Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy

The most interesting developments of the last 20 years

It would not be an exaggeration to say that environmental science as we now know the discipline emerged during the last two decades or so, since CEU was first established. The years just prior to the opening of CEU saw much activity within this arena, which eventually led to important developments in the rapidly growing field of environmental sciences and policy that we know today.

At the end of the 1980s, when the decision was first made to create a Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy at CEU, the reasoning was mostly political. The then newly-established NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe played a very important role in the processes of political change in the region, and in many countries, including Hungary, environmental protests were something of a first awakening for the general public, a “legitimate” way of expressing the limitations of the former system and the need for broad-based reform.

At that time environmental science as a field was mostly represented by knowledge obtained from traditional disciplines such as biology, chemistry, geography and geology. Research in environmental science therefore was done mostly on traditional topics like biodiversity conservation, national parks and their management, biological and health consequences of environmental pollution and the like. Related policy issues were represented primarily by studies of public movements and NGOs, and environmental law existed as a somewhat separate field. International environmental governance was also starting to develop at this time, brought into focus by multi-lateral environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity signed at the Rio summit in 1992, and numerous EU directives dealing with water, waste, agriculture and air.

By the mid-1980s, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had become established institutionally as a link between the environment and economy, with most countries having established laws about EIAs and their implementation by that time.

Serious international research in climate change started to develop only after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1987 (the first IPCC report was published in 1991); green energy was not even an issue at that time. The first report on sustainable development, the Brundtland Commission Report, was published in 1987, but considerable ambiguity about the notion of sustainability remained.

Many new developments have emerged in the environmental sciences since then. First and foremost, many formal mechanisms have been established to push environmental issues into the decision-making process: Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), an important tool by which to examine, measure and communicate the environmental effects of policies and plans, was developed as a next step after EIA, which related primarily to individual projects. Environmental standards for organizations were created, including EMAS (Eco-Management and Audit Schemes) and the ISO 14000 series of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which are now fully established internationally, with thousands of companies participating worldwide. Environmental Policy Integration—inclusion of environmental considerations in sectoral development plans—has also become commonplace, especially within the EU. Sustainable development (SD) has become an important part of international, national and even local discourse, and the question has now become how to translate the principles of SD into everyday life.

Climate change is no longer merely a curious scientific debate, having evolved into one of the most prominent, and debated, policy and research issues today—a hot topic for current political and economic life, with numerous political, social and economic consequences. Technological developments in alternative energy production and improved energy efficiency of conventional processes will most likely lead to a number of breakthroughs in the near future. Carbon trading is rapidly becoming an essential part of national and international economic activities.

The entirely new sphere of global environmental reporting recently emerged when all major international institutions (such as IPCC, UNEP, UNDP, OECD, IEA and World Bank) started to produce global and regional environmental reports on a regular basis as an essential and important tool for decisionmakers and the general public.

Within the social arena, a new movement for sustainable production and consumption is gaining momentum. Lifecycle analysis of products has become an essential part of most economic activities, especially in the developed world. Real change of lifestyles has not occurred yet on a massive scale, but there are numerous signs of growing environmental consciousness within society, which may soon provoke rapid and radical shifts.

Such issues as environmental justice, and environment and gender are becoming increasingly important, especially in the poorer parts of the world.

The appearance of new technologies such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems), GPS (Global Positioning System) and new modeling tools has revolutionized traditional branches of ecological and geographical knowledge, allowing research to be conducted on an entirely new level, with much more precision and with new techniques of data analysis and presentation.

Thus, in brief, the last 20 years have witnessed a complete change in the face of the environmental sciences and policy discipline, bringing it from relative obscurity (with a sense of its being somewhat important, but marginal for economic and political progress) to the forefront of international politics and economic activities.

The most important contributions of your department or by department members to the field

The department is quite proud that our faculty have played a role in most of these crucial developments in the past 20 years, often at a global or pan-European level.

 We studied environmental NGOs when they first appeared and trained many NGO leaders from the region in the early years of the department.

Later we joined global and regional reporting processes, so, for instance, the CEU logo is present on all 4 existing publications of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO)—the flagship UNEP global reporting document series, first published back in 1997. Aleh Cherp, one of our professors, played an important role by establishing a network of experts in EIA and SEA in Central and Eastern Europe as part of his PhD research on the subject. He later joined the secretariat of ISO 14000 and is helping to develop a new carbon emission standard that is still under consideration.

Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, another one of our professors, has raised CEU’s profile within the discipline through her active research in climate change and sustainable energy policy. She has been a coordinating lead author on past and present IPCC reports and was a member of the IPCC team when it received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The new Global Energy Assessment by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a global-scale work involving 200 scientific experts from all over the world, is currently under preparation. Professors from our department are convening lead analysts to write 2 assessment chapters out of 25 total—an impressive achievement for any single department, especially a relatively small one such as ours at CEU.

In the field of integrated assessment, we have conducted important regional studies, and recent work on the Caspian region was praised by top international experts for being a unique and valuable contribution.

Our professors have conducted pioneering research and written extensively in the field of environmental sociology, especially for the region of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and the Balkans, covering such important topics as environmental justice, environment and gender, and environment and security. International organizations such as UNEP and UNDP rely on our professors and PhD students for their expertise on these and related topics (such as the UNEP Environment and Security Initiative and the UNDP Human Development Report).


The most interesting emerging/new developments  

The current economic crisis, together with the growing evidence of rapid climate change will likely stimulate new approaches to the ways that we produce, distribute and consume energy and conduct other economic activities (related to transportation, for example), encouraging the transition to a low-carbon (and potentially non-carbon) economy. These general shifts toward a focus on such issues as greener economies, the development of sustainable consumption and production, and non-material economic growth relate to the field of environmental sciences and policy, and require trained experts to advance the transition process. It is obvious that many of these processes are already starting, and there are many new developments going on worldwide, which means that our discipline has little chance of becoming outdated or irrelevant.