The announcement of Greece’s new Government was followed by the surprising abolition of the Ministry for Environment, Energy and Climate Change and its merger with agriculture and industry under the title “Ministry for Productive Restructuring, Environment and Energy”. Panayiotis Lafazanis, an experienced MP, will head the ministry as Minister. Yiannis Tsironis, a member of the Ecologists-Greens party, was appointed as Alternate Minister in charge of the environmental sector of the new ministry.
Environmental groups reacted with disappointment at what they called a signal that the environment agenda will be further downgraded. They also stated that sustainable development requires checks and balances that ensure the clear distinction between environmental policy and administration and heavy footprint sectors, such as agriculture and industry. After years of campaigning for the separation of the policy domains of environment and public infrastructures, whose cohabitation led to the constant sidelining of the environment for over twenty years, the establishment in 2009 of the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change was cautiously welcomed as a positive step towards the modernisation of Greece’s environmental performance. However, an obvious lack of political will, accompanied by an unprecedented rollback in important laws and policies and weakening of its administrative capacity over the last three years, made the need for a robust and effective environmental ministry even stronger.
In a joint statement, the environmental groups ANIMA, Archelon, Arcturos, Mediterranean SOS Network, Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, HOS/Birdlife Greece, Callisto, MEDASSET and WWF Greece stated that they “would like to be in the pleasant position of simply offering their congratulations to the new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and wishing him a term that will be positive for the environment, quality of life and the commons”, but instead they find themselves in the difficult position of asking the new government to reconsider the abolition of the environmental ministry.
In relation to specific construction plans that threaten ecologically sensitive areas, SYRIZA has on many occasions held a positive position. A few days before the January 25th national elections, SYRIZA tweeted to WWF Greece that it stands clearly against the “useless pharaonic project” of the Acheloos River diversion. The party has also taken a clear position against the controversial and environmentally harmful gold mining investment in Halkidiki. In addition, during the election campaign, Alexis Tsipras publicly reconfirmed the intentions of SYRIZA to abolish the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, whose portfolio includes the privatisation of lands protected under nature conservation law.
On the energy policy front, SYRIZA faces a crucial and urgent dilemma right from the start, as the construction of the new 660 MW lignite plant Ptolemaida V is scheduled to start in early 2015. On the one hand, soaring unemployment rates in the lignite centre of Western Macedonia (which increased when two lignite plants were destroyed by fire in early November and were closed down) is creating pressure to proceed with the construction. On the other hand, SYRIZA has expressed its commitment to an ‘ecological transformation’ of the energy model. Clearly, such a commitment cannot be met if Ptolemaida V, which is scheduled to operate between 2020-2050 (at least), is constructed, since it will maintain the dependence of Greece’s energy system on coal.