Farewell to a year of environmental backsliding

2014 was indeed an eventful year for Europe: European Parliament elections marked by euroscepticism, the start of a new European Commission, crisis in Ukraine, the non-ending economic recession accompanied by unemployment and increasing social inequality. 

2014 was the year of mounting pressures and loss of environmental policies and laws in the EU: the 2030 climate and energy package; the REFIT programme of checks over the “growth potential” of important directives; the environmentally deficient new Commission’s Work Programme for 2015; the mounting business lobby pressures for relaxation of EU environmental law; the loss of vital national laws and policies on nature conservation primarily in Spain, Greece and Italy; a “tsunami” of new oil and gas operations threatens iconic ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea. This rollback is not just a “domestic” problem for Europe. Given the role that the European Union has rightly acquired as a green policy leader in international negotiations, this retreat from pioneering environmental and sustainable development acquis is an issue of global dimensions. Flickers of optimism, such as the EU’s position on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda need to be reinforced.

2014 was also a year of hope, as civil society achieved impressive public mobilisation on many environmental policy fronts: thousands signed petitions for conservation and oil-drill free zones in Italy’s Pantelleria and Spain’s Canary islands. Over 160,000 signed an Avaaz petition that was instrumental in stopping a destructive coastal bill tabled by the Greek Government, whereas the snap mobilisation of tens of thousands within just two days stopped the Parliament of Greece from voting a ridiculously destructive and legally dubious forest bill. The way towards truly sustainable and living economies was also lit by paradigmatic policies and initiatives, such as Portugal’s green tax reform and WWF Greece’s roadmap for a living economy in the crisis stricken country.

Check out our 2014 timeline for a quick roundup of a year marred by unsustainable policy responses to the crisis and brightened with remarkable civil society interventions and policy wins for living EU economies.

An eventful & inspiring 2014 is behind. A promising new year is here. Warm wishes for a happy & One Planet 2015!

Theodota Nantsou, WWF Greece, and Isabella Pratesi, WWF Italy


Read more: CrisisWatch issue 32 (December 2014)



Public outcry stops Greek Parliament from voting anti-forest bill 

As environmental rollback on the pretence of economic development has become political routine in Greece, a new bill submitted to Parliament in early December aimed to sanction a new set of illegal land uses and buildings, declassify burnt forest lands from special reforestation status and essentially abolish the forest maps (currently most important forest protection legal tool). 

The bill titled “Acts for contribution in land and cash – Land expropriation and other provisions” was submitted to the Parliament by Alternate Environment Minister Nikos Tagaras just four months after the voting of the controversial Law 4280/2014 on housing development within forests and woodlands. According to WWF Greece, the bill constituted the latest in a series of blows to legal certainty and clarity, as it is filled with tailor-made provisions that serve particular interests and sanction illegal land developments, whereas at the same time it contravenes settled case-law by the Council of State. An avalanche of last-minute amendments completed the picture of a cronyistic and legally insecure bill that was loaded with favours and ignored the rights of all law-abiding citizens who respect the environmental commons. One specific amendment caused a storm of angry comments: three MPs from the region of Attica proposed the freezing of financial penalties and demolition acts for illegal buildings within forests. 


EU fails expectations as global climate policy leader in UN international talks

Procrastination in crucial climate policy decision-making was the outcome of the 20th UN Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, at the close of most likely the hottest year ever recorded. The plan finally agreed at the Lima international talks on climate change (1-14 December) paves a hard way to the 21st Conference of the Parties, which will be held in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015: extended by two days, due to intense disagreements over who should take the burden of cutting greenhouse emissions and financing climate change policies in developing economies, the Lima Call for Climate Action is a rather vague call for national commitments, which in essence postpones difficult decisions for later. 

On the positive side, the Lima agreement marks the first time all states agreed to cut emissions. The landmark U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change of November 11th was indeed a catalyst in doing away with doubts about the urgent need for a global deal at the Paris COP21. However, it was not enough to curb the rigidity of states in agreeing to the necessary policies and responsibilities for the needed emissions reductions.

The EU’s contribution to the aim for a good global climate deal was disappointingly weak: the anemic 2030 energy and climate package, which was agreed in October 2014, failed to send a strong and clear signal worldwide before the critical, upcoming climate negotiations leading to COP21.

Read more: Lima Call for Climate Action, WWF, ENDS



Environment minister defoliates Greece’s forests of vital legal protection

Four months after the voting of the controversial Law 4280/2014 on housing development in forests and woodlands, Greece’s Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change submitted to the Parliament a new bill, which further undermines the conservation value and clarity of forest legislation. Titled “Acts for contribution in land and cash – Land expropriation and other provisions” and submitted by Alternate Environment Minister Nikos Tagaras, it is expected to be voted before the December 17th parliamentary election for Greece’s new President of the Republic. 


Was the forest burnt? Patience!
In 5 years, you can do anything with it. (A kind donation by the Ministry of Environment).

Why should the world care about environmental regression in Europe?

As the signs of economic recovery in the EU remain frail and uncertain, pressures for more lenient environmental laws threaten to seriously undermine Europe’s long-standing and globally significant green policy outlook. The shrinking of the EU’s environmental agenda has marred the start of the Juncker Commission and signals an agenda of regression and deregulation at a historic moment, when Europe needs to urgently move towards sustainable and resilient economic recovery, based on innovation, resource efficiency and adaptation to climate change.

Yet, why should the world care about environmental regression in Europe? 

The shift towards one-planet living economies needs champions. Champions who promise to show the international community that development, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability can and need to go together, in reality and not just in rhetoric. Europe has always been a green champion for the world: either in the context of international negotiations or at the domestic level, European policies and laws constitute a valuable environmental acquis that needs to be safeguarded, expanded and serve as paradigm across the globe. 

Remember Commission President Barroso when in 2007 he affirmed that “[w]e can say to the rest of the world, Europe is taking the lead, you should join us in fighting climate change”? Well, time flies and so does the EU’s global green leadership. A November 2013 editorial in India’s Economic Times, during the Warsaw UNFCCC summit on climate change, speaks for itself: “The new global regime, which should be in place by 2015, would require developing countries like India and China to set out their plans for the post-2020 period. The real question, however, is how can developing countries be asked to step up their efforts when industrialised countries are backing off from their commitments”. The EU’s retreat from its pioneering environmental and sustainable development acquis is an issue of global dimensions. 

Sinking into a growth-as-usual economic model cannot get Europe out of the current depression; it can only open the way for an even deeper global crisis: ecological, social and economic.

Theodota Nantsou, WWF Greece, and Isabella Pratesi, WWF Italy



EU crisis results in increase of organised environmental crime

Stronger penalties and an inter-disciplinary approach will be vital in effectively dealing with the organised environmental crime in the EU. According to an alarming report produced by EUROJUST, the EU’s Judicial Cooperation Unit, illegal trafficking of waste has grown during the crisis, but remains practically ignored, despite the fact that Europol has highlighted its importance in its 2013 Threat Assessment of environmental crime. Water pollution in Greece, Hungary and Sweden is also reported as a growing type of organised environmental crime that requires an extensive and multi-disciplinary investigation system in order to securely identify the sources and proceed with prosecution. Illegal trafficking of endangered species is the third most pressing type of environmental crime, whose combating requires coordination among competent authorities and a less lenient sanctioning system.


Will MEPs back environmental deregulation?

In a resolution adopted on 27 November, the European Parliament expresses concerns about the ongoing revision process of the Commission’s guidelines on “Impact Assessment” (IA) of its policy initiatives (legislative and non-legislative). According to the resolution, the Parliament “[i]s concerned, however, that the draft revised guidelines are much less specific than the existing guidelines in terms of the scope for IAs and that they leave significantly more room for interpretation by the directorate-general responsible as regards the decision on whether or not an IA is required”. In response to fears that environmental impacts will be sidelined in the IA revision process, the resolution “[u]nderlines the fact that the Commission should ensure that economic, social, administrative and environmental aspects are assessed in equal depth”.

The resolution was not supported by the Greens/EFA, as it failed to uphold the often non-monetary nature of environmental regulatory initiatives.


New Commission set to run on environmental deficit?

In anticipation of the 2015 Commission Work Programme (CWP 2015), which is expected to be approved in mid-December, concerns abound over its tendency towards environmental deregulation. 

In a letter addressed by President Juncker and Vice-President Timmermans to the new Commissioners, the priorities of the Commission for 2015 are sorted under respective headings of the 10-priority plan for Europe. Given the absence of a clearly articulated environmental priority, the plan includes under Priority 3 – A Resilient Energy Union with a Forward-Looking Climate Change Policy the “In depth evaluation of Birds and Habitats directives” and the “Reassessment of air and waste packages”. The list also includes a chapter on the REFIT programme, which mandates the review of pending policy packages on air, waste, energy taxation, eco-design and energy labeling and a compensation fund for oil pollution.


Business lobby group presses Commission to ax environmental laws 

In a 25 November statement addressed to Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Europe’s leading lobby group for industry and business calls for the withdrawal of legislative proposals which “impose unnecessary burdens or have a disproportionate impact on growth and jobs”. BUSINESSEUROPE targets a series of policy proposals relating to environment, sustainable development and labour rights. The proposals for a Clean Air Policy Package and a Financial Transactions Tax (FTT) feature at the top of the list for ditching. The lobby group also calls for the withdrawal of the Circular Economy Package, which should be “re-tabled as an economic piece of legislation”. According to the statement, “[f]or BUSINESSEUROPE, proposals which would impose unnecessary burdens or have a disproportionate impact on growth and jobs must be withdrawn or revised to remove these unnecessarily burdensome provisions.” 


Pressures grow for relaxation of EU environmental law 

At the latest Competitiveness Council (10 and 11 December 2012) EU ministers discussed the need for revision of the common industrial policy. In the shadow of the economic recession and its impact on industry, voices calling for relaxation of the legislation relating particularly to environmental impact assessments and permitting  procedures. According to Portugal’s Minister of Economy and Employment Álvaro Santos Pereira, “we can't be naïve regarding some parts of the Globe. We need to have a reciprocity policy regarding the treatment we get in other countries. It's not acceptable that because of our environmental and commercial policy we have lost our industry to other countries. We have to guarantee that this reciprocity happens without affecting our industry”.

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