Cleaning Up After Communism: Who Decides?

OXFORD: It is generally agreed that gross abuse of the environment was one of communism's many crimes. In some places -- Slovakia, for example, but also a Belarus reeling from Chernobyl's fallout -- resentment about the poisoned landscape, and the formation of environmental pressure groups, contributed greatly to the general disaffection with the old communist regimes.

Rising energy prices and growth in the once restricted service sectors of the economy -- both hitting hard at the Stalinist-era heavy industries upon which communists once lavished resources -- contributed to the region's improved environment of recent years. Many questions remain: What environmental standards should the transition economies apply? Should they impose the same environmental requirements on domestic and foreign investors? Questions also exist about the speed at which higher emissions and other standards applied to newly constructed plants are to be applied to older ones. But the issue I want to address is this: what role should foreigners play in these decisions?

Foreign influence takes several forms whose legitimacy varies. Neighbors have a legitimate interest in air and water pollution that spills over national boundaries. The framework for dealing with these on a bilateral or multilateral (regional) basis is not well developed but precedents exist for a variety of arrangements that take international spillovers into account in setting national policies.

The same is also true, though the history is shorter, of international agreements that limit each country’s emission of greenhouse gases, say carbon dioxide, that contribute to global warming. In the case of these pollutants, carried on the wind, a vast majority of the consequences of any country’s emissions will be visited in due course on citizens of other countries. Global agreement, if feasible (and if enforceable), is appropriate.