Living with big brothers

The new members have to spruce up their environmental regulatory mechanisms

By MARA SILINA, John Hontelez
Published: Tuesday 15 June 2004

Living with big brothers

-- On May 1 2004, ten new countries joined the European Union (eu). This is the biggest enlargement in the union's history and will undoubtedly affect its decision-making processes. Whether that will be for the better or worse remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that eu's environmental legislation and policies will cover a much larger area than before. The union's environmental acquis " which has been developed over the last 30 years consists of more than 300 different legislations. They come together with numerous communications and policy guidelines. Therefore, at the beginning of the negotiations on integration, environmental legislation was seen by many as the most contentious. Moreover, complying with eu's environmental laws means an annual spending of 80 to 120 billion euros (Rs 4,300-6,500 billion) for the new members. They would have to spend upto 2-3 per cent of their gross domestic product for the purpose -- a much higher percentage than the existing, and much richer, member states. And the eu would sponsor only a little part of this (roughly 10 per cent).

The new members are generally on track in changing their regulatory frameworks to conform to eu environmental requirements, but effective enforcement will be a big challenge. Several countries lack sufficient institutional capacities for that purpose. It will be quite a big challenge for these countries to implement "investment-heavy" directives within fixed time periods. These include, among others, urban waste water treatment directive, recovery and recycling of waste and, most importantly, checking air pollution from large combustion plants.
Air quality Proper air quality monitoring -- the first step in identifying cost-effective strategies to curtail pollution -- remains problematic for new members. Several of these countries rely on solid fuels such as coal and lignite for power production, driving air pollution above acceptable levels. According to early estimates, implementing eu requirements in large combustion plants will cost new members from Central East Europe (cee) about 10 billion euros (about Rs 540 billion), but more cost- effective solutions may still be possible. The most recent Large Combustion Plants Directive (2001/80/ec) allows existing plants to operate at current emission standards until 2008. There is a possibility that the compliance period might be extended by several years; by then most older power plants in cee will need to be replaced. So while investments in costly flue gas cleaning may be avoidable, significant investment will be needed to upgrade the energy sector.

Perhaps the greatest progress in this field has been already made in Poland. In the early 1990s, many urban areas in the country suffered high pollution because locally-produced high sulphur coal was used in municipal boiler plants and for generating electricity. Today, most of these industrial facilities have solved their worst problems. However, a monitoring programme that meets eu standards and develops air quality programmes still remains to be put in place.
Nature conservation The new member countries, with the exception of Malta, have not received transition periods for bringing in nature conservation legislation. The two key requirements, the Birds and Habitats directives, are generally not regarded investment-heavy, yet the measures needed to implement them will place heavy administrative and financial burden on authorities. For example, financial compensation will have to be paid to owners of lands with environmental significance before putting protective restrictions in place.

Most new members are still in the process of identifying areas to be protected and establishing necessary restrictions in their use. And at a time when demands on public funds are very high, conservation authorities are fighting hard to preserve already shrinking nature protection budgets.

In biotechnology, existing eu legislation puts forward a transparent procedure to authorise placement of genetically modified organisms (gmos) on the market. Risk assessment associated with the release of gmos is based on a common methodology and a system of accredited laboratories to analyse data. Costs will mostly be indirect: investment in human resources as well as on transfer of know-how to users and public authorities. Direct costs will include those on registers for recording information about genetic modifications in the final products, and on institutional structures to monitor gmos after they have been placed on the market.

John Hontelez and Mara Silina are with the European Environmental Bureau, Brussels, Belgium

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