Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999

The results of acid rain E N V I R O N M E N T:
From Puppet Master
to Listless Puppet

Andreas Beckmann

Next to the exuberant scenes of the "Velvet Revolution," the most enduring images of the Czech lands ten years ago are of the catastrophic state of the environment: fields of stumps that resembled the battlefields of the First World War more than once proud forests; infants and senior citizens gasping oxygen from respirators because the air outside was too toxic to breathe; creaking industrial plants belching clouds of smoke and leaking toxic chemicals into the ground.

The Czech Republic no longer makes dramatic headlines in foreign newspapers and, indeed, has done much to get rid of its store of environmental horrors. Emissions of sulphur dioxide, for example, a key ingredient of the acid rain that has destroyed so many of the country's trees and monuments, have dropped by over 68% between 1987 and 1997. [1] This, together with new forestry practices that emphasize native species of trees, are slowly nursing the forests back to health. Grouse and other wildlife are gradually making a comeback in rural areas thanks to a 44% reduction in use of pesticides on agricultural fields. [2] Life is returning to many of the country's waterways thanks to the construction of dozens of water treatment plants. Nevertheless, environmentalists are not jumping for joy. Neither is the European Union, which in its October appraisal of the Czech Republic's preparation to join the union focused major criticism on the environment.

A long way yet

The country still has a long way to go before it achieves EU standards. Environmental conditions may no longer be very bad, but that does not make them good. Despite progress, over 60% of Czech forests are still moderately to severely damaged. [3] Otters and crayfish are finally returning to Czech streams and rivers, but one-third of the country's waterways are still highly polluted and even devoid of life. Industry has made strides in reducing pollution and energy use, but the Czech Republic is still one of the least efficient producers among developed countries.

The investment poured into environmental reform has been massive: a team from the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) that came to Prague two years ago was astonished to discover that 2.4% of the country's GDP was going into environmental improvements - apparently a higher percentage than any other country. But much more will be necessary for the Czech Republic to reach minimal EU environmental standards, let alone long-term sustainability. The EU estimates that it will cost between EUR 10 to 13 billion for the Czech Republic to meet the environmental requirements related to the country's accession to the union. [4] For comparison, in 1997, the country's expenditures for the environment totaled EUR 1 billion, or 2.7% of GDP. [5]

In addition, new problems are eroding what progress has been made. The explosion of throw-away consumer goods and their layers of packaging has ensured that the country's waste dumps are quickly filling, while previous recycling and re-use schemes lie in tatters. In the streets of Prague, the pasty green smoke from coal furnaces has been replaced by exhaust fumes from the tailpipes of the cars that now regularly gridlock the city's streets. As buildings and space remain empty in city centers, hypermarkets and filling stations are covering farmland and forests with asphalt and concrete, not only displacing plants and wildlife, but also stretching transportation systems and sucking the vitality out of city centers. Czech society will need to critically reassess current development patterns if it is to avoid some of the major headaches surrounding waste, transportation and development experienced by most Western countries over the past couple of decades.

End-of-pipe solutions

The real problem is that despite some notable improvements, Czech society has made little progress in making the kind of broad and fundamental changes necessary to achieve long-term sustainability - that is, to assure that future generations are not left with a worse quality of life than present ones enjoy.

It will be impossible to mobilize the massive resources necessary to reach EU standards without relying on and involving all sectors and interest groups of society, from private citizens to nongovernmental organizations, industry and the public sector. While environmental organizations are relatively strong and active, the vast majority of Czech citizens, businesses and government organs are oblivious of environmental issues and their importance to the future of society. Environment is a non-issue in the Czech lands, only raised uncomfortably now and again by the European Union. Improving the environment is not seen as a positive challenge but rather as a bothersome task, like some extra homework assigned unfairly by a stern teacher.

While firms in the rest of Europe are turning a critical eye on the way they do business and adopting environmental management systems to help them produce more cleanly and more efficiently, most Czech firms are completely unaware of environmental concerns. The standard explanation is that environment is an unaffordable luxury, particularly for firms just scrambling to meet payroll and keep the machines running. The experience of the Znovin winery, one of the first (and still few) Czech companies to participate in an environmental management scheme, suggests that being environmentally conscious can actually improve the bottom line: for example, the company managed to cut its use of water by 40%, reducing its costs substantially. [6]

The Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control system that is required by the EU and that the Czech government is now preparing will have huge implications for Czech industry, which will have to invest in the most advanced technology for reducing pollution - over EUR 2 billion, according to estimates of the Czech Ministry of Environment. [7] Yet there seems to be little realization among Czech businesses of the challenge they soon will be facing (last year, a journalist for the Prague Tribune considered doing an article on how firms are preparing for EU accession but gave up the project when she ran into too many blank stares).

Almost two-thirds of the investment in environmental improvement in recent years has come from the private sector. However, a great part of this money has been spent by the largest enterprises to outfit their plants with scrubbers and other equipment for reducing sulphur and other kinds of emissions in order to meet the tough air laws governing the largest energy and industrial plants, while smaller firms have been left largely untouched. And as Ivan Dejmal, former minister of environment, pointed out in a recent article in Tyden magazine, the investment has not actually gone into making the plants produce more cleanly. The de-sulphurization equipment is merely an "end-of-pipe" solution that catches emissions before they escape from the top of a smokestack. The funds, Dejmal maintains, could have been invested much more environmentally, for example, in modern technologies that produce much less emissions while burning the same amount of coal.

"Did we have to repeat after November 1989 the mistakes made by Western democracies in their economic development in the 1970s and 1980s and push for growth without regard to the environment? Or should we have tried to immediately incorporate environmental standards in the restructuralization of enterprises?", asks former Environmental Minister Martin Bursik. "Restructuralization did not take place, and the problem of many firms today is not where they will get money for environmentally friendly technology, but where they will get money to meet payroll." [8]

A missed opportunity?

For Czech environmentalists, the sense of a missed opportunity is made all the more poignant, because the opportunity seemed so tangible. Concerns over the way Communist policies were destroying the land and poisoning the people played a prominent role in the unrest of November 1989. In the first opinion poll conducted after the Velvet Revolution in 1990, 83% of those polled thought that improving the environment should be the government's top priority. [9] On the wave of this environmental concern, environmentalists took top positions in the first post-revolutionary government and within a short period of time set in place the foundations of the country's environmental policy.

The concept of sustainable development was enshrined in the country's constitution; the environment ministry and related organs were established; and a series of progressive legislation was passed that included Environmental Impact Assessments for major development projects as well as liberal provisions for public access to information and decision-making regarding the environment. To top everything off, the Czech Republic gained international renown when Environment Minister Vavrousek initiated Environment for Europe, a Europe-wide process of environmental evaluation and cooperation that is now a cornerstone of environmental policy on the continent.

Today, to imagine that the Czech Republic ever led the environmental agenda of Europe is difficult. Recent polls record that only about one in 15 Czechs thinks the environment should be the government's top priority [10] , and the country's environmental leadership today is weak and relatively ineffectual. Far from being environmentally conscious, ordinary Czechs have flung themselves into Western-style consumption with a vengeance. Unlike many of their Western neighbors, few Czechs pay heed to the environmental qualities of the products they buy, and they have forgotten their former habit of recycling and re-using - which could help recoup at least some of the loss in resources. Most environmentalists place responsibility for snuffing out the country's green prospects squarely at the feet of former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, who remained in power from 1992 to 1997.

For the five years of his reign, Klaus led a personal crusade against anything with the slightest tinge of green. The environment, in his thinking, was an unnecessary luxury and environmentalism a dangerous ideology on a par with Marxism-Leninism. Under Klaus, the previously dynamic Environment Ministry was transformed into a listless puppet; its powers were pared, and steps toward substantive reforms and complying with EU environmental requirements were stalled.

The great majority of Czechs seemed happy to follow Klaus and turned their attention to amassing money and spending it. It was perhaps convenient, though ultimately suicidal, to ignore the basic fact that far from "icing on the cake," the environment is the bedrock for human life and activity, including economic growth.

By pinning all of the blame on Klaus, environmentalists avoid shouldering some of their own responsibility for the change in environmental fortunes. Environmentalists were swept from government just as quickly as the former dissidents and intellectuals, and in the lives of most Czechs quickly faded in relevance. Like many of their former colleagues in the Civic Forum, they have been gnashing their teeth over Klaus and the country's turn in development ever since. Yet they have made few efforts to come to terms with the changed circumstances and find a language that the mass of the Czech population can understand. Some environmental groups have retreated into sullen introversion, convinced a priori that trying to raise broader support is doomed to failure. Others do communicate, but often in a language and manner that assures that few people will listen. As a result, Klaus' paradigm is left unchallenged.

Treading water

There are signs of change, however: leading up to the decision to complete construction of the Temelin nuclear reactor last spring, environmentalists managed to badly bruise the reputation of the Czech Energy Company with well-targeted arguments that focused on questions of national interest and the project's record of cost-overruns and mismanagement. In Prague, environmental groups have created effective alliances with communities and other interest groups and transformed transportation in the metropolis from primarily an environmental issue into a generic one capable of addressing a variety of people and concerns.

Since Klaus left power, the environment has returned to the government agenda. The latest national environment plan trumpets sustainable development as a goal and calls for close involvement of all sectors of society in working towards this goal. As one concrete step in the direction of empowering citizens to take an active role in caring for the environment, legislation has been passed that provides citizens with access to environmental information held by the state.

However, what progress is now being made is in large part the result of growing pressure from the European Union, which is forcing legislation through the current bottleneck in political leadership. The Social Democratic government is badly fractured and confused, stretched with regard to environmental issues between the very green perspective of the current environment minister, Milos Kuzvart, and the opposing pole of Minister of Industry and Trade Miroslav Gregr. Even when consensus is reached, it faces an uphill battle due to the government's minority position, which places the future of the Social Democratic government at the whim of Klaus's ODS. No sign of change is on the horizon, other than the growing strength of the Communist Party, which is certainly no green promise.

The main problem with the environment, as with the prospects for accession to the EU and the nation as a whole, is a lack of imagination, creativity and will. The current political elite is treading water, while those that do have vision and ideas lack the resolve to put them into effect.

To meet the EU's environmental standards, the accession countries are aiming at a moving target. Under the specter of melting polar caps, widening ozone holes and the growing cost of natural disasters, the countries of the European Union have set out to makes themselves sustainable. Even by their own reckoning, they are not doing very well in this. If their start has been limping, the Czech Republic is shuffling somewhat aimlessly far behind. It will need to pick up the pace quickly to catch up with its Western neighbors.

But forget the European Union, for once. It is Czechs themselves that will be the first to benefit from any positive changes. It is their and their children's futures that they are investing in. Ten years ago, outrage over destruction of the Czech environment helped carry the Velvet Revolution. Back then, we could blame the Communists. Our children will only have us to blame.

Andreas Beckmann, 10 December 1999

FOOTNOTES [Click the ^ to return to your place in the text]

1. Environmental Performance Reviews: Czech Republic (OECD: 1999), 23. ^

2. Czech Ministry of Environment, 1997 Report on the Environment for the Czech Republic (Czech Ministry of Environment: 1998), p 11. ^

3. Ibid., p 9. ^

4. Czech Ministry of Environment, Aproximacni strategie pro oblast zivotniho prostredi (Approximation Strategy for the Environment) (Czech Ministry of the Environment: 1999), p 48. ^

5. Ibid., p 5. ^

6. OECD study ^

7. Approximation Strategy, p 48. ^

8. Quoted in: Cestmir Klos, Pokulhavajici rekordman, Tyden (weekly magazine), 41/1999, p 43. ^

9. Ibid, p. 44. ^

10. E.g.: Ibid, p 44, also Petr Holub, "Nasi lide uz jsou apaticti", Respect (weekly), 10/1997, p 11. ^



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