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Green imperative

The money is available for Romania’s environment – but does the new Minister Laszlo Borbely have the muscle to put the cash to work? Profile by Ana Maria Nitoi

March 2010 - From the Print Edition

Cash is available for Romania’s Environment Ministry. This should be good news for the new Minister of Environment and Forests, Laszlo Borbely - but he must introduce another stranger to many of Romania’s public institutions - the efficient absorption of funds.
A member of the Democratic Union of Hungarians (UDMR), the 55 year-old economist has solid experience of hauling in EU treasure, when working as an effective Minister of Regional Development in 2008. “The absorption of European funds is top of my priority list,” he says.
Between 2007 and 2013 Brussels is offering Romania 4.5 billion Euro to mo¬¬dernise its infrastructure to protect the environment. But this free cash must be matched. For this to be absorbed, an additional 1.1 billion Euro must be spent from local and central budgets. And in a time of financial crisis, this has been a problem for local authorities. In environmental programmes, about 777 million Euro in EU funds has been absorbed since 2007, following approval for 1.4 billion Euro. Most of this cash has gone into modernising Romania’s drinking water supply and sewage networks. “In 2010, we estimate to sign another 2.5 billion Euro worth of contracts, but I hope to do even better,” says the Minister.
The Government approved a budget of 458 million Euro for the Ministry’s Administration of the Environment Fund for 2010 for projects to reduce environmental damage to the air, water and soil, to manage waste and preserve biodiversity. Investment is also available for small renewable energy projects. About 55.39 million Euro will be donated to Romania’s ‘Cash-for-Clunkers’ [Rabla] programme in 2010, where drivers or businesses can trade up to three used cars, vans or tractors to buy a new vehicle.
Another 25.68 million Euro will be spent to rehabilitate sewage systems and to build waste water treatment stations for municipal and industrial waste water. The Ministry has also allocated 58 million Euro for waste management programmes.

Cleaning up the mess

Borbely intends to improve on the sorry record of his previous incumbent, the Social Democrat (PSD) Minister Nicolae Nemirschi. Last year, the Minister spent only 73 million Euro of the total available of 194 million Euro from the National Environment Fund – a pool of cash gathered from environmental penalties and a car tax. “A main target is to impose a certain working style in my Ministry and its subordinates which refers to treating with great responsibility all tasks and deadlines - especially in our relationship with European institutions. It is unbelievable that [in some cases in the last year] it has taken more than one year to promote a Government decision. This means that almost nothing has been done.”
The Ministry of Environment’s reaction speed has increased, believes Borbely. At the end of 2009, the European Commission warned Romania that some companies active in the textile industry in Hunedoara county were not managing their waste properly. To solve this problem, the Ministry’s National Environment Guard identified companies who were breaking the law and enforced penalties of 6,076 Euro.

Money growing on trees

Key to every nation’s environmental policy over the next decade will be reforestation. Seen as a simple way to reduce the impact of man-made CO2 emissions, mass tree-planting and the maintenance of their growth must be a priority for a country such as Romania, with a rich arboreal heritage, but a recent history of over-exploitation of wood resources and illegal logging.
In the future, cash may also be available from EU and UN programmes to replant forests, and even a trade in ‘tree certificates’ could start up, such as those for renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon reduction.
Rough estimates state that about 25 per cent of Romania’s territory is still covered by woods. This is below the 30 per cent European average and far below the 40 per cent expected threshold for this country’s type of relief and climate.
Between 1989 and 2000 more than 130,000 hectares of woods were slashed. North and central eastern counties Harghita, Covasna, Bistrita-Nasaud, Suceava, Maramures, Neamt, Iasi and Satu Mare are the most affected. In these regions in the last two decades, most trees were cut down illegally. Less than five per cent of counties in the south, such as Calarasi, Teleorman and Constanta, are covered by forests.
About 47.64 million Euro have been allocated to extend forests this year compared to 2009’s 6.87 million Euro. The Ministry of Agriculture has another 229.3 million Euro to spend for the extension of Romania’s forests. “My colleagues had some disagreements in approving the pa¬¬perwork necessary for these funds to be used,” says Borbely. “Even if the responsibility relies with the Ministry of Agriculture, I hope to mobilise my colleagues to take necessary decisions faster.”

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