Issue Date: July 30, 2012
Saving The Czech Environment
Environmental conditions in the former Czechoslovakia were disastrous 25 years ago. Unregulated mining and the production of steel, chemicals, and electricity were driving the economy. Forests were dying, soils contained toxic metals, and the water and air were badly polluted.
Today, a stroll through a Czech park or a ride through the countryside on a bicycle or train shows almost no signs of the grim environmental past. Blue skies, thriving agriculture, crowded swimming lakes, and numerous cyclists and kayakers—the environment is typical of any European Union (EU) country.
What transformed the extremely toxic Czech environment into a livable place is the story of a humble, passionate man whose tireless, secret efforts to understand the environmental problems plaguing his country eventually paid off. That influential man is Bedřich Moldan, the first Czech environment minister and founding director of the Charles University Environment Center, in Prague.
A former analytical chemist, Moldan is well-known today in international circles for his efforts to develop indicators of sustainable development. An ecologist and politician at heart, Moldan served as the chief negotiator on the environment from 1999 to 2002 for the accession of the Czech Republic into the EU. Today he remains active in politics through international networks and continues his efforts to improve the Czech environment as director of the Charles University Environment Center.
C&EN caught up with Moldan earlier this month in his hometown of Prague just days after he returned from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, nicknamed Rio+20 (C&EN, July 9, page 10). Over lunch at an outdoor café in the center of town, he reminisced about his struggles during decades of communist rule in Czechoslovakia and how he helped the Czech environment recover quickly once communism collapsed.
His story begins in the late 1960s when environmental activism was on the rise in the Western world. In Czechoslovakia and other Soviet bloc countries, however, such action was forbidden. Scientific magazines and environmental books such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” were off-limits.
At the time, Moldan was an analytical chemist working for the Czech Geological Survey. He knew he could make a good living conducting research in spectroscopy, but an article about the world’s deteriorating environment, published in New Scientist magazine by a Catholic priest, inspired him to pursue a different path.
“I had a lot of friends in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere. They were sending me a lot of literature,” Moldan says. He was able to read about environmental problems and stay informed about what was happening at major environmental conferences through his network of friends.
One book in particular—“The Limits to Growth,” published in 1972—caught his attention, Moldan notes. The book examined the underlying connection between environmental degradation and economic growth, concluding that, with finite resources, as the economy grows deterioration of the environment is inevitable.
Moldan says he was eager to translate the book from English into Czech. He joined his family at its old farmhouse in the mountains of southern Bohemia during the next holiday and set aside time every morning to translate a certain number of pages. “I had a very rigid time plan, and when the holiday was over, I had finished the translation,” he says.
He published his translation in a form called samizdat—a grassroots practice to evade censorship under Soviet rule—and he circulated it among his friends. For the next 15 years, Moldan worked secretly with friends to study the environmental problems facing Czechoslovakia, making connections between environmental pollution and the economy, health care, and politics.
He describes that period of his life as “not completely legal, not illegal, but in a gray zone.” Together with his friends he organized seminars and lectures, studied literature, and translated various books and documents.
A pivotal meeting then occurred in 1987. Organized by Moldan and Jerald L. Schnoor, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Iowa, the meeting was held in northwestern Czechoslovakia in an area known as Krušné hory (Erzgebirge in German). The gathering drew attention to the growing environmental crisis in the area.
“The air pollution was the worst in the world there,” recalls Schnoor, who is now editor of the journal Environmental Science & Technology. “At night, I slept with a wet towel on my mouth, and still I would wake up choking,” he tells C&EN.
According to Schnoor, Moldan knew that the Czechs had to stop their smelting operations and industrial gasification of lignite high-sulfur coal. Moldan made that happen by becoming active in the UN Environment Programme and other international organizations.
Moldan’s efforts led to growing awareness of environmental problems, one of the key forces behind the Velvet Revolution in November 1989 and the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. The revolution was a critical turning point for the Czech environment.
Shortly after the revolution, “I received a phone call from the Czech prime minister. He asked me whether I would like to be the environment minister,” Moldan recalls. “I said yes because there was no environment ministry in this country at all.”
Moldan quickly established the Czech Ministry of the Environment, in 1990, and within two years was able to prepare and get Parliament to accept critical environmental laws, including rules on air pollution, agriculture, waste management, and mining. “We also created important institutions like the State Environmental Fund and the Czech Environmental Inspectorate, which was absolutely crucial,” he says.
His plans were then interrupted. In 1992, he attended high-level meetings with Parliament and learned that Czechoslovakia was about to split into two countries. Schnoor describes that time: “We had dinner one night on his patio in Prague, and he told me that, for the first time, he knew it was all going to come apart. There were tears in his eyes.”
The Czech Republic and Slovakia separated, and Moldan left his government position. He went back to academia, where he became a professor and the founding director of the Charles University Environment Center.
Moldan tells C&EN that he had always wanted to be a professor, but because he was not a member of the Communist Party, he was not able to until after the revolution. “There was a certain ceiling that was impenetrable for me, but I was quite content,” he says. “Many times people asked me to join the party because it was much easier, but I had my limits.”
Today, Moldan is still immersed in politics, although he does not have a formal position in the government. “Politics is something like drugs,” he laughs. “I became addicted.”
Much of his work now focuses on environmental measurements and indicators of sustainable development, an area he embraced during the negotiations for the accession of the Czech Republic into the EU.
From 1989 to 2000, “we were able to clean up a lot—not all, but most of the pollution,” in the Czech Republic, Moldan says. “But key officials in the EU did not believe us,” he says. “So we put together a lot of statistics and information that helped to persuade them that we are not as dirty as before.”
The numbers speak for themselves. Since 1990, “pollution levels for SO2 and particulate matter have fallen by more than 10-fold, 100-fold in some cases,” Schnoor says. “The air that you breathe in the Czech Republic today is much cleaner as a result of Moldan’s work.”
Moldan’s interest in indicators of sustainable development dates back to the UN Conference on Environment & Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. After that meeting, he became one of the first vice chairmen of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and spent much of his time developing what he calls “a measuring stick” for sustainability.
Indicators will eventually be needed to determine whether sustainable development goals are being met, Moldan says. One of the outcomes of this year’s Rio+20 conference is an effort to begin defining those goals, he notes.
Despite all of the global efforts since the 1992 Rio conference, one nagging issue still keeps Moldan awake at night. “The dilemma between economic growth and environmental protection was never solved satisfactorily,” he stresses.
Twenty years later, at this year’s Rio+20 conference, “we were asked to put forward a set of tools to reconcile this economics and environmental protection dilemma,” he points out. “But I can tell you, we failed. The dilemma is still with us; no good progress was made.”
Moldan says he is cautiously optimistic that one day the dilemma will be solved but he warns, “It is a race against time.” Developing countries aren’t going to commit to sustainable development goals until developed countries begin acting responsibly, he says. “You can’t tell someone in India that they are out of luck because the limits to economic growth are already surpassed,” he says. “You must start with your own people.”
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