Marta Szigeti Bonifert, Executive Director, Regional Environmental Center
Tasked with addressing environmental issues by fostering cooperation among governments, NGOs and businesses, the REC is committed to helping countries comply with EU directives. Executive Director Marta Szigeti Bonifert discusses how the Center reaches out to millions of citizens
To begin, could you offer an overview of the Regional Environmental Center (REC)? What are the central themes of the organisation?
The REC is an international organisation with an overarching mission to assist in addressing environmental issues. We fulfil this aim by promoting cooperation among governments, non-governmental organisations, businesses and other environmental stakeholders, and by supporting the free exchange of information and public participation in environmental decision making.
The REC was established in 1990 by the European Commission, the US and Hungary. Today, it is legally based on a charter with over 30 signatories, and has a network of offices in 17 countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey. The head office is located in Szentendre, Hungary.
The REC actively participates in key global, regional and local processes and contributes to environmental and sustainability solutions within and beyond its country office network, transferring transitional knowledge and experience to other countries and regions.
In what areas of environmental and sustainable science are you particularly involved with both globally and locally?
One of the most important elements of our work is that we provide a neutral platform for all stakeholders. This essentially means that we maintain an equidistant relationship between all parties. At the beginning we were focused on strengthening civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. Since then, during the EU enlargement process, we have been committed to helping countries comply with EU environmental directives and the acquis. What is really important is the fact that we have assisted in transferring lessons learned from the political and economic challenges experienced in our region, insofar as they pertain to encouraging sustainable development.
One means of doing this is to promote the findings of the latest scientific research amongst various stakeholders. We work with the European Environmental Agency, again using the scientific community as a neutral platform for identifying best practices and ways to move forward. To cite just one example: the REC’s SINPHONIE project draws from detailed scientific studies to monitor the status and health effects of air quality in schools throughout the region.
I think it is important to add that the REC functions as an ‘enabling’ organisation, acting as a facilitator between scientific and business communities, civil society, multiple levels of government and other stakeholders.
Are there any specific environmental issues or concerns in Hungary on which the REC is particularly focused?
The first issue that we have focused on in Hungary is health and the environment, and the second is sustainable consumption and production – which is also related to green procurement. A third area we work on is energy efficiency and renewable energy. Green transport is another important issue for Hungary to address.
It is also worth mentioning the REC’s zero-emission conference centre building, which serves as one of the best demonstration buildings of its kind, not only in Hungary, but in the Central Eastern Europe (CEE) region. Using brownfield investment, the existing conference centre was redesigned to reduce fossil fuel-based energy consumption to zero, thereby eliminating CO2 emissions. Thanks to technologies such as photovoltaic solar panels, heat pumps, intelligent lighting and other solutions, the centre has been transformed into an Active House which is connected to the grid – thus utilising the centre’s energy system.
Could you elaborate on the two main pathways that you intend to develop from 2011-15: ‘Governance for sustainability’ and ‘Green economy’? What will your role in each area provide for the REC?
‘Governance for sustainability’ encompasses not only capacity-building and training for stakeholders, but also a wide variety of education programmes for sustainable development, including the Green Pack, which is a multimedia educational toolkit that reaches large numbers of children in several countries.
As for the ‘Green economy’ we are primarily involved in promoting good practice. We explore policies and actions that can help the transition towards a low-carbon economy. We are able to bring a lot of hands-on experience and tools to the table. For example, we have upwards of 200 projects over any given year, all of which are related in one way or another to these two key sustainability pathways, and the total amount of project investment is somewhere between €10-13 million.
Climate change has been a topic of interest for many years. However, in today’s world its damaging effects on the environment (sea level rises, more severe weather and changing ecosystems) are increasing dramatically. How is the REC involved in educating the public on this matter?
During the REC’s 20th anniversary year we held a youth meeting for students from both Asia and Europe to discuss the main concerns about climate change and what tools are available to address these concerns. We are also very active in Al Gore’s Climate Action Initiative, and we hope that in future we will be able to host a CEE forum through which we will help mobilise citizens to participate and become more action-orientated. Here, scientists are crucial because they are bringing the evidence to the discussion platform.
We are also involved in the Corporate Leaders Group, which takes the same lead as the aforementioned initiative but from a business perspective. This is about building networks and partnerships, and promoting corporate role models for taking action.
Finally, we have projects like ‘Kyoto in the Home’ that presents climate change issues from a child’s perspective, and demonstrates how children’s input can influence entire families. Participants in this project include Hungary and 11 other countries.
Have there been any particular projects that the REC has been working on that you like to highlight?
The Green Pack (http://archive.rec.org/REC/Programs/greenpack) is a highly visible project, which thoroughly showcases the REC’s strengths. It is a multimedia education toolkit designed to help teach children aged between 11 and 14 about environmental protection and sustainable development, inspired by the political process ‘Environment for Europe’. These interactive educational materials interpret sophisticated political messages on sustainable development by adapting them for teachers and students. Today, the Green Pack is available in 18 countries in 20 languages, reaching more than 30,000 teachers and 3.5 million children!
I should also mention the Sustainable Development Academy (http:// sdacademy.rec.org), which provides inspirational learning and regional networking opportunities for leaders committed to inter-generational responsibility. These two projects highlight how central education is to the REC’s goals and activities.
What are your views on promoting partnerships between government, non-government, business and other environmental stakeholders, and exchanging and sharing research information? How does the REC contribute to this?
We provide a very good interface between research providers and disseminators of research results. Whether the scientific results pertain to climate change, the economy or water management, the information needs to be ‘translated’ into concrete terms for different stakeholders, and we carry out this type of translation. The best example of this is our Local Environmental Action Programmes. This process moves from thinking about issues to allocating resources to provide answers. Local solutions might be building a cycle path, replanting a forest or restoring a natural waterbody.
It should be said that the REC’s numerous print and online publications play a vital role in the dissemination of information. The REC has an award-winning publishing department and has helped bring its distinctive visual character to literally thousands of publications (ie. anything from leaflets to full-length books and websites) over the years.
Public participation in environmental decision-making is a key part of the REC’s objectives and our website figures are indicative of a broad level of public involvement. Since 2009 there have been nearly half a million unique visitors to the website, and around 1.3 million page views. We also host an annual Earth Day event at our Head Office, which is open to the public; and we hold similar Earth Day events across the region where we have country offices.
Could you describe your greatest successes to date? Have results been as expected?
It is always gratifying when you are able to produce tangible outcomes, such as the 3.5 million who have increased their understanding of the environment and sustainability through the Green Pack, and have changed their attitudes and behaviours as a result of that knowledge. I am also moved by the very visible improvement of the Drina River, especially considering the state it was in after the War. The region of the Drina we worked on was transboundary, comprising three countries and 19 municipalities, and mobilising everyone to work together was very pleasing. In fact, one of the first international agreements on environmental issues between formerly warring entities was signed here at the REC.
How would you sum up the REC’s plans for the future? Would you like to continue researching the same areas, or focus on the other aspects of environmental science?
We are very lucky because of the way we are set up – namely, as a really flexible mechanism. This makes us highly responsive to the new challenges that our constituencies face. Our basic plan for the future is to continue to plan and promote the development of a green economy, whether by helping people to change their lifestyle, or researching the best available technologies. We also plan to continue to disseminate information related to climate change adaptation. We are currently working together with a number of scientists to address food security issues in Europe.
The REC is also in the process of changing its status to that of a fully fl edged international organisation. This gives us a mandate to be able to take more specific action and work more closely with other regions. Importantly, this change in status will allow us to use aid money in a much more effective way and create more productive synergies between donor interests.
Our unique structure enables our country office to focus specifically on national issues, while the head office is helping to create the international mandate. We also have a virtual system called Topic Areas, which allows us to mobilise various thematic fields over a 17-country network. This is especially helpful given the wide range of languages spoken throughout the region.