Fredrik Rydström | The Lithuania Tribune
The Copenhagen summit, which convened in December 2009, proved to be a devastating defeat for the proponents of a global climate bill since nothing substantial was produced more than an empty declaration. Equally troubling was that the international community at large failed to display the unity required to assure an effective strategy on climate change, and the expectations has, for the time being, therefore been effectively shattered. However, despite this striking blow against the project and the reluctance of some actors to sign a common international agreement on climate change, the issue has, at least not within the EU, become mere hackneyed slogans, but the ideas of an eco-efficient economy and a sustainable development will continue to be abetted with the adoption of often painful legislation which will affect the economy and social life of each and every member state. Thus, though Brussels indeed has been perceived to have become paralyzed in the aftermath of the Copenhagen summit, the wheels are nonetheless still spinning.
The tasks set up by the EU in order to assure a sustainable development and an eco-efficient economy have been meet with a varying degree of enthusiasm in the member states, and compliance has been unequally distributed geographically. In general, although there are exceptions, the post-communist member states, including Lithuania, are lagging behind in the overall process.
There are various reasons for this and they would best be analyzed on a national rather than on a regional basis. What the majority of these states have in common, however, is, if to compare with the Western European member states, the relatively low priority the electorate assigns to the issue of climate change and an eco-efficient economy. The political life, then, is accordingly dominated by “bread-and-butter” issues rather than those associated with an eco-efficient lifestyle. It is, seen from this perspective, understandable that the political establishment, though more or less unanimously paying lip-service to the EU agenda on how to combat climate change, in practice invariably appears less than lukewarm to adopt, implement and enforce legislation. The widespread lack of public awareness, concern and funding has intermittently ensued in sheer neglect of or outright opposition against coping with stringent EU rules. Brussels, in turn, has, time and again, quite rightfully been accused of setting excessive and economically unbearable targets for “the less prosperous member states”.
In the case of Lithuania, the greatest shortcomings can be registered in those sectors in need of the utmost investments of both financial capital and human resources. The development of waste management is, for example, still on an embryonic level, and though national jurisdiction has become stricter, legal circumventions are common and industries continue to dispose their bio-degradable waste in landfills as their major option.
The programme to renovate and increase the energy efficiency of dilapidating Soviet era multi-dwelling buildings does constitute an even greater concern. The initial project, aimed to realize the renovation of approximately 27 000 multi-dwelling buildings (70 percent of the total stock), were brought to a near standstill during the financial crisis, and the government has perforce revaluated the project by decreasing the highly overextended targets. What makes the impending renovation project of the building stock a highly prioritized political goal, apart from environmental concern, is the energy inefficiency of the prevailing structure. Housing amounts to about 27 percent of Lithuania’s total energy consumption.
Indeed, these are enormous projects, which requires, apart from immense financial investments, the active involvement of and participation between government agencies, banks and several EU institutions. However, the idea of an eco-efficient economy starts with the individual and his or her pattern of consumption. Food consumption is arguably the most important aspect of this pattern as food production is responsible for well over 20 percent of the total emission of greenhouse gases within the EU. In this field, Lithuania is not only doing comparatively well, but in some aspects even surpassing its wealthier Western neighbours.
What should be noted is that the unsustainable and wasteful pattern of food consumption prevalent in today’s developed economies rose as an issue on the agenda of policymakers and the public opinion relatively recently. In 2007, UK became first in the EU to systematically examine and estimate the amount of food waste each domestic household generated. The initial results proved chocking enough for the British government to result in the mounting of a major public awareness campaign: “Love Food Hate Waste”.
Similar surveys and similar campaigns have been carried out in most Western European member states since then, and the results have, on the whole, been equally distressing. The amount of purchased food products each household throws in the trash bin, that is to say the actual amount of food waste, is estimated to about 30 percent in the UK, 27 percent in Sweden, and 25 percent in Norway. However, in the Central and Eastern European region, the amount of food waste is by approximation less than ten percent, although comparatively few substantial scientific investigations yet has been carried out in this field of research.
As for always being in the front line when issues of the environment is concerned, the sounding of the alarm horn has definitely changed the patterns of consumption in the Nordic states, and Sweden in particular; the latter being the country in Europe where consumers are most zealous in terms of adhering to the eco-efficient lifestyle. Those people who can afford to live up to the highly placed social expectations of ecological conciseness and consumerist behaviour are, as an example, likely to eschew fruits and vegetables sold at the supermarket in favour of assuring deliverance of ecologically produced, albeit often deformed, pears and carrots from the local farmer.
The food processing industry has adapted to the rules of the game and is now largely shaping the pattern of eco-efficient consumption. Commercials for oatmeal are, for example, not attempting to appeal to potential customers in the old fashion way, by highlighting the quality or price of the product, but the company tries to attract customers by asserting that the left-over parcels will be used as bio-energetic fuel. Finally, as for being the second biggest consumer in the world, coffee, which hardly can be produced locally, should preferably carry a label which confirms that the producer meets stringent environmental standards and that the labour force involved in its production enjoys appropriate working conditions and are paid accordingly.
The concept of an eco-efficient lifestyle has thus made significant progress in the Nordic states in general, and Sweden in particular. Healthy, locally produced and climate friendly food has become an increasingly compelling mantra in the minds of consumers. Moreover, adopting a climate friendly lifestyle has rapidly begun to be viewed as a moral duty on the part of the consumers; a notion enthusiastically used and reiterated for commercial purposes by the food processing industry.
Though Nordic consumers and advocates of the eco-efficient lifestyle indeed are inclined to pad themselves on the shoulder, there are still several reasons to be self-critical and to broaden the horizons. There are still aggravating problems, albeit rarely discussed, in the general pattern of Western European food consumption and waste management.
Meat consumption, for example, is, from an ecological point of view, still suffering from the effects of the “mad-cow disease” hysteria. The neat packaging of bone-free meat products in today’s supermarkets, supposedly ensuring enhanced quality, have unquestionably decreased the variety of products being put up for sale, and therefore increased the amount of waste. The practice of turning the unwanted parts of the animal into minced meat has not alleviated the problem as the market for this kind of product is already saturated. Basically the same thing can be said about poultry. Western European consumers seem to believe that the fillet is the only piece of the chicken worth to sink one’s teeth into. How to dispose of the left-over parts is, of course, of a lesser concern.
This problem, I would argue, is virtually unknown in Lithuania and its Baltic neighbours. When visiting the meat section in a regular turgus (open market/fair), one can not fail to notice the impressive assortment of products behind the counters, many of them alien to a Western European consumer. Although the turgus, even in Lithuania, frequently is perceived as a “poor man’s market”, it is, in some aspects, far superior to any Western European styled supermarket as far as eco-efficiency is concerned.
Lithuanian consumers are, furthermore, equally or more concerned than their Nordic neighbours about the origin and quality of their food. In the minds of Lithuanians, food should preferably be locally produced as it, in their understanding, ensures good quality, and though Lithuanian consumers rarely mention the ecological factor being important for their choice of food purchases, it is nevertheless obvious that they consider locally produced and organic food being preferable to cheaper products from foreign countries.
Indeed, those studies being made on the subject suggest that approximately 80 percent of Lithuanians find it important that their food products has been produced locally, and although young people tend to care less about from where and under what conditions their food has been produced, the statistical differences between age groups is remarkably small. In general, Lithuanian consumers are likely to believe that domestic food has a “familiar taste, is fresh, with less preservatives and with reliable quality”. No climate awareness campaigning needed. Albeit for dissimilar reasons, Lithuanian consumers, then, show the same level of appreciation for an eco-efficient pattern of food consumption as their quite recently converted Nordic neighbours.
Though it seems too far-fetched to assert that the experience of a shortage economy and transitional ordeal proved to be a blessing in disguise, there are other aspects of the Soviet heritage than dilapidating multi-dwelling buildings and inept waste management, which serves to be highlighted. While the concept of the eco-efficient economy, by and large, has been successfully promoted in Western Europe as a moral obligation and progressive lifestyle choice, the anticipated changes in consumerist behaviour is already firmly rooted in Lithuanian society.
Consequently, although the established pattern of food consumption in Lithuania may have fairly little to do with preferences for a certain lifestyle, as it initially was brought on society out of necessity, the level of awareness about and appreciation for eco-efficient food does nonetheless, in some instances, even exceed that of the most ardent Western European states.
It will therefore be interesting to follow the development of consumerist behaviour in Lithuania as well as in the other Baltic States. Will the turgus tradition manage to prevail and coexist with expansionist retail chains in the long-run? And is the new generation, growing up under more prosperous economic conditions, going to follow in the footsteps of their parental generation and adopt similar patterns of consumerist behaviour?
Moreover, this development should be closely observed by the food processing industry and food retail chains in Western European states. Having in mind the level of ecological consciousness among consumers in the Baltic States, these firms, who already has acclimatized to and profited from the increased tendency of eco-efficient behaviour in the domestic market, should, in the long-run, find fertile ground for the introduction of healthy, climate friendly and eco-efficient food products in the Baltic markets.
In addition, notwithstanding the mushrooming of sushi bars, pizza places and Chinese restaurants in the Baltic states during recent years; if one holds a firm belief in the recommendations of the prominent Guide Michelin, Eastern European cuisine in general still appears rather meagre and in need of diversification. So far only two restaurants in the region have been awarded a star in the prestigious guide (Hungary and Czech Republic). In comparison, Copenhagen alone has eleven star-awarded restaurants. In the case of Lithuania, abandoning the repulsive habit of pouring tremendous amounts of ketchup on pizzas would, in my view, be a great start on the quest for Michelin stars.
Fredrik Rydström is a distinguished academic from Sweden who graduated Vilnius University in Spring 2010. He has lived for almost two years in Lithuania where he ound true love: the kibinas. Fredrik has held several lectures about and specialized in Baltic-Nordic relations.