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East/West: International Conference Calls For Measures To Clean Environment

Copenhagen, 25 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Participants in a major international environmental conference have agreed that clean and healthy environment is essential for economic development.

Meeting in the Danish city of Aarhus, government officials from 55 European countries and numerous representatives of various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as business, trade unions and finance leaders have discussed the ways efficiently to use natural resources and reduce pollution and waste.

Yesterday, Thirty two nations from across Europe and North America agreed to slash airborne emissions from heavy metals and ban or limit 16 of the world's most dangerous chemicals.

The protocols were signed by the 15 EU nations, and most Central and Eastern European states as well as Canada and the U.S. Russia said it hoped to sign by the end of the year, along with Belarus, Armenia and Turkey.

More than twenty nations, including the Central and East European ones pledged to phase-out leaded gasoline from their markets by the year 1005.

Much of the discussion at the conference dealt with the situation in post-communist countries, particularly the Central and East European states aspiring to EU membership.

Some environmental experts have said that the cost of cleaning up the environment in the ten applicant Central and Eastern European countries will reach about 120 billion ECU (approx. $125 billion).

The situation is even worse further in the East. Central Asian countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, for example, have "colossal" environmental problems which can only be solved with external help. But to make that help effective, the governments of those states must adopt strict environment-friendly legislation and make every effort to implement it.

According to Angela Merkel, German Minister of Environment, governments can provide incentives by setting proposing environmental legislation, by ensuring consistent enforcement of environmental laws and by amending commercial and fiscal law accordingly. Governments should also make it easier for the business enterprises to adhere to environmental requirements by using instruments such as taxation.

Ritt Bjerregaard, the EU Commissioner for the Environment, sought to make a stronger political commitment by these governments to environmental causes a condition for continuing EU help.

Egil Myklebust, chairman of both European Table of Industrialists and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said that the big multinational companies are committed to improving the environmental situation in Central and Eastern Europe by applying EU environmental standards. He said that the companies do this because it good for business.

Much needs to be done to attract foreign direct investments in those regions. Western countries are still hesitant to invest in eastern industries if there is no clear prospect of resolving existing environmental liabilities, such as chemical waste deposits or excessive pollution.

Western support for environmental projects in Eastern Europe has declined since 1994, especially for countries which used to form part of the Soviet Union. But increase in foreign investments would not in itself guarantee a sustainable development. Creating national financing strategies and ensuring that the resources provided by western institutions are among the highest priorities, according to Martin Busk, Czech Minister of the Environment.

His views were echoed by a number of NGOs representatives from the East who said that international environmental aid is frequently misspent or disappears down "the bureaucratic drain."

The need for transparency in the management of international aid was a major topic at the Aarhus conference. Mary Robinson, the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights, emphasized that when she called for the establishment and the maintenance of "environmental democracy" in relations between the West and the East.