The Slovenia Times

Dreaming of a Green Future



The former US Vice President's December 10 visit to Ljubljana was designed to promote environmental issues and highlight the threat posed by climate change. The attendees of event, hosted by Diners Club Slovenia, were perhaps even a bit too successful in drawing public attention the issue of environmental responsibility: Several media outlets quickly noted that quite a few Slovenian politicians who attended the event had arrived in large, environmentally unfriendly cars and that their drivers had left the engines running considerably longer than allowed under Slovenian law.

Talking green

In most respects, however, the event was largely unremarkable. During his visit, which included a meeting organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in Slovenia, Gore emphasized the consequences of climate change, including extreme weather phenomena, floods, and droughts, and epidemics - a well-known theme from his Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The fact that Gore's events were closed to the public and that he did not grant interviews raised some charges of elitism, but his visit was successful in focusing public attention on the environment, even if for just a few days.

Gore's visit to Slovenia came at the beginning of a longer European tour, which culminated in a rousing speech at a UN climate conference in Poland. Gore warned that a lack of immediate action could cause irreversible damage to the planet within the next 10 years. His European tour put additional pressure on EU members to come to an agreement on a new climate package. After days of intense negotiations, EU ministers reached a breakthrough deal on carbon emissions, described as the most ambitious climate package of any economic power. Some environmental groups complained that the deal doesn't go far enough, but Gore was more optimistic, stressing that it serves as a foundation for a global agreement at a 2009 conference to be held in Copenhagen.

Slovenia's new Environment Minister Karl Erjavec, fresh from his embattled post as Defense Minister, described the negotiation process as "extremely difficult" because of the ambitious goals of the package. However, he also noted that Slovenia faces fewer problems in meeting the EU's goals for greenhouse gas emissions than some of the other members, such as Poland and Bulgaria, primarily because nuclear and hydroelectric plants make up such a large share of its overall power production. Still, according to Erjavec, Slovenia could have difficulties meeting carbon dioxide goals in some areas, including transport.

Prime Minister Borut Pahor praised the compromise: "The agreement is a good development opportunity for Slovenia, for new jobs, for directing revenues from the sale of emission rights into development-oriented policies." He stressed that Slovenia has secured the right to increase emissions in sectors outside the emissions trading scheme by 4% compared to 2005. Additionally, the deal included "the possibility that forests be regarded as carbon sinks, and a guarantee that the distribution of costs and benefits will take into consideration the level of development in a country." This is particularly significant since Slovenia is one of Europe's most heavily forested countries and still lags behind the EU average in GDP terms.

A bold agenda

Pahor's new government has signalled its determination to make the environment a priority. The coalition has agreed to set up a new body, known as the Climate Change Office, which will help the country to curb carbon emissions. Slovenia's move to a low-carbon economy will be based in part on an increased use of renewable resources. The coalition agreement specifically calls for a quarter of the country's energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2020. This target is in line with the goal proposed by the environmental watchdog group Umanotera. On the other hand, Umanotera's goal of at least a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by that year may be too optimistic. The overall trend shows that current trends are still moving in the wrong direction: According to the latest data available from the National Statistics Office, emissions of greenhouse gases in Slovenia increased by 0.6% in 2006 compared to the year before.

In the wake of severe storms that have hit Slovenia in recent years and resulted in flooding, the government has also decided to spend more on protecting at-risk territory from weather extremes. Specifically, it has vowed to shore up the banks of Slovenia's most flood-prone rivers and streams, as well as to build new levees, which would also be used to store water for agricultural use, a useful backup for increasingly common droughts. The government has also vowed to keep the best agricultural land from being used for development.

Because transport is a major source of pollution in Slovenia, the government has announced plans to introduce a system of tax breaks for cleaner cars: "We will promote cycling, small vehicles, electric vehicles, public transport using biofuels [...] or gas, expansion of e-commerce and work at home." Meanwhile, large industrial polluters will be hit with stiffer fines as part of the "polluter pays" principle, which is mandated by the EU.

It remains to be seen how the new government's proposals will affect Slovenia's environment in the years to come. In some areas, the country's environmental record has improved in recent times. For example, new sewage treatment plants have resulted in cleaner rivers; some important air pollution indicators have also improved in the last two decades. Still, both the government and environmental activists agree that much more work needs to be done. Pollution from pesticides, for example, remains a serious concern. According to Umanotera, Slovenia is among the world's more developed countries, but it remains an undeveloped, backward-oriented society in terms of supporting specific programmes to protect the environment.

Whatever challenges lie ahead, Slovenia can serve as an environmental role model despite its small size. This is precisely what happened when it passed a seemingly minor law against light pollution. Not only was Slovenia commended by the International Dark-Sky Association, which pointed out that the law will end up saving the country 10 million euros a year and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the move also led travel publisher Lonely Planet to name Slovenia as one of the world's top 10 places to sky watch.

For a country that promotes itself as an unspoiled tourist destination, such small moves can make a big difference.


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