministerial conference reports on the situation in the Balkans, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, prepared within the initiative’s framework, were presented. This initiative is aimed at helping countries detect, analyze, and, if possible, lower the risks of environmental problems for stability and security. An analysis of the situation, in the form of reports complete with charts and even postage stamps of various countries, is now being used in schools, in the course of discussions, and during the process of formulating national policies. During the launch of the initiative, Moldova’s Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources Constantin Mihailescu spoke about progress in the cooperation between his country and Ukraine in protecting the Dnister. Regrettably, despite the fact that Ukraine and Moldova have well-developed water management policies and have ratified such important international instruments as the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention, 1992), London Protocol on Water and Health (1999), and so on, the Ukrainian side started building the Dnister Pumped Storage Plant without notifying its neighbor.
Minister Constantin Mihailescu, obviously agitated, said: “There are international procedures under the ESPO Convention [Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context], namely, when building a production facility like the waterworks facility in Novo- Dnistrovsk, an environmental impact assessment must be carried out. We are concerned that this construction has been underway a long time and that we were not duly notified. This July we organized several expeditions and were astonished to see that a small riverboat could not be launched 1.5 meters from the dam. This was once a large, deep river. We sent an official letter several years ago. Unfortunately, no official reply was sent. We want a joint team of experts to be created. Let the scientists figure all this out and explain how dangerous this project can be.”
The Moldovan side proposed a special document to be signed by Ukraine and Moldova, namely a Dnister Convention. The question is whether it will change the situation, considering the ineffectiveness of the old 1994 agreement on using the Dnister River, which Ukraine ignored.
Aliona Zubkova, a professor at the Academy of Sciences of Moldova and the head of Ecotoxicology for the Republic of Moldova, pointed out that the river’s self- cleansing ability is currently at the zero level: “We saw changes in the Dnister as soon as we started working on Hydropower Station 1 in Dnistrovsk and HS-2 in Slavchyk (the Ukrainian station on the Ukrainian-Moldovan border, built during Soviet times to regulate the water level and maintain a normal temperature in the lower reaches). They let water flow from Dnistrovsk’s HS-1 from a depth of 54 meters and this water is cold. In the summer, when the temperature is +30 °)xp C here, the water temperature in the middle of the Dnister doesn’t go above +14 °)xp C and is generally between 9 and 11 degrees. The situation is the other way around in the spring and fall. All this is having an adverse affect on nature. Now Ukraine is building a pumped storage plant between these two hydroelectric stations. This may have seismological consequences and cause landslides, and the water will be pumped through 7.5 m pipes and fall on the generator. Unless they stop this construction, there will be no lower and middle Dnister, just a lot of small lakes. This will be a disaster for the Dnister.”
The Moldovan side did not hear a reply from its Ukrainian counterpart during the conference. For some reason no members of the Ukrainian delegation attended this special session, on which the Moldovan environment minister had placed high hopes. The Moldovans were supported only by representatives of Ukrainian nonprofit environmental organizations. Such statements should become food for thought for Ukrainian journalists.
GEOPOLITICAL EXPANSION: SEE YOU IN KAZAKHSTAN!
Serbia’s Minister of the Environment Sasha Dragin, said that “it was important for us to demonstrate that Serbia is a democratic country, capable of organizing such events on a high level.” The host country also succeeded in attracting investments that may come in the form of grants to the regional climate change monitoring center. The Serbs spent some two million euros on the conference (holding it in Ukraine four years ago cost one million dollars). Thirty percent of the expenses were borne by international donors and sponsors. However, the Serbs already made over one million from the VIPs’ hotel accommodations, restaurant bills, and the sale of souvenirs.
The 7th Ministerial Conference “Environment for Europe” will be held in 2011, in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. The choice of location is proof that the international community is starting to take an interest in this region. The EFE process began in Czechoslovakia in 1911. It was boosted by the experience of European countries, particularly the 4th ministerial conference in Aarhus, Denmark, where it was resolved that henceforth the EFE process would focus on the Eastern European region. The 5th EFE conference took place in Kyiv (2003).
We will see if the esteemed ministers do their homework by effectively implementing all the documents they have signed in the past 11 years. They must also convey new messages from the 6th conference to bureaucrats on various levels. Another aspect underlining the importance of this conference is that for the first time during the EFE process education ministers were invited to take part in the conference, where they discussed the possibility of introducing the document “Education for Stable Development.” Adding environmental aspects to the educational systems of most countries would make a tangible contribution to solving environmental problems.
The conference participants left a souvenir in Belgrade: a mini-park called “Trees for the Environment.” The first six trees were planted by the ministers of countries where previous conferences were held. A tree will be added after every new conference. “One day we’ll have a forest, a symbol that the process as well as pan- European partnership is going on,” said the press secretary of Serbia’s Ministry of the Environment.