The REC, one of Hungary's oldest international organisations, celebrated its 25th anniversary during the second week of June, focusing on future environmental and sustainability challenges for the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region and on the organisation's new five-year strategy. More than 30 high-level participants, 30 delegations and 200 people participated in at least one of several anniversary events that took place over the course of four days.
Hungarian President Janos Ader delivered the opening speech at the official 25th anniversary celebration. Ader expressed appreciation for the REC's work over the past quarter of a century in turning environmental and security risks into environmental cooperation, acknowledging that the organisation anticipated the importance of such actions for shifting towards sustainability.
Speaking as a patron of this high-level event, Ader acknowledged the present-day realities of climate change and the urgent need to work together as a global community to protect and preserve the environment for present and future generations.
"The threat looming over us is also an opportunity", the Hungarian president said, also expressing his wish to see an ambitious climate agreement reached at COP21 in Paris. As an example of global cooperation, the president referred to the successful fight against ozone depletion in the late 1980s.
"It's amazing to see how many leaders have been touched in some way by engagement with the REC", remarked Lek Kadeli, acting assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in his press address. "The U.S. Government has a great deal of pride in playing a founding role. And we have the opportunity to build on these foundations."
"It is also significant", Kadeli continued, "to see that the Hungarian president is stepping forward on climate and environmental issues. Problems will not be resolved without strong leadership."
William K. Reilly, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, read a letter of congratulations from former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, which emphasised that the common goal of protecting the environment and building a sustainable future is as valid now as it was 25 years ago.
Zsolt V. Nemeth, deputy state secretary of the Hungarian Ministry of Rural Development, mentioned that the REC has contributed to an increase in environmental consciousness across the CEE region.
Following the president's speech, Benedek Javor, vice-chair of the Environmental Committee of the European Parliament, warned that humankind is exhausting its resources at an accelerating speed, and that only one question remains regarding the inevitable changes to come: "Do we cope with catastrophe and uncontrollable disasters, or do we manage the course of our future existence in a sustainable way?" The UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Javor explained, indicate a clear way forward.
In a specially delivered video message, European Commissioner for the Environment Karmenu Vella underlined the important role that the REC can play in the regional implementation of the UN SDGs.
During the discussions, high-level delegations from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) pledged their support for the transfer of experience from the REC to their region.
Delegations from the countries of South Eastern Europe (SEE) expressed their support for organising annual, high-level panels of SEE environment ministers while underscoring the role of the REC in these activities. The delegations acknowledged long-lasting cooperation with the REC and expressed their trust that the REC, in its capacity as Regional Dimension Coordinator for Environment of the SEE 2020 Strategy, can effectively coordinate and successfully host these high-level panels.
Andrzej Kassenberg, chair of the REC Board of Directors, spoke of the vital importance of environmental democracy and specifically mentioned the REC's enormously successful Green Pack multi-media educational toolkit, which has reached more than 5 million students in Central Europe and SEE. "This is the sort of thing that is vital for changing the mentality of the people", said Kassenberg. "We can't miss the chance to transition to a low-carbon economy, but it's a difficult transition to make in a single generation. The REC can help ease this transition by continuing to prepare good arguments, reports and cases. This all helps to establish trust."
Several satellite events took place throughout the week, including "Local Initiatives for a Sustainable Ukraine"; a side event on "REC Strategies for SEE towards 2020"; a regional kick-off conference for the "Water Resources Management Good Practices and Knowledge Transfer in the Middle East and North Africa" (WATER SUM) project; a "Road to Paris" press trip for journalists from throughout the CEE region; other "Road to Paris Coalition" events; and a Japanese-Hungarian student youth forum.
Speaking at a press conference for local media and press trip journalists, REC Executive Director Marta Szigeti Bonifert expressed appreciation for President Ader's "inspirational speech" and told the visiting journalists that they have the potential to "play a vital role in accelerating the transmission of the kind of information that will enable change".
This special week for the REC also resulted in numerous documents and agreements - tangible outcomes that will contribute to finding sustainable solutions for the CEE region and beyond. Most notably:
- Signatories to the Charter of the REC signed a document that not only renews the mandates of the international organisation but acknowledges REC expertise as a regional platform for promoting and facilitating the implementation of the "Post-2015 Development Agenda" - after the agenda is adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.
- The REC Strategy for 2016-2020 was approved, focusing on three main results: strengthened environmental governance; strengthened low-emission development, enhanced resilience to the impacts of climate change, and fostered sustainable and healthy lifestyles; and improved natural resources management in the CEE region and beyond.
- The Government of Cyprus became the 33rd member to sign the REC Charter and International Agreement. At the same time, Kosovo* expressed its interest in becoming a member of the REC.
- A Memorandum of Understanding between the Regional Environmental Centre for Central Asia (Executive Director Iskandar Abdullaev) and the REC (Executive Director Marta Szigeti Bonifert) was signed to promote cooperation on water management, climate change and education for sustainable development.
- A Memorandum of Understanding between the Al-Saad Foundation for Knowledge and Scientific Research (Chair, Hon. Sheikha Fadyah S. Al Sabah, Kuwait) and the REC (Executive Director Marta Szigeti Bonifert) was signed to support environmental education, education for sustainable development and capacity building in the area of sustainable development in SEE, the Persian Gulf and/or the MENA region.
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