The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe
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Andrzej Kassenberg

Andrzej Kassenberg

Andrzej Kassenberg is the co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Development, and co-founder of the Polish Energy Efficiency Foundation. He earned a master’s degree in geography and a doctorate in technical sciences. For many years he has been engaged in scientific activities as a sustainable development policy expert and has lectured at many Polish and American universities. He was the initiator and first chair of the Environmental Impact Assessment Commission at the Ministry of Environment in Poland and served from 1991 to 1995 and again between 1999 and 2010 as a member of the Environmental and Social Council of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). He is currently chair of the Board of Directors of the REC. He is also involved in projects with a focus on climate change, energy and transport. A winner of several awards, including the Scientific Award of the Polish Academy of Sciences, he was named “Man of the Year of Polish Ecology” in 2005. Between 2000 and 2010 he contributed to more than 60 papers, publications and reports.

What has been the impact of NGO development in Poland over the past 25 years or so?
Looking back over the last 25 years in Poland, some developments have been very positive, but there are other elements that aren’t very progressive. The first thing to consider is the professionalisation of the NGO movement. These organisations have developed quite well — they have their offices and employees, and they’re able to create jobs. And this is important in that it helps to stabilise civil society; but viewed from the other side there is the problem of financing, which turns the focus to donors and what they think is important. If the donors are from the government, then they’ll be interested in advancing government policies. But sometimes an NGO is forced to try to obtain financing from sources that go beyond what the government wants, or beyond what the donors want — or are sometimes against — in which case it’s difficult to find the money.

Another important element is that the level of interest that society has in the environment right now is not so high — and in fact is declining. Right after the political changes of 25 years ago, there was a lot of information about pollution and how it affected human health. We spent a lot of our own money and the European Union’s money to publish this information. But now it appears that the environment is no longer such an urgent issue for most people. On the one hand, people want a more modern society and sometimes think that these “crazy environmentalists” want too much from us. So we need to come up with a new language and a new concept for communication, which is not easy.

Back in communist times it was somehow easier to find the spare time to be active about the environment. Today, on the other hand, it’s quite difficult because people have to work hard to have enough financial resources to live their lives — especially if they have a family and young children. It’s difficult to be a volunteer. Most volunteers today are looking for experience to add to their CV in order to make it easier to find a job. Emotion has been mostly replaced by pragmatism.

Related to those very remarks, what has been the overall effect of NGO development on Poland’s civil society?
There are important differences with regard to local government and central government. For the latter, you need quite a strong NGO sector capable of making persuasive arguments and providing sound scientific analyses. But things are somewhat more difficult where local government is concerned because there are often several “hidden” relations — between local businesses, politicians and administration personnel — and this often creates situations that are quite difficult for small groups or young people to break through in their efforts to engage the public. And where environmental issues are concerned, we really need to change course. If you’re working in youth education or with kindergarten-age children, that’s fine, but if you want to take on something like the construction of a big shopping mall in a high-value area that’s environmentally sensitive, then you run into real difficulties.

On one occasion the mayor of my city told me: “I’m all for having a sustainable city, but if I go too far and don’t pay enough attention to things like providing sidewalks or street lighting for safety, the people won’t re-elect me.” People need to see the changes, especially if over ten years or so the city has been developed in such a way as to provide new opportunities. It can be very hard to put through a set of long-term initiatives in the context of an election cycle and during short terms of being in power.

What kinds of policies or measures should be developed at national or EU level to support a more dialogue-based decision-making process on environmental issues?
This is a very difficult question, especially as the new European Commission and new European Parliament are less interested than before in the environment. At European level there are plenty of channels for dialogue, but not a great deal of enthusiasm for dialogue that results in actual, real changes. Along these lines, just because there are plenty of reports on public participation it is no guarantee that public concerns or progressive businesses will find the space to be heard. It’s very difficult to find a solution to this problem, especially with the economic and political situations we have now.

In any case, it’s interesting that the issue of environment has less influence on Eastern European populations than earlier. It was perhaps easier to care more about it during communist times because people had just one enemy to blame for disregarding nature and polluting the environment. The situation now is completely different. In a consumption-driven society we have the freedom to buy, and the only problem is to have enough money. And when it’s so easy to see that people in Western countries have even more modern stuff, the people here work even harder to get even more money — and so on.

What special role do you see the REC playing in a Europe-wide or global context?
I agree with the Sustainable Development Goals and the COP process, but I think we need to think beyond Paris, as we don’t know what will happen there. The progress will probably be very limited, as many Central and Eastern European countries are not very happy about the really high emissions targets. But I think that the concept of circular economy is something very important, and the European Parliament seems to be pushing in this direction. Another area in which it’s important to see some improvement is resource efficiency, especially in terms of the main mechanism for implementation, dissemination and eco-innovation.

What pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
I was involved with the REC from the beginning and was at the first signatory meeting events. Something I remember very well from the 1990s was a celebration with the president of Hungary and many ministers from European countries, including the minister from Poland. This was very important and exciting because suddenly there were some regional institutions — not European, but regional — that were created to help us with difficult environmental problems and to share new ideas and new challenges; to generally help where things weren’t so well developed in Central and Eastern Europe just after the changes. And I still remember when I returned from Budapest and was at the airport — bear in mind that in communist times you always needed to wait in a long queue to have your passport checked — it was the first time in my life when the security guard said that people with a Polish passport could pass straight through. That was when I started to feel: “Now I am really in my country!”

Do you have any other memorable REC experiences to share?
Another early event comes to mind as well. This was in Budapest. It was a meeting of the Advisory Council of the EBRD or the General Assembly of the EBRD. Jacques Attali was president of the bank [from 1991 to 1993] and the event was at the Budapest Congress Centre — a huge event! And our meeting of the Environmental Council with the president of the bank was to be a very small one, as he was very busy. And I remember that the EBRD presented to us the energy policy that the bank had adopted. And we, as the Advisory Council, were very angry. “Why,” we asked, “as the Advisory Council, have we not been involved in the process?” We were only informed about the decision. So it was the then executive director of the REC Peter Hardi, Janos Varga of the Danube Circle, and me. And we stood up and were almost shouting about how unfair it was. And the Italian guy was just so afraid that for subsequent meetings we were sent all of the necessary materials well in advance! So the REC here was able to represent a common front against this unacceptable procedure.

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