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Central/Eastern Europe: Countries Urged To Meet EU Gas Emission Standards

The Central and East European countries are generally too preoccupied with economic problems to think far ahead on environmental issues. But when they join the European Union early in the next century, they may make it impossible for the EU to meet its international commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As our correspondent, Breffni O'Rourke, reports, Finland -- the current president of the EU -- is determined to improve the situation ...

Prague, 23 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Finland is urging EU candidate countries from Central and Eastern Europe to act now to meet the EU's commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the Kyoto international environment accords, the EU has committed itself by the year 2012 to making an overall 8 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, as compared to 1990 levels. Greenhouse gases -- which come from burning fossil fuels -- are blamed for the warming of the earth's atmosphere. That is thought to cause climate instability.

The problem is that some or possibly all of the 10 Central and Eastern European candidate countries will likely be joining the EU sometime early in the next century -- and unless they also comply with the emission norms, they could push the EU over its agreed limit. Since Brussels took a leading role in pressing for deep cuts in air pollution at the Kyoto (Japan) environmental summit in 1997, it would be politically embarrassing for it to be unable to meet its target.

In order to address this possibility, the Finnish presidency is organizing a meeting in Helsinki on July 24 (Saturday), which will bring together the environment ministers of the present 15 EU members with ministers from the candidate nations (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria).

Sirkka Haunia is an official at the Finnish Environment Ministry's International Climate Office. She told RFE/RL that the meeting will discuss various aspects of climate change. She says it follows on several similar "very useful" meetings held during the German presidency, which ended last month.

The Nordic countries have always seen environmental issues as important, and Haunia says Helsinki wants to develop this focus Europe-wide during the next six months:

"The Finnish presidency puts a great emphasis first of all on climate, which is one of our priorities, as well as on the progress of the climate convention itself and on moving forward with the Kyoto protocol."

In a policy paper to be discussed at the Helsinki meeting, Finnish environment minister Satu Hassi says that eastward enlargement will be one of the major factors influencing future European environmental policies. She says expansion offers scope to improve the pan-European situation, but at the same time, economic growth in East Europe could put new strains on the environment.

The irony of the situation is that the candidate countries can -- for now -- generally match the EU's commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions. That's because heavy industrial production has slumped in the last decade in most of the transition economies, thus cutting pollution. But sometime in the next decade, these countries are expected to experience strong industrial growth and a soaring rate of car usage. The result: a surge in greenhouse gas emissions.

Western experts say the Central and East Europeans can help counter this surge by avoiding the mistakes made since the 1960s in the much bigger Western economies.

For instance, public transport in the West was allowed to wither away or become too expensive, as car ownership increased. In the East, public transport systems remain intact from the socialist era and can be incorporated into a more environmentally friendly infrastructure in the future.

Haunia of the Finnish Environment Ministry says the easterners must be made aware of this:

"It's important to focus their attention on how nicely they could fit in certain aspects which would have a great meaning, from the point of view of climate control. This is what we are trying to pinpoint."

Haunia says the question of the state of the environment in Eastern European nations has two sides to it:

-- On the one hand, the region has a history and tradition of heavy pollution and environmental problems.

-- On the other hand, recent all-European environment reports confirm the presence of vast areas of almost untouched nature in the East. The more heavily populated and industrialized Western parts of the continent benefit from this so-called "green lung."

For the Finns, the coming Helsinki meeting is only a step in an intensifying process. The next step comes in September, when the presidency will host a meeting with the candidate countries to discuss long-term strategy issues relating to Kyoto.