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Central/Eastern Europe: World Bank Says Pollution Costs Are High

Washington, 6 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - If the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were currently meeting the air pollution standards of the European Union, 18,000 fewer people would die prematurely this year in 18 cities of the region.

There would also be an annual savings of more than $1.2 billion in working time gained because people would not be away from work ill so often.

The World Bank says those statistics show how serious the problem of environmental polution remains in the region and what it costs.

The bank painted the picture as part of an assessment of the global environment five years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where nations of the world pledged to tackle global warming, depletion of tropical forests, air pollution and water conservation.

World Bank Managing Director of Operations Caio Koch-Weser says the bank is concerned that while there has been good progress since the Rio summit, there is now serious danger of a "loss of momentum" that could see the world lose some of the advances already made.

The United Nations special session on the environment in New York later this month is a "window of opportunity" for international and national leaders to rededicate themselves to dealing with pressing environmental problems, says Koch-Weser. The bank -- which has become the leading financier of environmental reforms -- intends to remain in the forefront of that effort, he says.

Many nations individually have taken significant steps forward, says Koch-Weser, but the nations of central and Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics have "not done well enough."

Of course, he told reporters in Washington Thursday, these countries were faced with such enormous tasks of transition that not only were there questions of the cost of dealing with environmental problems, but also the ability of "weak or transforming" national institutions to tackle the problems or absorb outside financing.

The costs are enormous, says Koch-Weser. If Poland were to meet the EU standards for water alone, he says, it would cost Warsaw $20 to $30 billion right now. What it would cost to meet EU air standards is almost beyond imagination, he adds.

Koch-Weser says the bank is working closely with all the nations of the region on environmental issues and expects to "step up efforts enormously" in the next few years to help each one deal with the tough challenges they face.

The Director of the Bank's Environmental Department, Andrew Steers, says the bank is pushing for creation of a global carbon trading fund as a device to give additional help to the nations in transition from central planning.

Steers says such a fund would allow plants in leading industrial nations, such as the U.S. or Japan, which have already stopped most of their air pollution, to pay into the fund in exchange for not having to clean up the last small percentage of their own carbon discharges. The money would then be used in Central and Eastern Europe and central Asia where the funds would easily pay for major reductions in carbon discharges.

It is a complex system which would operate on the premise that the huge amount of money it would cost to remove the final bits of carbon from a plant smokestack which is already relatively clean could instead remove hundreds of tons of carbon from a plant smokestack which doesn't yet have any system in place. Globally, the same money would remove far more carbon from the atmosphere.

The bank lists ten steps it says could make a "real difference" in the environment long-term. Among those is a phase-out of lead in gasoline within five years, aggressively eliminating ozone depleting chemicals, making water an economic asset and creating the carbon reduction fund.