Ruslan Strilets, Minister for Environmental Protection and Natural Resources
Green recovery requires big push for developing with flywheel effect
30.11.2023 16:58

The Minister for Environmental Protection and Natural Resources recently spoke at the Ukraine Green Recovery Conference, organized by the European Commission in Vilnius. During the event, the minister spoke with an Ukrinform correspondent about the challenges facing the country toward sustainable reconstruction amid ongoing hostilities, explained why communities should not hesitate and seize the chance to implement innovative projects using European money, and also separately focused on issues of synchronizing Ukraine’s legislation in the field of environmental management with EU acquis, and his expectations from the COP28 climate conference in the context of the Ukrainian Peace Formula.

The conference at which you spoke on Tuesday is devoted to the discussion of progress in the implementation of the New European Bauhaus project on green and sustainable development, given the need to overcome the consequences of war on the environment. Could you tell us about the main advantages of this program for Ukraine?

The New European Bauhaus or the Phoenix financing project, launched by the European Commission, is a very important initiative, because it will allow for introducing new technologies in Ukraine at the level of local self-government. Our task from the very outset was to coordinate the needs of communities to implement as many energy-efficient projects as possible in the process of rebuilding the infrastructure damaged or destroyed as a result of hostilities.

When we started with European Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevicius the dialogue regarding the extension of this project to the territory of Ukraine, we initially focused on Kyiv region as it was a symbol of the indomitability and unity of the Ukrainian people. It was the first region that was liberated, where demining and reconstruction processes were launched despite hostilities continuing in other regions.

The project is important because if those communities really want to change something for the better and in the process of reconstruction think not only about ensuring fast recovery, but really work according to the principle of Build Back Better and Build Back Greener, they are now offered the appropriate resources to this end.

By giving them the opportunity to be part of such a project, we give them the opportunity to get specific resources for reconstruction in a better way.

Do you feel that there has been an understanding among the communities of the benefits of this project or are they mostly focused on solving more practical problems in today's realities of an ongoing war?

I have observed for years that complex processes often develop with a flywheel effect, so it is critical to make that first push, which is the most difficult one, in order to start moving forward.

And we already see some results in terms of understanding how it should be done. Why do I think communities are sometimes skeptical of sustainable development projects? First, that’s because they understand that they need more funding to introduce modern technologies, and in turn, increasing funding in the future leads to issues of the quality of funds utilization. But when communities get access to additional funds coming from partners, they see that it really is possible to proceed with costlier project that will be energy efficient.

It is also important that the inflow of external funds doesn’t imply lack of control. In some cases, this control is even more effective than we have domestically, over the use of budget funds. Nevertheless, communities should be given the opportunity to get used to this, they need help in obtaining these funds, and they must be explained all the positive prospects.

We talked a lot with representatives of the European Commission about the process of European integration, and almost all European commissioners repeat the same thesis: after European integration, "it will hurt at first", including in matters of pricing, but at the end of the day, all actors will see the far-reaching benefits of the process.

If we try to impose these ideas on communities, they won’t work but when several such communities really achieve a positive result that they can be proud of, skeptics will look at their successful neighbors and understand that they made a mistake. So, indeed, we must work harder, indeed, we must not be wary, and indeed, we must do better, because right now there is a unique opportunity to launch these processes, because afterwards the line of applicants will only be growing.

Today there is a very high demand for everything Ukrainian, but how long it will remain at the same level is very difficult to predict. Therefore, today it’s necessary to take advantage of this unique window of opportunity.

What about industrial enterprises? Is everyone ready to implement innovations related to environmental protection in their production lines? Or maybe the conditions put forward by the EU in this direction are a bit too tough given the realities in which companies operate?

Let's start with the fact that Ukraine has chosen the path of European integration, which is enshrined in the Constitution. There is no other way for Ukraine and there will not be any. That is, if the company wants to operate in European Ukraine, they must meet European requirements.

At the level of state, government and Ministry of the Environment, which is tasked with protecting this environment, we can speed up the process of implementation of European directives and standards. Your question concerns the reform of industrial pollution and our next steps in implementing climate policy in Ukraine. If we fail to implement these two reforms, all Ukrainian enterprises that pollute the environment and at the same time export their produce to the EU will be subject to additional customs duties under CBAM (Carbon Import Adjustment Mechanism).

If they do the math, companies will lose more in the long run. And given that the process of European integration is not set to be completed in one day and that we are striving to become a part of civilized Europe for good, taking such measures today will definitely benefit companies in the future. And the positive thing for the population is definitely that the impact of industries on the environment will be reduced.

There is one objective reason that has reduced the level of harmful emissions in the latest period, and that is war. After all, a large number of industrial giants, which were the main polluters in our country, have been affected. But such unfortunate circumstances also give us a chance to modernize our industry and, on the way to this goal, to lay down European standards in our legislation, so that the restoration of industries takes place using the best available technologies.

During the Conference, Commissioner Sinkevičius praised Ukraine's progress in synchronizing legislation with EU law in the field of the environment, but how can you assess this ongoing work from your side? After all, this is one of the important elements on Ukraine’s European integration path.

If the European Commissioner welcomes our progress, this is his assessment. General evaluations were announced in the report drawn by the European Commission. But I personally can’t say that I am satisfied. I will be satisfied when our progress score is not a 2 (currently) but a 5. But I realize that this cannot be achieved in a year. By the way, the score for the previous period since 2015 was a 1. So, the assessment score for the past year is twice as high as for the last seven. So the European Commission has noted this progress. And we are ready to move further at the same pace. On Monday in Brussels, I presented our vision of Ukraine's climate policy to European Commissioner Wopke Hoekstra. I held the meeting in order to receive certain recommendations from partners and to start the process of implementing climate governance in Ukraine under the close supervision of the European Commission, which is ready to help and accompany us in this work.

Therefore, we should do our best to increase this score over the next year as well. It is extremely difficult to say whether that 2 will turn into a 3 because in assessing some reforms, what matters is not only the rules put on paper but also how they apply in people's everyday lives.

And here we are again returning to the need for the joint effort of the central government, regional military administrations, local self-government bodies, and the population itself – every citizen.

For example, the culture of household waste management is about the culture of people who generate this waste. Rules can be developed and fines can be set, but if someone is unwilling to change their own behavior in handling household waste, no laws will force them to do so. This is already a matter of evolutionary change. But we will keep on working and moving forward. We will give priority to those reforms that were pointed out in the report on the previous period, as we have a clear road map of where we should focus, and I believe our progress will remain at the same level. As for the assessment, time will tell.

Now a question on debris waste processing: the destruction of residential and other buildings creates a large amount of solid construction waste. How is the issue of its disposal being resolved?

Back in 2022, we realized that in a few months of war, the volume of waste generated by war destruction was equal to the volume of that generated in a year in peacetime. For about three months, a resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers was worked out, which lays down in great detail the rules on what to do with such waste. The resolution was approved and delivered to all local self-government bodies.

The question is to what extent they comply with this resolution and fulfil the norms while clearing the rubble. There are communities that have taken part in this work very actively, setting up special landfills to store and separate such waste, but there are also communities that have not yet done so for various reasons. In some places, this did not happen solely for security reasons, but some communities seem to underestimate the importance of the resolution and its serious purpose, namely to prevent debris waste from affecting the environment. We will definitely look into such facts, but this will be done later. Today, we must first of all think about the safety of our people, especially in the southern regions.

By the way, after the explosion at the Kakhovka HPP dam, we raised to a very high level the issue of the presence of unauthorized landfills, which could potentially be washed away by the flood wave that formed at that time. We also worked out certain recommendations and made changes to that debris waste resolution. That is, we have done our work at the legislative level and the level of by-laws.

Has the ministry worked out, perhaps in cooperation with your European colleagues, a plan of priority actions to deal with the Kakhovka flood fallout?

When this terrorist attack occurred, I had a feeling that in a month or two we would be able to work out a certain action plan, within the framework of which everyone would work to overcome the consequences. But when we started to assess the damage together with the special mission of the UN Environmental Program, the more we immersed ourselves in the calculations, the more I understood that it is extremely difficult, almost impossible, to take any concrete steps now that would yield a quick result toward recovery.

First of all, I’m talking about the restoration of flooded forests. Experts estimate that 50% of these forests will potentially dry up. I also emphasize that most of the territories have been mined. And in Kherson, for example, the area is constantly pummeled by Russian artillery.

One of the interesting ideas that emerged in the recommendations of our scientific and technical council under the Ministry was to plant the bottom of the Kakhovka Reservoir with various grasses in order to protect the territory from desertification and erosion processes. But we only managed to do this across about 3,500 hectares. Purely theoretically, according to our calculations, it should have taken a month to sow the entire territory, but it turned out that it was practically impossible. There are two reasons – the security situation and the lack of technologies that would allow tractors to drive freely along the soggy bottom. We have not yet learned how to sow seeds using drones. By the way, partners from Denmark offer us herbal seeds. When spring comes, this work will in any case continue and we remain open to any specific ideas from both our own experts and international partners. If they can be implemented, this will be done.

What are your expectations of the COP28 climate conference in Dubai? Does our delegation have specific proposals regarding the implementation of Clause 8 of Volodymyr Zelensky's Peace Formula on preventing ecocide and having the aggressor state pay the cost of environmental damage?

The climate conference is primarily a political event, where every year the countries choose a certain course – confirm the previous one or amend it – toward achieving one goal, which is to prevent climate change or find ways to adapt if changes are imminent.

This year's conference will focus on finance, on finding resources to achieve ambitious climate goals. For the second time, Ukraine will present its own pavilion, which we see as a Unity Place. I will not reveal the idea and theme of the pavilion yet, but I should note that every square centimeter of this space has its own philosophy and logic.

We are going to COP28 with initiatives, the main ones of which will be announced by President Volodymyr Zelensky during his speech. My goal as Minister of Environment is to further advocate Clause 8 of the Peace Formula. As part of the United for Justice. United for Nature conference, we presented a draft environmental declaration, which was sent through diplomatic channels to all countries around the world, and now we expect to receive at COP 2028 the appropriate feedback from countries willing to join the declaration.

It is about creating a platform on which the countries of the world will unite at the political, technical, and expert levels in order to record all environmental damage caused by Russia, to recognize and verify the methods that we use today or to update these methods, and to collect in a single system all the experiences in environmental recovery. So every country that joins the platform will also be able to benefit from those experiences.

The platform did not appear out of thin air, it is a continuation of the initiative announced by President Zelensky at COP27. We are moving consistently, modernizing our path a little bit, and we see this platform as our main goal today. Potentially, it can be introduced as part of Clause 8 of the Peace Formula, and potentially the declaration can be signed as early as next year at one of the international events dedicated to the issue.

We hope for Germany’s support and leadership regarding thus initiative and I personally believe in its success. Through this platform, we seek to contribute to preventing future wars. We need to show how catastrophic the consequences of wars are in terms of destroyed ecosystems, lost natural resources, and pollution. The environment has no borders. And the aggressor must understand that war is costly not only in terms of the price of weapons systems, but also because they will have to pay for destroying the environment. Thanks to this platform, the aggressor will be able to see the potential bill even before they start a new war. And maybe they will think twice on whether they should walk that path. If the platform reduces the chances of another armed conflict erupting by at least a few percent, I believe our mission will be accomplished.

Ievgen Matiushenko, Vilnius

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