Copyright 2000 Newsweek
April 24, 2000, Atlantic Edition
SECTION: SOCIETY AND THE ARTS; Europe; Pg. 50
LENGTH: 1437 words
HEADLINE: Unfinished Business
BYLINE: By Tony Emerson; With Christopher Dickey and Paul Cochrane in Paris, Stefan Theil in Berlin, William Underhill in London and bureau reports
The continent might have clean rivers now#151;but don't breathe too deeply in Athens or Rome
Naturally, Europe welcomes the return of the fish. Thirty years ago its mightiest rivers were putrid with sewage and sludge, and few fish could survive the stew. Now, after a long cleanup effort, prized species are returning to waterways like the Elbe and the Rhine. But it is too early for fishermen. Once again there are salmon in the Rhine, Europe's busiest river, but the catch is still too toxic to eat.
The pretty, poison fish is an apt symbol of the times. The Green uprising that started in the 1970s forced European governments to clean up the most obnoxious messes, like stinking rivers and smokestack industries. But the movement has since stagnated, leaving problems that can be harder to spot and to solve. Earth Day was never big in Europe, and at this rate it never will be. A recent report, "Environment in Europe at the Turn of the Century," found a "general failure" to act against looming threats, including chemicals and greenhouse gases. If the "obvious" stink from leaded gas has been addressed in recent years, "the more hidden impacts are still not being recognized--like pollutants in the soil," says Gordon McInnes, a program manager at the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen, which authored the report. And problems out of sight are off the agenda. At the moment, says McInnes, the environment is just "not a major political issue."
The illusion that all is environmentally well is perhaps most powerful in Germany, where the Greens are in the government and politicians can take much credit for cleaning up the toxic wasteland that was East Germany. The eastern smokestacks, strip mines and mercury deposits have been scrubbed to meet rising standards in the West. Yet many critics attribute cleaner air and water in Germany less to the 15 billion cleanup than to the collapse of the communist industrial machine. And much remains to be done. "Thirty years ago the problems were obvious and visible: toxic foam floating in rivers, black clouds in the sky, dead trees in the forest," says Karsten Klenner, spokesman for the Federal Environmental Bureau in Berlin. "Today we're dealing with much more complex and often invisible problems, like climate change, organic toxins or traffic growth."
Different countries may have slightly different environmental concerns, but one sentiment spans the EU: Europeans want a greener society, but not at the expense of faster growth. Efforts to promote recycling have failed to halt the growing output of glass and plastic rubbish, according to the EEA report. Success in cutting smoke from factories has been more than offset by increasing exhaust from cars and trucks. In its state-of-the-environment survey, the EEA found that with the exception of successful efforts to cut ozone-depleting gases, progress was at best "insufficient" to prevent further degradation or backsliding. Perhaps most ominously, it predicts the output of greenhouse gases, falling as of late, will reverse and rise by as much as 6 percent in the next decade.
There's limited pressure on politicians to reverse the trend. In Britain, Tony Blair is "running scared of the driving lobby," and backing away from promises to slow road construction, says environmental campaigner George Monbiot. "All governments have to show that they are at least as green as the other parties and they have all learned the language of environmental policy," says Tony Burton of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. "The trouble is that when environmental objectives clash with economic objectives, they still come off very poorly."
Green regulations don't always make sense, either. Germany now requires citizens to painstakingly sort garbage for recycling, though only a fraction of the sorted trash actually gets reused. After at least 300 major industrial accidents in Europe since 1984, the EEA says, many obvious lessons have still not been learned. As if to prove the point, in December hundreds of volunteers rushed unsolicited to the Brittany coast to help clean up oil from the wreck of the tanker Erika. Now, many are complaining that they were not provided protective clothing--or warned that heavy crude could cause cancer.
The Greens have been most successful in the north of Europe. In Stockholm, the water is now clean enough to drink straight out of nearby Malaren Lake, and "the end of the pipe problem just isn't a problem anymore," says Per Stenbeck of Greenpeace. Swedish greens worry about pollution mostly in other countries. To the south, French authorities are for the most part still stuck at the stage of studying environmental problems. In Italy, outdated emission controls allow moped owners to modify their engines for use with recycled airplane fuel, which delivers more power--and pollution. Rather than protest, residents of major Italian cities don surgical or gas masks when the air gets too foul to breathe. Greece is at least as lax: Athens will start to prohibit lead in gasoline as of next year. "Environmental action is just beginning in Greece," says environmentalist Carla Manolopoulou. And not an Earth Day too soon.