The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe
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William K. Reilly

William K. Reilly

William K. Reilly worked as the Sixth Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush (1989–93). At EPA his best-remembered initiative is the Clean Air Act of 1990, which among other contributions created a system of trading for sulphur dioxide, an innovation which has been highly cost-effective and much copied around the world. He initiated a programme of assistance to former communist countries of Eastern Europe as they established new environmental laws and institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union and persuaded President Bush to propose and fund a Center for the Environment of Central and Eastern Europe in Budapest, Hungary, which became the REC.

Reilly earned a BA degree from Yale, a law degree from Harvard, and an MSc in Urban Planning from Columbia. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Reilly is currently chairman emeritus of the board of the World Wildlife Fund, co-chairman of the Global Water Challenge, and chairman emeritus of the board of ClimateWorks Foundation.

What were some of the top environmental priorities in Central and Eastern Europe immediately after the Berlin Wall came down?
The United States Environmental Protection Agency was heavily involved in the assessment of environmental needs, and design of responses, following the liberation of Eastern European countries. As Administrator I engaged collaborative initiatives with US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, with the Government of Poland and others. Projects included ecosystem protection and restoration in Poland, along with suppression of SO2 in Krakow. What to do about wastes accumulated by Soviet military bases, much of it hazardous, was a common problem.

Explain how the first Bush administration introduced and developed the concept of what would eventually become the REC.
Given the similarity of challenges confronting all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, it occurred to me that a region-wide approach could be a basis for exchanging information on best practice for waste management, air and water pollution, and policies for dam construction, among others. There was also a strong desire in the George H.W. Bush Administration to be helpful to the new governments just forming in the wake of freedom. I consulted with Mark Palmer, then the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, about providing assistance to the region, and after consulting with environmentalists in the area he identified the need for a regional environmental policy centre. The concept was to create an institution that would bring environmental and other officials together from all the countries of the region, and frankly also to help encourage the habit of collaboration among public officials with limited experience of governing. As in so many countries, environment provided a unifying and non-controversial opportunity to consider common problems.

I fleshed out the concept and presented it at a meeting of the President’s Cabinet. Both President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker were immediately supportive and we emerged from the meeting with a decision. We began consulting with other governments to join the U.S. in making a financial commitment.

You attended the opening ceremony of the REC. What can you tell us about that day?
I represented President Bush at the opening ceremony of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe at a historic building provided by the Hungarian government for the REC’s first office. It was a beautifully warm and sunny September day in Budapest, and the ceremony was outdoors. I noted in my remarks that many of the officials representing countries of the region at the inauguration of the REC had only recently been released from prison. I observed to the assembled officials that, in fact, the experience of prison was not unknown among American public officials; the only difference was that in America the tendency for those who went to jail was to reverse the order, to hold public office first and only later to go to prison.

What were some of the biggest challenges in terms of addressing environmental issues in the CEE region on a regional scale?
Several of the newly independent nations of the region wished that the REC might have been located in their country, and they made clear their interest in having the REC establish satellites that would address the problems peculiar to their countries. This occasioned some early concern that the REC would not fully command the attention and support of all the countries of the region. It was clear that to be fully accepted and effective the REC would have to provide an early demonstration of inclusiveness.

The experience of engaging environmental problems on a regional scale comported well with the issues countries confronted in the early 1990s. Enacting new laws, setting new standards for air and water pollution, finding repositories for hazardous waste, beginning to listen to non-governmental groups and lobbies, creating forums for consulting citizens affected by infrastructure — all of these were novel in the immediate post-Soviet era, and every democratically elected government had to learn how to implement them. When I spoke as head of the U.S. Delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992, I chose to make the environmental commitments and achievements of the countries of Eastern Europe my principal theme. It was frankly the most significant and promising environmental success story of the decade. And the REC played an important unifying part in that story.

With the huge political and economic transformations taking place in the CEE region, how difficult was it to maintain focus on the environment as a leading priority?
There was nothing simple or inevitable about the environmental commitments made and implemented among countries trying to find their footing economically. Leaders had to believe the environment was important and that environmental standards and laws would not impede economic growth. Many in wealthier countries did not accept that a high priority for one was compatible with the other. Many today continue to make the case that the environment can wait until economic growth is secure and can be afforded. Experience here and in my own country proves them wrong: in the U.S. more than a doubling of population and automobiles, and GDP, have been accompanied by vast improvements in air quality of cities, in abundant recovery of fish populations in rivers and lakes, and safe drinking water for all.

None of the problems faced in the early 1990s have disappeared, but they have been managed and the environment is indisputably superior by all metrics. But each generation must commit anew, must renew and reinforce the strategies to ensure continued success, and reaffirm the rationale for conducting environmental programmes, including setting priorities together with neighbouring countries. The political and environmental landscape of the region today does not display the same euphoria we felt in 1990, with the significant exception that what you did worked! Now we confront a problem which more than any other demands international collaboration: the changing climate. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and adapting to the now inevitable transformation of weather patterns, these cannot be undertaken or successfully addressed on a national scale. And just as the experience of engaging with similarly challenged officials from neighbouring countries was a REC objective, so today it remains important. The context of divisive politics and ideologies, of new radical movements and causes, of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine — these dramatise the need to cooperate, to stick together.

Are you optimistic that countries today can put aside various differences and work together to solve urgent environment and climate-related problems?
I served in the White House in the early 1970s. During some of the tensest periods of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet environmental officials conducted joint research projects on the environment, shared experiences with similarly threatened resources like Lake Baikal and Lake Tahoe, and convened regular scientific exchanges focusing on the environment. Attending to the environment can often proceed despite conflicts in other sectors, and it can also enhance the experience of solving common problems apart from ideology while it fosters the habit of just getting along. The REC has realised the hopes and aspirations of its founders and benefactors who are justly proud of its achievements and celebrate its 25th anniversary.

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