Posts Tagged 'environment'

WWF Greece slams government for violations of environmental rulebook

waste

By Harry van Versendaal

An annual report released by the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shames Greece for systematic violations of the environmental rulebook, while lamenting the waste of a historic opportunity to make the financial crisis a starting point towards a “truly sustainable economy.”

“We are pretty much in the same mess as last year. Despite some progress in certain areas, the overall picture is quite grim,” WWF Greece chief executive Dimitris Karavelas told a press conference Tuesday at the organization’s headquarters in Athens.

“This is the picture of a country that is paying a hefty price for inaction, a lack of transparency, the ‘tidying up’ of violations and bad legislation,” Karavelas said.

“This is the picture of a country that is killing its own hopes for a truly sustainable economy,” he added.

Among other faults, the annual study, now in its 12th year, criticized the leftist-led government for not doing enough to curb illegal construction, for its plans to build new coal plants and for lax waste management resulting in more European fines.

‘In tatters’

The Environment Ministry is drafting a bill that will make it easier for homeowners to protect illegal buildings from demolition. Under the proposed legislation, the charges for homes at the lower end of the scale in terms of value would be reduced in a bid to encourage owners to come forward and register their property and pay the appropriate penalty.

The draft bill has triggered alarm bells among environmentalists, as it contains provisions widely seen as a precursor to the legalization of illegal residential developments in forests and woodlands.

“Legislation to protect forest areas is in tatters,” said Theodota Nantsou, head of policy for WWF Greece.

The near 150-page report also criticized plans by Public Power Corporation (PPC) to construct two new lignite-powered plants in Ptolemaida and Meliti, in northern Greece.

Greece has signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, a binding global compact to slash greenhouse gases and keep global temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, a 2013 study commissioned by WWF questioned the economic viability of the PPC projects.

Filthy habits

The WWF report also lambasted delays and omissions in implementing waste management regulations that have repeatedly triggered warnings and fines from European authorities.

The European Court of Justice earlier this year ruled that Greece has violated key EU laws on hazardous waste management and slapped Greece with heavy financial sanctions: a lump sum of 10 million euros, plus a penalty payment of 30,000 for every day of delay in complying with the decision. This came on the back of a 10-million-euro fine last year for flouting European regulations regarding the management of urban wastewater.

Quoting recent data by the European Commission, WWF said Greece is second among the 28-member EU bloc in the number of open legal cases it faces with regard to infringements of EU environmental rules.

The WWF report acknowledged some positive steps, including an initiative to expand the areas in the EU’s Natura 2000 network (up to 1.93 million hectares of marine areas, among them the Gulf of Corinth, the sea around Crete, the coasts of Paxoi, Pylos and Andros, and the sea between Kavala and Thasos) and the introduction of designated marine wildlife parks.

Strong card

WWF officials dismissed skepticism that the environmental rollback is the unavoidable byproduct of a painful financial crisis that has seen the country’s gross domestic product drop by about 25 percent since 2008.

“Things do not necessarily have to be this way. All this does not derive from some bailout commitment, it is not mandated by the financial crisis. What we see is the outcome of intended policy decisions,” Karavelas said.

“We still believe that Greece should use its strongest card, its natural environment, and that this could contribute to a truly sustainable way out of the crisis,” he said.

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A phone that’s not satisfied just with being smart

By Harry van Versendaal

“Every so often you come across some article on Africa’s ‘blood minerals’ or the suicides at Foxconn,” says Nassos Katsamanis in reference to the Taiwanese contract manufacturer whose 1.2 million employees in China assemble consumer products for electronics giants such as Apple, Sony and Nokia.

From his verdant balcony in the central Athens neighborhood of Mets you can see apartment buildings crawling up the slopes of Mount Hymettus. Scattered on the living room floor are his son’s wooden toys. Little Andreas has still not turned 2, but he can already tell rubbish from recycling.

“It’s important to know that what you consume – the way you live your life at the end of the day – is not a burden on another man or the environment,” says the 34-year-old who works as a researcher on voice recognition technologies at the National Technical University of Athens. In his palm, he holds a Fairphone, the world’s first so-called “ethical” mobile device which was recently shipped to him from the Netherlands.

Fairphone came about in response to growing criticism over the fact that mainstream electronics products, including those sleek cell phones, are produced using minerals which are mined in conflict-riven areas in Central Africa. When buying one of these products, consumers also help finance mass killings and rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, these gadgets are assembled in factories with despicable working conditions and environmental standards.

Fairphone, on the other hand, ensures consumers that the tin and tantalum used in its device are conflict-free.

“As soon as I read about the project, I identified with it to some extent,” says Katsamanis, admitting that the effort is still in the early stages. Fairphone, which started out in 2010 as a public awareness campaign concerning conflict minerals in consumer electronics organized by three Dutch NGOs, evolved into a social enterprise three years later.

Fairphone, which like most mainstream companies also manufactures its phone in China, has created a worker-controlled fund which aims at improving employees’ labor conditions and wage levels. For every device produced at the site, the company and the factory each invest 2.50 euros in the fund. Meanwhile, the company tries to be as transparent as possible by releasing a cost breakdown report of where every euro is spent and by regularly publishing social assessment reports on its factory.

The Android-powered device has a micro-USB port (a charger is not provided with the phone; the idea is that there is at least one sitting in one of your drawers at home), dual SIM slots and a removable battery. The phone can be upgraded, repaired (heads-up: if you can’t fix it yourself, you will need to post it to the company’s service department in Holland), and, when the time comes, recycled by Fairphone after it has been shipped to the company free of charge. Everything has been designed with an eye on increasing the handset’s life cycle and reducing waste. It is estimated that about 140 million cell phones end up in rubbish dumps every year in the US alone.

“I like the philosophy behind it. It’s like the old desktop computers which you could open up to switch the motherboard or add some extra memory,” Katsamanis says.

Storytelling device

From the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, public engagement officer Daria Koreniushkina can’t hide her enthusiasm about the project. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company has sold more than 55,000 handsets in a year and a half. However, “the phone is not the goal itself,” says the Russian, one of Fairphone’s 31 staff from 14 countries.

“It’s more a storytelling device. It talks about the bigger picture, what goes inside the phone and the complicated production processes and the problems related to it.

“Our goal is to create a fairer economy and our example to actually inspire the whole industry to change things and make interventions in the supply chain.”

Legislation signed by the Obama administration in 2010 compels US companies to identify the sources of minerals in their components, while a traceability scheme has been introduced by the United Nations. Firms such as Apple and Samsung have taken some steps in a more sustainable direction, however they claim that certification of origin is not always feasible due to the large number of intermediaries in the production process.

“We realize that we are very tiny at the moment and that alone we cannot bring about change. We would like other brands to join our mission and then we would have fulfilled our mission,” says Koreniushkina.

Would that not make Fairphone, well, redundant?

“We would like it if other companies started to produce their own ‘fair’ phone and then compete with them in terms of fairness rather than market share,” Koreniushkina says, adding that the production of a 100 percent fair phone is practically impossible because there are thousands of standards that could be improved.

“Another issue is, what do you consider fair?” she says.

The company fends off criticism that the Fairphone is a luxury choice aimed exclusive at well-off Western consumers.

“One of the things we would like to prove is that ethical production is not necessarily more expensive. Our phone is not priced as a luxury product,” Koreniushkina says. At 325 euros, the Fairphone is no more expensive than other midrange smartphones.

“Our target group is basically everyone, because nowadays almost everyone has a mobile phone,” she says, although the company stops short of prompting people to get rid of their working phones.

“We always encourage people to keep their phone because we think that the phone you already own, if working, is the most sustainable one. We don’t want to create more waste.”

Back in Athens, Katsamanis says that the stubborn economic crisis is not an obstacle to the success of the Fairphone.

“I do not think things would be any different if people were better off. In fact the crisis could provoke people into thinking that the real cost is not the price of the phone. The point is to think in terms of cause and effect, in a broader context,” he says.

If figures are any guide, few people think that way. Just 21 orders have been placed from Greece to date.

http://www.fairphone.com
#WeAreFairphone

Environmental group urges MPs to block ‘criminal’ coastal development bill

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By Harry van Versendaal

Reactions against a controversial bill that lifts restrictions on construction along Greece’s coastline continued Monday, as environmental protection group WWF Greece urged lawmakers to shoot down the “ecologically criminal proposal.”

“It is a brutal and outrageously shortsighted, revenue-oriented wipeout of environmental law,” the NGO said in an open letter to Greek MPs urging them to stop the draft law before it is submitted to Parliament.

The bill, which was submitted by the Finance Ministry, lifts all current restrictions on the maximum area designated for beach concessions such as bars, umbrellas and sun loungers while abolishing the right to unhindered public access to the seashore.

The proposed measures also facilitate permanent constructions on beaches for commercial purposes, while making it possible for businesses to pay fines to legalize unlicensed constructions.

Public consultation on the bill, launched during the Easter break, has been extended to May 13. Local elections are scheduled to be held in Greece on May 18 and 25.

“We are calling upon MPs to launch a cross-party initiative so that the unconscionable crime against our natural wealth that is the Finance Ministry bill is never submitted to Parliament,” said Theodota Nantsou, environmental policy coordinator at WWF.

“We can see no justification for the sudden culling of legislation for the protection of the environment and natural resources in the name of ‘development’ that is chaotic, nonviable in the long term and financially questionable,” Nantsou said.

The conservative-led government reportedly claims that the legislation is necessary because it will help Greece sell millions of euros’ worth of public property as part of its privatization process. Critics, however, have suggested that the legislation that is already in place is adequate for this purpose.

In the same letter sent to MPs Monday, WWF attacked the idea that the changes to the legislation are crucial for the development of tourism, Greece’s largest industry.

“At a time of global crisis, the country’s millions of visitors are not here to see crammed beaches, cement-covered stretches of coastline or ugly constructions on closed-off beaches,” it said.

According to a 2010 Flash Eurobarometer survey, cited by WWF, most European Union citizens named a location’s environment as their key consideration when deciding on a holiday destination.

Bankrupt growth model

Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, Nantsou warned of an environmental rollback in Greece as green policy, perennially on the back burner, has suffered a hefty blow as a result of the nation’s financial meltdown.

“WWF Greece has been closely monitoring the environmental dimensions of the economic downturn and we have been witnessing a serious rollback in important laws and policies,” Nantsou told the newspaper.

“Planning for more constructions and resource overuse is what crisis-hit countries should not be doing. The old and bankrupt growth model of high hidden costs and of an ecological debt that is transferred to the future generations should be a non-starter,” she said.

The coastal development bill has been attacked by the small Ecologist Greens and the pro-business Drasi parties, but has yet to draw official criticism from any of their mainstream counterparts.

On Friday, a New Democracy lawmaker promised to vote against the bill should it come to the House.

“The bill is monstrous… I will certainly not vote for it in its current form,” Fotini Pipili said.

The pioneering electric car that hit the skids

By Harry van Versendaal

Built for the urban motorist, this quirky vehicle is quiet, easy to drive and can be plugged directly into a wall socket.

It is the Enfield 8000, and it first rolled off the production line in 1973.

The name will ring very few bells these days, but not only did such a car hit the road some four decades before the Tesla Model S or Nissan Leaf, it actually did so with the help of Greek brains, hands and money.

Now a new documentary unravels the story behind the birth and premature death of an electric pioneer. “A Tale of Two Isles,” an informative, well-crafted and at times emotional film directed by Michalis Stavropoulos, a Greek automotive journalist, is showing at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF).

The story goes back to 1966 when the UK’s Electricity Council launched a tender for a prototype electric car, a move that was, in part at least, prompted by growing energy concerns when the OPEC oil embargo led to a global fuel crisis. Underdog Enfield – a brand that used to make rifles, speedboats and hovercrafts, and which had just been acquired by Greek shipowner John Goulandris – eventually beat rival bids from Ford and British Leyland for the production of about 100 vehicles at its factory on the Isle of Wight.

Powered by eight heavy duty 12V lead acid batteries – four under the bonnet and another four in the boot – the Enfield 8000 could travel at a top speed of 77 kilometers per hour and had a range of around 64 km.

The vehicle was designed around a tubular chassis frame with panels made of lightweight aluminum. It featured an impressive aerodynamic drag coefficient – its designers brag it was found to actually be lower than the Porsche of that time – while the low center of gravity gave the car very good handling. Running costs were estimated at a quarter of the Mini, while maintenance costs were almost zero as there were no moving parts and no fuel. Designers relied extensively on commercially available parts and components to facilitate repairs and replacements around the globe.

On the down side, the bulky batteries took their toll as the Enfield 8000 weighed nearly a ton. And when the batteries ran out, they had to be charged for up to 10 hours.

It all went rather smoothly until a strike by sheet metal workers forced Goulandris to eventually shut down the Isle of Wight factory. A frustrated Goulandris soon made the controversial decision to move production to the Greek island of Syros, capital of the Cyclades and the country’s one-time maritime and commercial hub, where his family had acquired control of the Neorion Shipyards. As was to be expected, not everyone agreed with the plan; and not everyone followed.

Production of the Enfield now took place inside a defunct textile factory next to the port. Machinery and equipment had to be shipped from the UK while engineers, hired from the island’s shipyards, built the cars by hand. There was no assembly line, but six work stations where an equal number of vehicles were built from scratch all at the same time – no doubt a costly procedure. The fact that the car was designed in Britain, then made in Greece, then transported back to England where the batteries were installed, before being exported to the rest of the world made little financial sense either.

The hefty price tag – the Enfield 8000 cost almost twice the Mini – was certainly one of the things that killed the project. As the people behind the project tell the camera, the infamous Greek bureaucracy, politics and hostility from the oil industry – who were, after all, Goulandris’s business partners – proved a minefield.

The last Enfield car rolled out of the Syros factory in early 1976. A total of 123 cars were assembled then shipped to the various electricity boards around the UK and all around the world from France and Russia to Africa and Australia. None was sold in Greece because of red tape.

For people who took part in that innovative project, such as versatile designer John Ackroyd, seeing electric cars finally charge into the mainstream so many years later spurs a mixture of sadness and vindication.

The Enfield 8000, Ackroyd says in the documentary, “gave the message that electric cars could work to the world; but the world didn’t really catch on.”

WWF seeks to forge new, sustainable narrative for crisis-wracked citizens

savefood_web

By Harry van Versendaal

The Greek branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has presented its first progress report on a groundbreaking sustainability campaign that activists hope could inspire a new lifestyle narrative for crisis-hit Greeks.

Dubbed “Kalyteri Zoi” (Better Life), the initiative is part of the environmental organization’s efforts to expand its reach, influence and agenda in the country as a severe financial crisis has brought people to their knees and put environmental issues on the back burner.

At a press conference in Athens on Wednesday, WWF officials suggested that while emptying people’s pockets – also a key source of funding for the organization – the stubborn recession has also brought about a quasi-existential shift in individual and social attitudes.

“One can be fatalistic about it, or seek to build a new narrative instead,” Achilleas Plitharas, who is head of the campaign, told Kathimerini English Edition on the sidelines of the briefing.

According to a recent Public Issue poll commissioned by WWF, 42 percent of Greeks are willing to volunteer for social-minded causes and 31 percent to campaigns aimed at improving quality of life in cities.

The overall objective of the campaign – which is fully subsidized by the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, an international philanthropic organization – Plitharas said, is to “break with a habit of finger-wagging and improve people’s daily lives on the basis of a win-win model.”

“We need to learn how to coexist as citizens, how to work together, how to care about our public spaces, adopting a culture that is friendlier toward the environment and, by extension, friendlier to man,” said Plitharas, an expert on energy and climate change.

Engaging the grass roots

Kalyteri Zoi marks a move away from high-level, behind-the-scenes lobbying to a more interactive, grassroots approach that aims to promote a greener, more frugal and participatory lifestyle. To achieve this, WWF policymakers have wedded traditional public awareness campaigns with a wide range of on-the-ground activities that engage individuals, local communities and schools. The project, which is scheduled to run until July 2015, is made possible through a smart website and wide use of social media tools.

Following in the footsteps of its counterparts around the world, WWF Greece appears to hereby move beyond familiar eco-centric territory, adopting a more holistic understanding of sustainability. The campaign’s agenda addresses issues such as energy conservation, sustainable consumption, urban living, and balanced nutrition – along the lines of WWF’s “Livewell” program for a healthy and sustainable diet.

So far more than 1,300 people and 85 schools have signed up with the program, which has occasionally joined forces with other, more niche platforms such as the Boroume (We Can) initiative against food waste, and the City of Errors network for civic engagement. More than 1,000 people took part in a festival against food waste organized together with Boroume in Athens earlier this year.

Plitharas is confident that making small changes in our personal lives can have a substantial cumulative effect.

“It doesn’t have to be hard and it does not need to happen all at once. But it is by all means possible,” he said.

“Starting from the really simple things: from making small changes to our habits, to the creation of urban garden collectives, and from taking part in bartering markets and time banks, to the development of collective action aimed at reducing food waste for the good of the environment and the more vulnerable members of society,” he said.

WWF experts estimate that by applying 75 percent of the tips listed on the Kalyteri Zoi website, households can save 300 euros or more per year.

‘We are not the same’

WWF officials on Wednesday also reacted to recent fraud allegations involving several Greek nongovernmental organizations that have triggered a probe by financial investigators into more than 6,000 groups.

Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, WWF Greece CEO Dimitris Karavellas said it was extremely unfair to lump all groups together.

“We are not all the same. Yes, there are NGOs that have been operating with a lack of transparency, supported by government funding for many, many years, but there are also a number of NGOs that have been working with very clear rules of transparency and accountability and have a lot to show for their actions over the last 20 years,” said Karavellas, calling for more transparency and accountability.

“Let’s be clear about who the real NGOs in this country are and let’s weed out the ones that do not deserve this title,” he said.

For more information visit http://kalyterizoi.gr

WWF Greece unveils five-year plan for ‘living economy’

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By Harry van Versendaal

Environmental campaigners WWF Greece on Wednesday unveiled a series of ambitious policy proposals aimed at providing the debt-hit country’s economy with a green kick-start.

The five-year road map, which was drawn up by a group of more than a dozen WWF experts and independent scientists, contains a wide range of institutional, financial and educational measures for a more workable and sustainable economy.

“The crisis signals the need for change. Greece has to change,” WWF Greece CEO Demetres Karavellas told journalists at the organization’s Athens headquarters during a presentation of WWF’s 90-page blueprint that was published under the title “A Living Economy for Greece.”

“Environmental protection is unfortunately still treated here as an unnecessary luxury, as a stumbling block to growth, or as an expendable product in the efforts to recoup the country’s debt,” Karavellas said.

Stuck in a six-year recession, Greece is eager to attract investment to generate growth and jobs in its depressed economy. NGOs have repeatedly warned of an environmental rollback in the country and accused authorities of using the financial crisis as a pretext for easing laws and regulations designed to safeguard the natural environment.

Recent legislation tabled by the Environment Ministry relaxes the restrictions on building in public and private forests, even if they are considered protected areas. The draft law was slammed by a number of local NGOs, including WWF, who refused to take part in the public consultation process.

The WWF proposals call for greater transparency, the scrapping of tailor-made regulations and the simplification of Greece’s notoriously nebulous legislation.

“Laws must be clear and well understood by everyone whether they are citizens, businesses or societies at large,” said Theodota Nantsou, environmental policy coordinator for WWF Greece, also calling for less bureaucracy and more financial incentives for green companies.

The organization put forward a number of far-reaching interventions in Greece’s primary production – agriculture, livestock farming, forestry and fisheries – as well as directions for sustainable reforms in secondary production, i.e. industrial and manufacturing activity.

Greek industries must substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, promote energy efficiency and adopt resource efficient productive processes (like organic farming, recycling and sustainable waste management), said the report. WWF officials however warned that little will be achieved without a strong inspection system, while also calling for the introduction of the “polluter pays” principle.

“We want Greece to become the testing ground for this policy,” said Nantsou.

Tourism, which is Greece’s biggest industry accounting for about 16 percent of GDP and one in five jobs in 2011, is also addressed in the report. The sector must maximize economic gains with the minimum possible level of damage to the natural habitat and cultural heritage, WWF officials said, warning against unchecked construction.

“We must promote investment in areas where construction has already taken place rather than build new facilities all over the country,” said Nantsou, emphasizing the need for innovative ideas.

The WWF official proposed the revival of deserted villages that could be put to use for tourism while ensuring that their historic character is preserved and with the lowest possible footprint. She offered the example of Gavros, a village of adobe (sun-dried clay) houses in the Western Macedonia region of Kastoria.

According to a recent Eurobarometer survey quoted in the press conference, the natural environment is the key factor in picking a tourism destination. Cultural heritage ranks second.

Training and education also feature high on the agenda of the conservation group, which recently announced a new interactive, grassroots campaign to promote a more sustainable lifestyle. The WWF’s Kalyteri Zoi (Better Life) campaign, which is subsidized by the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, will debut on Thursday.

WWF said the report has already been made available to several Greek ministries and government agencies.

“We are not deluding ourselves. We just want to provide a framework and pursue anything that is possible for us to pursue,” Nantsou said.

For more information visit http://www.wwf.gr

In debt-hit Greece, much-craved development is no longer green

By Harry van Versendaal

Nongovernmental organizations are warning of an “unprecedented environmental rollback” in Greece as green policy, perennially on the back burner, has suffered a hefty blow as a result of the nation’s financial meltdown.

More controversially, several civil society groups allege that in a number of instances, the authorities have used the brutal debt crisis as a pretext for easing laws and regulations meant to protect the natural environment.

“A series of very disturbing developments indicate that the environment is already being called on to pay a significant part of the soaring Greek debt,” said Theodota Nantsou of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Athens.

“As a result of the economic turndown and the resulting structural adjustment and austerity policies, Greece has witnessed an unprecedented environmental rollback,” she said.

The government recently unveiled an austerity budget which aims to unlock foreign aid by slashing public spending even more, even though the country’s economy is shrinking fast. More painful cuts are anticipated as Greece faces what is expected to be a sixth year of recession.

The budget of the fire brigade was this year slashed by up to 45 percent, taking a toll on the maintenance of water-dropping aircraft and fire engines, as well as the ability to pay for overtime work.

Just 18 of the 21 yellow Canadair aircraft were airworthy this summer while none of the five helicopters owned by the service could fly as the renewal of the pilots’ flight licenses was held up for financial reasons, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias admitted in Parliament.

A wildfire on the island of Chios destroyed at least 15,000 hectares of vegetation in August. The blaze, which went on for five days, ravaged the island’s trademark mastic tree plantations, dealing a massive ecological and financial blow to the islanders.

Illegal logging

Meanwhile, economic hardship and rising heating costs are said to be responsible for a dramatic spike in illegal logging across the country — also evident in forests near the capital. Unauthorized logging has intensified as forest patrols have been reduced. A last-minute amendment submitted to Parliament earlier this year, which reduced penalties for offenders, has not helped much either.

WWF’s 2012 report on the status of environmental legislation in Greece, published three years after George Papandreou’s ambitious yet dismally ill-fated “green development” program, found “an avalanche of serious environmental losses.”

“Policies introduced by the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate change upon its establishment in 2009, were canceled, betraying hopes for good environmental policy-making,” the report said.

Under pressure from its foreign lenders to reduce the number of public entities and slash public spending, the government decided to merge the country’s 29 protected area local management agencies, bringing their number down to 14.

Also on an institutional level, authorities decided to divert the vast majority of money from the Green Fund — a national environment fund set up in 2010 to support regeneration projects — to make up for shortfalls in the country’s public finances. The government said that just 400 million euros of the 4 billion the fund was expected to raise by 2014 will be used for building parks and similar schemes, while the rest will go elsewhere.

The Environment Ministry told this newspaper that any money transfer away from the Green Fund requires prior consent from its own head; but it’s hard to see how this serves as a safeguard.

Tailor-made

NGOs assert that some of the damage to the environment is far from unavoidable, and accuse authorities of compromising protection policy by catering to narrow sectional interests.

“The crisis has been used by the government as an excuse for undermining environmental legislation and promoting legal provisions that are tailor-made to specific investment plans,” Nantsou said.

In April the Environment Ministry gave the green light for a massive tourist investment at Atalanti in central Greece in spite of the fact that most of the area is registered as forestland, which cannot be built upon. Investors — who are planning the construction of three hotels, three golf courses and 3,712 holiday homes — reportedly took advantage of a recent amendment that doubled the percentage of forestland that can be used for tourism and adjacent sports facilities in areas bigger than 300 hectares.

Notwithstanding opposition from green groups, locals are in favor of the 2-billion-euro project which, investors say, will create up to 8,000 jobs.

The contrast drives home one of the key dilemmas facing Greece at the moment: The debt-wracked country needs investment to generate growth and jobs in its depressed economy, but it has to balance this with preserving its natural assets.

It is a similar story in Halkidiki, a Central Macedonia regional unit with 25.1 percent unemployment at the end of the second quarter. Locals and NGOs there have vehemently opposed the operation of the Skouries gold mine despite claims by the Vancouver-based company behind the project that this will create more than a thousand jobs. The courts recently referred to the economic argument in their temporary ruling that the project should proceed.

As police and protesters once again battled on Sunday, supporters of the project reportedly staged a counterdemonstration with banners saying “no to violence, yes to jobs.”

The above examples fit into a much bigger, much more damaging pattern as opportunistic administrations have again and again rubber-stamped laws to legalize hundreds of thousands of illegally constructed properties in a bid to cajole voters while raising revenues from fines.

Greece’s Environment Ministry last month extended the deadline for owners of illegally built or illegally altered homes to declare their properties and be exempted from future fines or demolitions until January 31, 2013.

By the end of July more than 400,000 Greeks had declared illegal homes, almost 80,000 of which have now been approved. This protects them from demolition and further fines for the next 30 years.

“Hundreds of thousands of illegal buildings are legalized without any assessment of their environmental impact, even within protected areas,” Nantsou said.

The Environment Ministry denies the allegations. A press spokesman said the law on illegal dwellings was designed “to strengthen equality and the rule of law, as well as to protect and restore the environment.” At the same time, the ministry said, the law aims to make sure the state is compensated for any urban-planning violations — that is, fetch some desperately needed cash into state coffers.

Last resort

Meanwhile, recent legislation proposed by the Infrastructure Ministry regulating construction in resort areas, including Greece’s famed Aegean islands, has come under fire for giving in to greedy developers and other vested interests under the pretext of stimulating growth and investment.

“The new draft law paves the way for an unbelievable amount of construction in areas that really cannot tolerate it, without taking the necessary restrictions and sustainability concerns into consideration,” said Georgia Kikou head of the Sustainable Aegean Program of Elliniki Etairia — Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage.

The Environment Ministry says that lingering recession and high unemployment dictate measures that will attract investment and spur growth — but not in an unregulated fashion. “The simplification and facilitation of tourist investments does not take place uncritically, but comes with checks on illegal construction and on construction outside the town plan,” the ministry said.

Filthy habits

The cost-cutting drive prompted by the financial crisis has also given fodder to enemies of cleaner energy practices.

Environmentalists criticize the Public Power Corporation, in which the Greek state holds a 51 percent stake, for insisting on making most of its electricity from lignite. They say lignite, a form of brown coal, does not come as cheap as its champions would have us believe.

According to Greenpeace, the use of lignite burdens Greece with up to 3.9 billion euros annually in environmental and health costs.

Meanwhile, purchase of CO2 emission rights as of 2013 is estimated to cost the company — and, in effect, consumers — some 400 million euros per year, at current rates.

With around 50 million tons per year, PPC is Greece’s biggest offender in carbon dioxide emissions as the country is trying to meet a renewable energy quota (20 percent of national electricity production) by the end of the decade.

Greece has pledged to boost solar and wind power generation. But recent measures — such as cuts of feed-in tariffs on photovoltaics and a ban on new photovoltaic applications — appear to be pulling the country in the wrong direction as they target renewable energy, solar power in particular.

“Instead of challenging the current energy status mainly depending on lignite, the discussion on the energy market liberalization is mainly restricted to allowing access to lignite for private investors, thus extending the country’s dependence on dirty fuels,” said Dimitris Ibrahim, campaigns coordinator at Greenpeace Greece.

Last month PPC won an EU court bid to overturn a 2008 decision ordering Greece to loosen the company’s stranglehold on lignite. The European Commission failed to show there was an abuse of a dominant position by the power company as a result of its preferential treatment in the market, the EU General Court in Luxembourg ruled.

In a sign of Greece’s myopic insistence on obsolete and failed recipes, Ibrahim said, PPC is desperately looking for investors to fund the construction of a new lignite-fired power plant while shelving plans for two major solar parks in Kozani and Megalopoli, the two lignite centers.

Win-win pattern

Instead of planning new lignite factories, environmentalists say, Greece should move in the direction of energy efficiency and renewables as they offer more jobs, less waste for fuel imports and lower energy bills.

Researchers at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University have estimated that existing photovoltaic systems will help save more than 230 million euros in 2012 and over 400 million in 2013-14.

For civil society groups the PPC case demonstrates the need for a broader paradigm shift built around the notion that the safest way out of the crisis is by switching Greece’s production pattern, and consumer culture, into an environmentally friendly one.

But behind the usual flood of eco-sensitive statements, few Greek politicians seem really convinced that, despite some inevitable trade-offs, the green thing to do can also be the profitable one.

“Panic-stricken policymakers have failed to identify environmental protection and sustainable development as a substantial part of a solution to the crisis,” Ibrahim said.

Key is the realization, NGOs say, that the environmental destruction caused by unrestrained growth can be so severe as to undermine growth itself.

“Safeguarding Greece’s natural and cultural capital — which is also the country’s comparative advantage — is extremely significant,” said Kikou, warning against a grow-first-clean-up-later attitude.

“The loss of this capital, after all, would be irreversible.”


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