Agenda 21 conference calls for greater "environmental democracy"

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A vast section of Europe badly affected by Communist industrialisation is slowly beginning to heal from decades of environmental abuse, but faces new pressure in the era of globalisation. Well, that was the warning issued this weekend by a "sustainable development" conference in Prague, featuring representatives of governments, universities and non-profit groups from throughout Central Europe.

The Visegrad Agenda 21 conference, involving experts from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, was designed as a prelude to a United Nations environment summit planned for the end of August in Johannesburg. The last sustainable development conference was held in Rio ten years ago, and Dr Sandor Fulop, from Hungary's Environmental Management and Law Association, said a lack of progress since then had led to frustration among environmental organisations.

"The Rio conference was organised in much more optimistic surroundings, compared to the Johannesburg event. I think that during these ten years, non-sustainable values - consumerism - strengthened in the world very much. The environmental community have lost patience, and they want to see implementation, they want to see control mechanisms, so I think that the new world summit will speak about much more concrete steps, measures, compared to the Rio meeting."

One of those concrete measures is the so-called "ecological tax reform." Dr Andrzej Kassenberg, from Poland's Institute for Sustainable Development, explained more about it.

"Ecological tax reform is the idea of increasing taxes on non-renewable resources and decreasing taxes on labour. And in this sense you have a double dividend. On one hand there's less pollution, because if you are using less materials, less energy, you have less pollution. And on the other hand, if you decline taxes on labour, you increase employment, which in many of our countries is an important issue. In Poland, it's a very important issue because we have 17 percent unemployment at the moment. Take together all these elements related to ecological tax reform, this tax reform can be introduced in many countries, together."

Smokestacks no longer belch black soot in the four "Visegrad" countries of central Europe. But delegates heard that the tough new challenges include a lack of modern sewers in Slovakia, rapidly increasing car traffic in Poland, urban sprawl in Hungary, and anti-environment attitudes among politicians in the Czech Republic. Hungary's Dr Sandor Fulop told the conference that there must be greater public involvement in discussions, to encourage greater "environmental democracy" as he put it.

"The public - even in the smallest village - needs information about the decisions which concern them. They need the right to express their wishes, and they need to have strong legal tools to enforce their interests. So access to information, access to participation and access to justice gets much more stress in the new discussions. We had a kind of monitoring effort, the Access Initiative, which is an international NGO effort to measure environmental democracy. How much information, participation and access to justice is really ensured."

Dr Sandor Fulop, from Hungary's Environmental Management and Law Association, ending that report on this weekend's Agenda 21 conference in Prague.