Europe should explore creative ways to provide relief to indebted countries like Greece, if they pursue green investments and accelerate the switch to a sustainable economy, WWF’s Demetres Karavellas told euractiv.com.
Demetres Karavellas is CEO of WWF Greece.
He spoke with euractiv.com’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.
In a recent report, WWF expressed serious concerns about the non-implementation of environmental policy measures in Greece. What are the main findings and according to you, where did successive governments go wrong?
Sadly, successive governments have been relatively consistent in their disregard for the environment and have largely ignored the potential of developing a sustainable economy. Over the last six years of the economic crisis, we have witnessed new rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union on issues such as waste management and protected areas that have resulted in massive fines for the country. For years the EU’s structural funds for waste management infrastructures remained largely under-utilised. There is also a troubling trend towards environmental deregulation and a continuous effort to legalise many environmental infringements.
In the energy sector, the government’s obsession with “cheap coal” threatens to lock Greece’s future in a heavy carbon footprint electricity model, by investing in two new lignite power plants: Ptolemaida V and Meliti II.
These investments make absolutely no financial sense and are totally irresponsible in light of the Paris Agreement and the very real challenge of reducing emissions. How can one justify that a country such as Greece, blessed with so much sun and wind is not investing in clean energy and insists instead on coal?
Can environmental policy and austerity be on the same political agenda?
Environmental policy was never a top priority for governments in Greece but there was progress on some fronts. Having said this, tough austerity measures imposed by the economic adjustment programmes since 2010 have made matters much worse. In times of austerity, the environment is perceived by many as a ‘luxury’ topic and the sustainability agenda is sidelined, as I mentioned before in the case of the catastrophic energy policy.
Even in cases where the public administration dealing with the environment is striving to do its job, budget cuts have made this very difficult. For example, we have national parks whose operating costs cannot be covered by the state budget, while the staff at the Environmental Inspectorate doesn’t even have sufficient funds to cover their travel costs in order to carry out inspections in the field. Six consecutive years of austerity have cost the people of Greece and our environment a great deal.
The Greek crisis is negatively affecting the euro area. Is there an environmentally sustainable proposal?
Let me say this – if Europe had from the beginning of the crisis aimed for a brave green world of sustainable economic activity and social development, instead of austerity and constant transfer of the debt overhang to future generations, things would be very different now, not only in Greece but throughout this challenged region.
To your question, though, yes, there is an alternative proposal but it will require visionary leadership and concerted action. It will require that we recognise the environment and nature as our common heritage and acknowledge the fact that ‘poor’ countries by GDP standards such as Greece are ‘rich’ by other standards such as biodiversity and natural resources. It will also require that we think innovatively about how current crippling debt may be transformed into a force for good, helping to conserve our common natural wealth and restart battered economies along a more sustainable pathway.
WWF will shortly be releasing an initial proposal: a policy discussion paper titled “Debt relief for a living economy in Greece”. The aim of the paper is to open a broad discussion within Europe on innovative solutions to the dismal debt crisis, linked to the pursuit of a sustainable or ‘living’ economy, as we like to describe it.
We hope that this dialogue will bring forward the keys needed to unlock a shared and forward-looking vision for Europe: solutions to the debt crisis, more nature, wise natural resource management, more and better jobs, excellence in governance and transparency, equitable development. We also aim for this discussion to be framed within the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, whose effective implementation is now a clear responsibility of its member states and will benefit all in the European Union.
Does WWF’s international department agree with that?
As one global network, in WWF we share a common vision and values and we support and learn from each other. We have worked together with the WWF network and key offices in our policy response to the economic crisis. Let me note here that since 2012, we have also been running the CrisisWatch website, which reports on the environmental dimensions of the economic crisis across the EU.
You may also recall that in 2012 and 2014, WWF formally brought to the attention of the Troika the environmental crisis caused by the Greek economic programmes: the letters were co-signed by the directors of WWF International, WWF EU, and myself. So, yes, we are one in seeking sustainable solutions to the economic crisis.