18 April 2006
PROMOTING EUROPE’S SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT THROUGH NEW REGIONAL MEAS
by Frits Schlingemann, Regional Director and Representative, Regional Offi ce for Europe, UNEP
Over the past 20 years, the world’s Governments have developed a series of global conventions aimed at managing the global commons and other environmental issues with transboundary implications. Together with key documents such as the Rio Declaration, these MEAs set out the principles that govern international cooperation on the environment and sustainable development.
Regional MEAs build on these global norms to address problems with the “regional commons.” Benefiting from a smaller membership, a regional MEA can take practical measures to apply the ecosystem approach to a shared environment. And, as Secretary-General Kofi Annan has pointed out, they can soften political tensions by offering neighbors mutually advantageous goals on which to collaborate peacefully.
With the support of UNEP, the wider European region is currently finalizing two new regional MEAs and considering work on a third. These agreements fully support the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Stockholm Convention on POPs and other global treaties.
At the “Environment for Europe” conference in Kiev in May 2003, Ministers from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovakia and Ukraine adopted and signed the Framework Convention on the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Carpathians. In addition to the global agreements cited above, their efforts were inspired by the 1991 Convention on the Protection of the Alps and by the 2002 International Year of Mountains.
The Convention will strengthen regional cooperation and support local projects in the mountain areas of the Carpathian countries. It entered into force in January 2006; the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties is expected to take place in the second half of this year.
The Convention will advance environmental “best practices” to secure the ecological base needed for a healthy economy. It also sets out important principles to guide policymakers, including the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the role of public participation in decision-making, and the need to meet the needs of both people and nature through the ecosystem approach.
Based on these principles, the countries of the Carpathian region will collaborate to conserve biological and landscape diversity and use it sustainably; coordinate spatial planning in border areas; ensure the ‘integrated’ management of water resources and river basins; promote sustainable agriculture and forestry; develop sustainable transport and physical infrastructure; create sustainable tourism; advance environmentally sound industry and energy; preserve cultural heritage and traditional knowledge; assess and monitor the environment; and raise awareness and educate people.
The Caspian Sea
In November 2003, Ministers from Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and Turkmenistan met in Tehran to adopt and sign the Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea.
This is a truly groundbreaking agreement – the first legally binding treaty on any subject to be adopted by the five neighbours (until 1991 only two countries – Iran and the Soviet Union – shared the Caspian). The Caspian is the largest body of freshwater in the world and rich in resources, ranging from some of the largest oil reserves ever discovered to some of the most luxurious caviar.
Complicating the picture, the Caspian’s legal status is uncertain: negotiations have not yet resulted in an overall agreement on the partition of the sea and its resources. In addition, there is no global MEA on fresh water on which to model the Caspian Convention (the difficulties inherent in developing such a global convention also explain why international waters is the only Global Environment Facility (GEF) focal area that is not based on an MEA).
The Caspian Sea is under severe stress from industrial pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, agricultural run-off, sewage, and leaks from oil extraction and refining. Other threats include uncontrolled fishing of caviar-producing sturgeon, the over-exploitation of other marine resources, and the destruction of the region’s biological diversity, which includes some 400 species unique to the Caspian.
The Convention focuses on ensuring the preservation of the marine environment, including the sustainable use of the Caspian Sea’s valuable living resources. Specific issues include pollution from land-based sources, seabed activities, vessels, dumping, invasive alien species, environmental emergencies, marine living resources, sea-level fluctuation, environmental impact assessments, monitoring, research and development, and the exchange of information.
The Convention has so far been ratified by four of the five participating countries. It is expected that the fifth country, Azerbaijan, will ratify soon and that the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties can take place in the first half of 2007.
The next regional MEA that may emerge in Europe would address the shared mountain environment of the Balkans. A number of policymakers in the sub-region have expressed their interest to UNEP in exploring an MEA that would promote sustainable development and environment cooperation – while at the same time helping to stabilize and deepen recent peace agreements.
Key environmental issues in the Balkans include river basins, the potential for a network of protected areas, cleanups of pollution “hot spots”, developing environment-friendly tourism facilities, and more generally the struggle to alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development. If all goes well, exploratory talks could start as early as this year.