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The Warsaw Voice » Other » December 3, 2008
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Green Awareness
December 3, 2008   
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Prof. Maciej Nowicki, minister of the environment, talks to Urszula Imienińska.

This December Poland is hosting the world's biggest climate conference, and you will preside over it. What will be the subject of the debate and what is the significance of this conference to Poland?
This is a United Nations conference and we have the honor of hosting it. Some 8,000-10,000 guests from 190 countries will come to Poznań Dec. 1-12. This is a very important event because it is a follow-up to the famous UN climate convention signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Ever since then, government officials-prime ministers and ministers-from all the UN countries have been meeting in a different place each year. The previous, 13th, conference was held on Bali island, Indonesia in December last year. Poznań will host the 14th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, along with the 4th Session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, in which developed countries have committed themselves to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2012. The Poznań event will sum up what has been achieved so far in relation to the convention and the effects of activities resulting from the Kyoto Protocol.

Can this international meeting become an important step toward defining concrete activities that are needed internationally to deal with climate change?
The Poznań conference is an important step on the way toward the compromise- related to the commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions-that should be achieved in Copenhagen in 2009. The conference in Poznań should lay the groundwork for international legal regulations that should be adopted in Copenhagen, determining the obligations of individual states after 2012, when the Kyoto provisions expire.

In Poznań, we will deal with four areas-reducing the emissions, adjusting to oncoming climate changes, transferring technology, and financing projects that will provide assistance, particularly for developing countries, in activities aimed at stopping climate change.

In your January speech at the UN General Assembly you promised to hold an international exhibition in Poznań to promote innovation, inventions and innovative organizational changes aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Since a lot is being done around the world in this field, it is worth presenting the best and most interesting solutions, from very simple ones to the most advanced. During the Poznań conference, we will showcase original technologies and successfully tested ideas aimed at controlling global warming. We want to promote best practice in this area. The exhibition will be on display at the biggest pavilion on the Poznań International Fair grounds and will be open to both conference participants and the public. Interest in the exhibition is huge. We have even received requests from some countries that would like to host it later on.

What is the condition of Polish ecology and environmental awareness today?
I'd say that environmental awareness in Poland is just emerging. We have both some achievements and some problems. We have beautiful natural areas and primeval wilderness, including beaver reserves and national parks, but we also have a conflict over the Rospuda valley [involving a plan to build a freeway across sensitive natural areas]. These are two opposite ends of the spectrum. It will be easier to solve problems when ecological knowledge and awareness increases.

In 1996 you received one of the biggest environmental protection awards in Europe, Der Deutsche Umweltpreis, in recognition of your achievements as a scientist, politician and environmentalist. You spent the prize money, 350,000 Deutschemarks in all, on establishing a foundation to support the best graduates of Poland's environmental protection departments. This shows that environmental protection has always been a top priority for you. What are the biggest environmental problems in Poland and what are the greatest challenges for ecology here?
The biggest problem today is how to make good use of all the funds the European Union will transfer to Poland by 2013. We have a unique opportunity to receive really big money for environmental protection installations. This offers a chance of accelerating our long-term plans. We may receive up to 5 billion euros under the Infrastructure and Environment Operational Program. Add to that regional programs and a program aimed at protecting business competitiveness that also includes an ecological section. This adds up to some 7-8 billion euros in total. Meanwhile, our spending on environmental protection is around 2 billion euros a year. So this is a huge market, with thousands of "green" jobs.

Are these activities sufficient to effectively protect the environment?
Considering the ambitious targets imposed on us by the European Commission, we do not have that much funding. And we have to realize that the EU attaches great importance to environmental protection. Even the strictest requirements have to be respected, or you have to pay big fines.

In Poland, the approach that EU directives on environmental protection have to be followed strictly is not widespread. So we need to change our way of thinking. Environmental protection regulations in Poland were often bypassed for "important" social reasons. As a result, we still have a long way to go before our environmental protection efforts are up to scratch.

What is the most neglected area when it comes to environmental protection in Poland?
Waste management tops the list of environmental problems and challenges for Poland. Over the recent 15 years we have made a lot of progress in water and air protection but little progress in waste management. Some 92-96 percent of waste reaches landfills. Meanwhile, the EU recommends that at least 25 percent of the biodegradable waste that can be decomposed should not end up in garbage dumps. Over the next several years, this figure will have to grow to 50 percent. At the moment, no more than 76 percent of the waste in Poland should be dumped in landfills. The rest should be recycled and utilized. We are very much behind in this area.

Do Western Europeans produce less waste?
They generate even more waste than we do, but the 15 "old" EU member states-for example, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries-have extensive home-based pre-selection programs for waste. The waste is segregated into at least two groups, dry and wet. These countries have many garbage incinerators. Apart from waste recycling, they have waste reduction programs. For example, in Germany, for over a decade, consumers have been asked whether they want a plastic bag or have their own. And packaging accounts for some 50 percent of urban waste. In Poland, we are only beginning to talk about that. The fact is that it is very difficult to separate plastic bags from other waste. The Ministry of the Environment has developed certain solutions aimed at limiting the amount of plastic bags in use. Poland is lagging behind the most in waste management, which means it is especially behind in meeting the commitments included in the EU accession treaty.

What can Poland boast about as far as environmental protection is concerned?
We have made great progress in building sewage treatment plants. Just imagine, in 1988 we did not treat-or treated only with the use of mechanical methods-two-thirds of sewage. Only one-third was treated relatively well, with the use of biological methods. Today, only 8 percent of sewage is left untreated, and only 20 percent is treated with mechanical methods. Our ambition is to treat all sewage and modernize the old treatment plants that date back to the 1970s.

But in order to handle all the sewage we need a well-developed sewerage network. And there is much to be done in this respect. That is why in the next decade, more money has to be spent on the extension of the sewerage network than on sewage treatment plants.

The plants built over the past few years meet top international standards and many have a sewage treatment capacity that exceeds the volume of sewage they receive. They were built with this extra capacity in anticipation of the development of the sewerage network. With insufficient sewage volume, they do not operate properly. So we have to make sure their full capacity is utilized. This is our immediate priority.

Are things really that bad?
The situation is quite good in big cities, but far from acceptable in the countryside. Only a dozen or so percent of Poland's villages have sewerage systems. Leaking cesspools pollute wells, and so water from some 50 percent of them is not suitable for drinking. Also, sewage pollutes surface waters, destroying our national treasure-nature.

We have made great progress in air protection. Over the past 20 years we have cut down sulfur dioxide emissions by some 70 percent, eliminating what used to be one of our main problems. We have made an impressive step forward, especially given the fact that the Polish economy was growing very fast over that time. But we need to work even harder in order to meet EU requirements.

The EU wants to be a global leader in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, with a plan to cut them by 20 percent by 2020. Is this target realistic?
The problem is that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but an ingredient of the atmosphere. The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more energy is absorbed instead of going into outer space, which causes global warming. Today, due to human activities, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is the highest in 650,000 years. Over the last 50 years people have burned more coal than ever in their entire history. Man's activities are beginning to affect the entire planet. I believe we have reached the limits of the Earth's physical capacity. Further development in the present direction is impossible because it will destroy the environment we live in.

The growing temperature of ocean water and the melting of icebergs may cause huge floods and droughts. Economic losses caused by them have already reached tens of billions of dollars.

The Kyoto Protocol may be considered the international community's first step toward joint formal action for an effective protection of the environment. Even though it still needs many corrections and a global compromise, it may help change the approach of governments toward environmental protection, and help launch more advanced efforts in the future. Poland participated in the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro and is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol. The UN considers climate change to be the world's most serious issue today.

Many scientists say that if the average temperature on Earth rises by just 2 degrees Celsius over the period before the industrial era, we will lose control over the consequences of global warming. The costs of that for humanity would be unimaginable. In order to prevent a situation in which global warming exceeds 2 degrees Celsius, we have to reduce CO2 emissions to 50 percent of the pre-1990 level. This is a very ambitious task because global CO2 emissions continue to grow.

FACTFILE: Professor Maciej Nowicki
Graduate of the Warsaw University of Technology's environmental engineering department (1964). Long-time scientific worker for the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN; 1964-1970) and the Warsaw University of Technology (1970-1986). Obtained his PhD in 1972, followed by a postdoctoral degree in atmosphere protection from the University of Warsaw in 1976; named professor by the Polish president in 1992. Undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Natural Resources and Forestry 1989-1991, and in 1991 minister of environmental protection, natural resources and forestry in the government of Jan Krzysztof Bielecki. Founded the EcoFund Foundation in 1992 and was its president until October 2007. In 1994-1995 he was deputy chair of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in New York. In 1996-1997 he was an adviser to the OECD secretary-general in Paris. A member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts based in Salzburg, Poland's representative in the European Commission (European Economic and Social Committee's Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI).

He has been a member of the PAN "Man and Environment" Scientific Committee and the State Environmental Protection Council.

In 1996 he received Europe's biggest prize in environmental protection, Der Deutsche Umweltpreis, for his lifetime achievement as a scientist, politician and environmental activist. He used the money (350,000 German marks) to set up a foundation to support the development of the best university graduates specializing in environmental protection. In 1997-2007, in association with the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) of Germany, this foundation provided over 160 people with scholarships lasting many months for foreign research visits.

The author of over 170 papers and six books on environmental protection and sustainable development, he has taken part in several hundred national conferences and over 100 international conferences at which he delivered papers.

He has received numerous state distinctions: the Knight's Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order, a Gold Cross of Merit, a Great Cross of Merit with Star from the Federal Republic of Germany.

Kyoto Protocol
The Kyoto Protocol is a protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and at the same time an international treaty on global warming. It was negotiated at the Kyoto conference in December 1997 and came into force on Feb. 16, 2005, three months after being ratified by Russia (on Nov. 18, 2004).

Provisions of the Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding treaty under which industrialized countries are obligated to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2012.

Under its provisions, the countries that decided to ratify the treaty agreed to reduce their own emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, dinitrogen monoxide, HFC and PFC-all greenhouse gases. If there is a "shortage" or surplus of emissions, the signatories have agreed to take part in "trade" that involves selling or buying quotas from other countries. As a result of implementing the treaty, the average global temperature is expected to drop by between 0.02°C and 0.28°C by 2050.

The protocol also includes a provision whereby developed countries are obligated to support the technological development of less developed countries and to carry out studies and projects related to climate, especially involving the development of alternative energy sources such as wind, solar or nuclear energy. Environmental projects of this kind in poorer countries benefit highly developed countries by allowing for extra gas emission quotas. The quotas can also be reduced through programs of mass-scale planting of forests, which absorb harmful carbon dioxide and produce life-giving oxygen.

By February 2005 the Kyoto Protocol had been ratified by 141 countries that together produce 61 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Signing the protocol was not enough; for it to take effect, it had to be ratified by national authorities. For the protocol to come into force, the principle "2 times 55" had to be met, meaning that a minimum of 55 countries producing at least 55 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions had to ratify the convention. Then, the protocol could come into force on the 90th day after its ratification by the final country contributing to the above conditions being met. The country whose ratification was key for the successful enactment of the protocol was Russia. Russia took a long time to ratify the treaty in fear of its provisions slowing down the Russian economy's development, but the lucrative benefits from trading in emissions tipped the scale. The protocol has not been signed by China, today the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world.
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