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Ukraine: International Environment Conference Opens In Kyiv

As RFE/RL reports, the Ukrainian capital Kyiv is hosting its largest-ever gathering of international environmental officials, starting today, as ministers from Europe and the CIS open a three-day "Environment for Europe" conference aimed at setting the agenda for greener policies for the continent in the years ahead.

Prague, 21 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The world has become used to major international conferences, where government leaders expound on weighty topics -- under the intense glare of the media and general disinterest of the public, which wonders why it should care.

But organizers of the three-day "Environment for Europe" conference, which got underway in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv today, say this meeting is different. Under the auspices of the United Nations, environment ministers from 55 countries across Europe and the CIS are due to adopt legally binding measures to improve the region's ecology and give its citizens a greater say in development issues.

At the last "Environment for Europe" conference, which took place in 1998 in Aarhus, Denmark, participants adopted the "Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters."

That document established the public's basic environmental rights, such as the right to know about ecologically hazardous facilities or materials in their vicinity and the right to affect government policy about how to deal with these sites.

Five years later, and based on the Aarhus convention, European and CIS environment ministers in Kyiv are due to sign three protocols to put those promises into action.

The first protocol will oblige signatory governments to conduct environmental impact studies before undertaking major industrial, transport, and agricultural projects.

The second and perhaps most important protocol provides for the creation of so-called "Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers." The registers, to be updated annually, will catalog emissions given off by industry during the transport of hazardous material or in day-to-day operation of industrial facilities. The registers will be accessible to the public, ideally via the Internet, and allow citizens and municipalities to obtain environmental information about the activities of industry.

Jeremy Wates, of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), explains by phone from Kyiv: "The protocol will require the registers to cover reporting from a wide range of environmentally significant activities such as the chemical industry, the mining industry, thermal power stations, waste incinerators, wood and paper production and processing, to give some examples."

The third protocol to be signed in Kyiv provides a mechanism for individuals affected by industrial accidents on waterways that cross national boundaries to lodge a legal claim for compensation. The protocol was negotiated in the wake of the January 2000 spill of thousands of tons of waste water and chemicals in Baia Mare, Romania, that led to the pollution of hundreds of kilometers of river water in several countries.

As with all international treaties, once the three protocols are signed in Kyiv, the legislation will go back to the parliaments of the 55 participant countries for ratification.

Biodiversity will be the watchword in Kyiv as ministers focus their attention on future initiatives. In a report released ahead of the conference, the European Environment Agency, which is the principal clearing house for ecology-related information at the European Union, noted an overall improvement in Europe's environment over the past decade.

In Western Europe, much of that improvement has come as the result of stricter emissions laws and improved technology. But in the East, especially on the territory of the former Soviet Union, a cleaner environment is often the unintended byproduct of economic recession. Factory closures have meant cleaner air, but what will happen when the economy improves?

"In terms of polluting releases in the waters, rivers, and lakes and oceans in Western Europe, there has been improvement," says Kaj Berlund, director of the environment and human settlements division at UNECE. "There has also been improvement in terms of reducing emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in Western countries, through active measures to invest in improved technologies. In the East, unfortunately, many of the improvements are due to the recession or reduction in production and here we come back to this complicated question of what will happen when growth now resumes. It's not clear whether these improvements are of a permanent nature or just of a temporary nature."

In some countries where growth has returned, the rapid rise in car ownership and domestic waste is an indicator that if unchecked, some types of pollution could get out of hand.

Gordon McInness, interim executive director of the European Environment Agency, says this is a problem both Eastern and Western Europe must continue to address.

"We're trying to avoid a direct contrast [that asks] is the West more polluted than the East or is the East more polluted than the West? The whole region shares many similar problems from transport growth, from rising amounts of waste -- both hazardous waste and municipal waste," McInness says.

As ministers look to the future, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma appealed to conference participants today not to forget the ongoing aftermath of the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear accident. With thousands of people in parts of neighboring Russia and Belarus continuing to suffer the after-effects of radiation contamination, this is another trans-border environmental problem that will preoccupy Europe in the years ahead.