Recounting a year full of political heartbreaks, environmental and humanitarian threats, hopes and action, is quite a challenging task. As Europe’s economy shows little political hope for sustainable recovery, one would reasonably expect a rise in environmental pressures, widespread concern and fear for the future, even anger at the lack of leadership for a restart towards a stronger and better Europe.
The ease with which demagogic rhetoric gains political ground is proof of the void left by the traditional political parties and their inability to address the unprecedented challenges of our times. Europe’s inefficient response to the humanitarian refugee crisis, the continued austerity recipe to the never-ending economic crisis, and the EU’s reluctance to uphold and honour its own global leadership in forward-looking green policies are indeed factors that contribute to public discontent.
2016 was a landmark year in the global race against climate change as the Paris Agreement entered into force. Despite the certainty that the commitments are not in themselves sufficient to successfully address the huge global threat of climate change, this new “law of the planet” has rightly been hailed as a historic moment, a new era for action.
In the energy market arena, solar and wind power are gaining ground in the race towards cheap energy that will effectively address the problem of energy poverty. For the first time, “renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting” fossil fuel prices”. Countries lead the way towards 100% clean energy: Portugal, a country facing a deep financial crisis, committed to achieving 100% clean energy by 2030, after having run on renewable energy for four consecutive days in May.
2016 was also the year of a historic victory for nature conservation: after more than two years of efforts to overhaul the EU’s flagship birds and habitats directives, the European Commission decided not to tinker with the heart of the EU’s nature protection legislation. According to the Commission’s announcement, focus will now be on better implementation. This development was received with great relief and enthusiasm by Europe’s environmental groups. Through a massive NatureAlert campaign which was supported over 120 European NGOs, Birdlife Europe, the European Environmental Bureau, Friends of the Earth Europe, and WWF Europe fought to save the directives and mobilised over half a million people in the biggest public consultation the EU had ever seen.
The end of 2016 was marked with another promising development, this time at the European Parliament: deciding on the reform of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme for the period 2021-2030, the members of the Environment Committee voted for measures that have the potential to deliver a stronger carbon price signal and more opportunities for clean investments in Europe. This landmark vote was a brave answer to the pressures for free emissions rights to specific EU member states, which would open the way for cheap new coal power plants, such as the highly polluting Ptolemaida V and Meliti II planned by Greece’s Public Power Corporation.
People have the power
The massive public participation in the Nature Alert campaign was the herald of massive public campaigns uniting thousands of citizens concerned about environmental wellbeing in Europe.
In Spain, a massive campaign for the protection of the Doñana wetlands national park brought together over 140,000 people who emailed President Marianno Rajoy, calling for the immediate cancellation of a destructive plan for the dredging of the Guadalquivir River. On December 2nd, the Spanish government reported that the plan would not be allowed.
In Bulgaria, the Pirin National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is facing unprecedented threats for massive expansion of ski resorts and commercial logging threatening 60% of its area. In a pan-European campaign, more than 32,000 letters reached the Bulgarian Prime Minister asking him to protect Pirin National Park.
In Norway, the government plan for culling of 70% of the country’s wolf population was cancelled, following the massive public outcry. Norway hosts a population of 65 to 68wolves. According to the initial decision, 41-47 individuals were allowed to be hunted and killed. Thanks to the public campaign, Norwegian wolves are now allowed to live.
In Greece, the public outcry caused by the government’s plan to allow the exception of illegal housing agglomerations from the forest maps brought another important victory for the country’s forests. The Environment Minister was forced to change the specific article of the austerity bill which was submitted to Parliament in May. The voted law makes it clear that no declassification from protection status is allowed in illegally built forests and woodlands.
Race against time
Despite significant conservation victories, such as the delisting of keystone species from critically endangered status, pressures to Earth’s life-supporting systems are mounting, threatening biodiversity and economic activity alike. WWF’s reveals that global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles declined by 58 per cent between 1970 and 2012. In the conservation policy arena, the report published by Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Birdlife International concludes that the international community is not yet on course to meet the Aichi biodiversity targets, unless countries significantly increase their ambition. At the same time, the 2016 Global Risks report published by the World Economic Forum ranks failure to address climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse among the top 10 risks in terms of their consequences to people, institutions and economies.
The challenge of better implementation
As mentioned in the Commission’s staff working document on the Fitness Check of the EU Nature Legislation, “achieving their objectives and realising their full potential will depend on substantial improvement in their implementation in relation to both effectiveness and efficiency”. Poor implementation of environmental law is indeed a major problem. The European Commission’s communication on the benefits of EU environmental policies, issued in May 2016, states that “poor implementation gives rise to environmental, economic and social costs. For example, it has been estimated that the costs of damage to health and environment caused by air pollutants from European industrial facilities exceed EUR 100 billion annually”. It also acknowledges that “failure to meet EU environmental objectives affects the credibility of both national authorities and the EU in the eyes of citizens. The significant number of infringements, petitions and complaints in the field of environment and the challenges in handling them, reflect the insufficient level of implementation of the environmental acquis.”
Environment unites Europe
In these dire times, environmental protection clearly emerges as a unifying vision in an increasingly divided Europe. As acknowledged by the European Parliament’s Think Tank, “[t]wo thirds of EU citizens express support for increased EU action on environmental protection. EU policy aims to move towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy, to safeguard biodiversity and to protect human health through legislation on air, chemicals, climate, nature, waste and water.”
It is the environment as a unifying vision that can provide sustainable solutions to the pressing and unresolved debt overhang of countries, which has been troubling the Euro area for the past six years. In November 2016, WWF Greece launched a political dialogue for meaningful relief to Greece’s debt crisis on an environmental basis. Titled #LessDebtMoreEarth, WWF’s initiative proposes that in the framework of a jointly agreed set of specific environmental measures, substantial debt relief needs to be approved for Greece. Such a scheme would ‘restart’ the country’s battered economy towards a more sustainable direction, while at the same time conserving globally significant biodiversity and contributing towards the achievement by the EU and the concerned member states of key global sustainable development goals (SDGs). According to WWF Greece, “the environment as a common asset whose good status requires concerted EU action, can offer a platform for joint initiatives that shape a coherent vision of Europe uniting in pursuit of the common good.»
Europe desperately needs common projects that offer sustainable solutions to the economic and debt crisis, while at the same time invigorating democracy, achieving policy transparency and caring not to leave anyone out.
The task is colossal, as Europe is called to overcome its introversion and re-create a common public sphere of democratic decision-making for an ecologically, socially and economically sustainable future. This EU lifesaving mission is a wake-up call for civil society and all active citizens, individually or collectively, whose concern about the common good of people and the planet is a force for togetherness and unity.
Building healthy, sustainable, democratic and inclusive economies within the limits of the planet is the new global cause. The environmental victories marking the end of 2016 open the path for a promising 2017.
Theodota Nantsou, Head of policy at WWF Greece