Green groups slam Hungarian Government over sale of state-owned protected land

The three largest national conservation organizations in Hungary – WWF Hungary, Birdlife Hungary and Friends of the Earth Hungary – called on Sandor Fazekas, the Minister of Agriculture also responsible for nature conservation, to stop the sale of state-owned land in Hungary’s sites from the European network of protected areas Natura 2000. 

The sale would not only compromise Hungary’s EU obligations and the quality of conservation achieved so far, but also go against the unanimous opinion of civil society organizations and environmental experts.

Hungary has 4.3 million hectares of arable land, out of which 520,000 hectares belong to the Natura 2000 network. According to the European legislation and to serve the common well-being, these lands should be managed by harmonizing the agricultural and conservation goals, with special care for protected species using arable land as habitats.

Hungary’s Kiskunsag National Park, the Hevesi flatland and the Moson plain are the most important breeding sites of the globally endangered bird Great bustard (Otis tarda). But thousands of hectares of state-owned Natura 2000 land exactly within these areas could be privatized.

The Great bustard is a source of national pride. The Carpathian basin is one of its most important habitats. It can only be preserved if grasslands and arable lands are managed according to special rules that take into account the needs of the species.

 The bustard is a so called umbrella species - that means that land management suitable for this species is serving the conservation of many natural values. Environmental friendly, sustainable land use practices not only affect the ecosystems of agricultural lands in a better way, but lead to healthier food supply, which is a fundamental value for the society, for people”, said Greg Halmos, Director of Birdlife Hungary.

State-owned Natura 2000 sites can only be leased with a government decree, which allows the government to control the management and ensure nature conservation. When the areas are privatized, the government will lose its right to control and intervene.

Nature-friendly farming sometimes requires the transformation of normal production operations. For this reason, nature conservation regulations are often -- including in the Natura 2000 network - in the spotlight. This is why the Minister of Agriculture who is also responsible for nature conservation, should be aware of the dangers that could come from privatizing the valuable Natura 2000 sites.

"Policy makers cannot ignore the protection of natural resources. Short-term economic and private interests have again been put before the fundamental right to a healthy environment. In the long run, the price will be paid by society as a whole", said Istvan Farkas, Executive President of Friends of the Earth Hungary.

"The conservation of natural resources is of international public interest, and it is expected to be respected by international agreements. The Natura 2000 network is part of our agreement with the European Union and the EU could also start infringement procedures against Hungary if natural value protection is being jeopardized ", said Katalin Sipos, WWF Hungary Director.

Read more: WWF Hungary


EU nature laws gain promising political support

In their conclusions of the 16 December Council, the EU’s Environment Ministers adopted the 2015 Mid-Term Review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy highlighting the need for full implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives. 

At the press conference of the Luxembourgian Presidency of the EU Council, Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg, noted that: “The conclusions emphasise that the protection of nature involves a wide range of resulting benefits, such as 'the protection of our health and the climate and the supply of drinking water'. The conclusions recognise the European directives on nature, i.e. the Habitats and Birds directives, as a 'cornerstone for the protection of our environment in Europe'. The Ministers took the view that the directives are working and are bringing results and that they must be fully implemented and financed by the Member States. They stressed the need to 'do more in order to ensure better coordination with agricultural policies', by strengthening the cross-sectoral aspect of the policies. From their perspective, the elimination of harmful subsidies is also key to greater biodiversity.” 'What remains clear is that we should not go back on the Nature directives. Doing so would jeopardise the legal certainty we have now, which would not be a good thing', the Minister declared.

Responding to the outcome of the Environment Council, WWF called on EU Member States to hold to their political commitments and to invest in concrete measures to tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss, especially intensive agriculture, over abstraction of water and hydropower development. 

Following suite, the European Parliament’s Environment Committee overwhelmingly approved the report on the mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, drafted by Belgian MEP Mark Demesmaeker (ECR). The MEPs acknowledge that “in addition to its overwhelming intrinsic value, biodiversity also contributes an enormous social and economic value” and also note that “at least eight in every 10 EU citizens regard the impact of biodiversity loss as serious and whereas 552,470 citizens participated in the public consultation on the fitness check of the Nature Directives”. As stated in the report, the ENVI Committee “Is convinced that the problem lies not with the legislation itself but primarily with its incomplete and inadequate implementation; opposes a possible revision of the Nature Directives because this would jeopardise the implementation of the biodiversity strategy, bring about a protracted period of legal uncertainty and possibly weaken the legislation”. 

Read more: Environment Council conclusions, ENVI Committee, WWF EU


WWF addresses the IMF, EU & ECB on Greece’s environmental rollback

In a letter addressed to the representatives of the creditor institutions in Greece Delia Velculescu (IMF), Declan Costello (EC) and Rasmus Rüffer (ECB), the environmental organisation WWF Greece sheds light on the environmental rollback, intransparency and bad law-making, which plague the country and have worsened during the crisis.

In the letter, which presents the English version of WWF’s 2015 environmental law review, WWF Greece’s Director Demetres Karavellas states inter alia that:

“The findings of this year’s report are indeed alarming: dramatic decline in the quality of legislation and the transparency of the law making process; torrential loss of critical environmental safeguards, particularly in the domain of forest protection and environmental impact assessment; paralysis of the national system of protected areas; threats to valuable natural habitats by unsustainable development projects; continued downgrading and undermining of the environmental inspectorate; utter contempt for EU law in the environmental licensing and the operation of lignite power plants; licencing of a new, heavily polluting lignite power plant in Ptolemaida, which will cost at least 1,4 billion euros and will be financially unsustainable in the framework of EU climate policy; increasing lack of transparency in the Green Fund; never ending legalisation of illegal buildings and land uses, at the expense of legal certainty and equality, and with a huge environmental cost and an incalculable loss of revenues from the uncollected financial penalties.”

Read the letter.

Read WWF Greece’s 2015 environmental law review, focusing on 1) Greece’s economic adjustment programmes, 2) energy and climate change, and 3) nature and biodiversity.




Political tide turning in support of EU nature directives

Nine EU member states have officially expressed their opposition to the European Commission’s move to subject the directives on habitats (92/32/EEC) and wild birds (2009/147/EC) to a “fitness check” under its REFIT initiative: Croatia, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Spain.

In their joint letter, the nine environment ministers state that: “There is now legal certainty as a result of well advanced implementation. Those affected have learned how to deal with the directives’ provisions. Any amendment would require the allocation of personnel and financial resources for a period of many years, meaning that these resources would no longer be available for the much more important process of implementing the nature conservation directives. The result would be new legal uncertainty. We therefore all agree that the directives should retain their current form.”

On a parallel track, members of the European Parliament representing the seven largest political groups co-signed a letter urging First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to keep the Habitats and Birds Directives in their current form and focus on better implementation. The MEPs who signed the letter are the rapporteur Mark Demesmaeker (BE/ECR)  and shadow rapporteurs Norbert Lins (DE/EPP), Karin Kadenbach (AT/S&D), Catherine Bearder (UK/ALDE), Margrete Auken (DK/ Greens/EFA), Marco Affronte (IT/EFDD) and Lynn Boylan (IE/GUE-NGL) on the European Parliament’s Own-Initiative Report on the Mid-Term Review of the Biodiversity Strategy towards 2020.

Commenting on this historic development for nature conservation in the EU, Geneviève Pons-Deladrière, Director of WWF European Policy Office said: “We expect more EU governments to join this call and put a stop to any attempt to change a legal instrument that has proven to work when properly implemented and financed.
We urge the European Commission to use this momentum and deliver on their commitment to halt the loss of nature. They should maintain the current laws and ensure their effective implementation, as well as tackle the main problems, such as unsustainable agriculture and changes to natural waterbodies, which are causing the damage.

In May 2015, WWF, BirdLife Europe, the European Environmental Bureau and Friends of the Earth Europe launched the “Nature Alert” campaign in response to the European Commission’s evaluation which assesses whether the existing EU nature laws should be changed. The campaign makes the case for improved implementation and enforcement of existing rules set out by the laws - known as the Birds and Habitats Directives. During the summer, over 520,000 people participated in the European Commission’s public consultation and called on politicians to save Europe’s nature laws: by far the highest number of responses ever reached in the history of the EU.

Read more: WWF EU, Birdlife


Crisis results in sharp reduction of energy consumption

by Michalis Prodromou - According to the IEA’s latest “Energy Balances of OECD countries” report, 2013 saw significant reductions in the total final energy consumption for three Mediterranean countries: Greece (11%), Spain (4%) and Italy (4%). Specifically for Greece, this was the fifth consecutive decrease in gross inland energy consumption.

During the reporting period (2012-2013) the aforementioned countries have also suffered major decreases in GDP levels (3,9%, 1,2%, 1,7% respectively). In order to account for this decrease, energy intensity (i.e. amount of energy consumed relative to GDP) should be used to measure the actual energy efficiency of the national economies. EUROSTAT figures show that between 2003-2013 Greece and Italy –along with the Netherlands and Estonia- have had the smallest decreases, among their EU counterparts, of energy intensity.


A sectoral analysis demonstrates the different energy reduction patterns of each country. Final energy consumption in Greece’s residential sector has fallen by 25%, while in Spain and Italy it was the services and industry sectors that featured the highest decrease percentages (4,8% and 8,15% respectively). The economic crisis has had a huge impact on these developments. A living conditions index study performed in Greece revealed that, in 2012, a 29,4% of the Greek population could not meet adequately its heating needs. It has also led to an increase of overdue bills to the Public Power Corporation, that have now reached a total of 2 billion euros- the biggest share, 1.3 billion, belonging to households. Greece’s Energy Minister (until July 17th), Panagiotis Lafazanis, has reportedly noted that when dealing with energy poverty, investments in energy efficiency “mean absolutely nothing for citizens and households being totally deprived of energy sources”. 



EU environment agencies discuss crisis as window to greener economies

Green economy, as a “sensible pathway for Europe if it wants to foster jobs, economic growth, investment and competitiveness, while preserving the environment” was the focus the heads of Europe’s environment agencies on World Environment Day. Titled “Green Economy: Opportunities for Jobs, Growth and Innovation in Europe”, the conference organised by the European Network of the Heads of Environment Protection Agencies (EPA Network) reaffirmed that crisis-stricken economies can achieve sustainable and robust recovery, provided political leaders ignore political pressures for quick and dirty development at all costs.

According to the conference report, “Kristín L. Árnadóttir, of the Environment Agency of Iceland, said her country’s banking crisis had created the conditions to use green investment to stimulate economic growth. Asked if the same could happen in Greece or elsewhere in the Eurozone, she said, “Why not? Do not let a good crisis go to waste”.” 

Paul Ekins, Director at the Director, University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources, stressed that “the green economy is not only desirable in the medium term but imperative in the long term”. Ekins emphasised that pressures like climate change made "brown" investments unsustainable, while long term green investments brought fewer immediate, but continuous, macro- economic rewards. Presenting the EU’s 7th Environment Action Programme, DG ENVI Director Karl Falkenberg stated that short term results were exactly what EU leaders were under pressure to deliver. “We need to be better in explaining there’s a lot more opportunity than cost,” Falkenberg said.

The role of the financial sector in making the shift towards green economies happen was highlighted by Marianne Fay, Chief Economist at the World Bank. “We will need public investments in research and innovation in green tech,” Fay said and emphatically pointed out that “the challenge of the transition to the green economy is not a financial or a technical challenge, it’s a political one”.

Read more: European Network of the Heads of Environment Protection Agencies, Euractiv



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)



2015 Commission Work Programme marks serious environmental rollback

Fears that the new European Commission plans to scrap important policy initiatives in the fields of air quality and waste management have come true: the 2015 Commission Work Programme (CWP 2015) includes the withdrawal of the proposed new directive on waste management and its replacement with a new one. It also fails to clarify the fate of the proposed revision of the National Emissions Directive. The work plan also includes “fitness checks” for the Ecolabel & EMAS Regulations (results expected in 2015) and the Natura 2000 Directives 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora and 2009/147/EEC on the conservation of wild birds (due by 2016).

In an open letter addressed to the European Commission’s Vice-President Frans Timmermans, the Green 10 condemn the Commission’s decision to withdraw and retable the proposal on waste management and to create confusion about the air quality package.

Ariel Brunner, Birdlife Europe’s Head of EU Policy and current chair of the Green 10, stated: “This exercise undermines the Commission’s credibility. In trying to tame some of its critics, the Commission seems to be faithfully executing the ‘kill list’ developed by powerful industry lobby group, BusinessEurope, and then saying it will retable the air quality and waste proposals at a later stage. For a body that prides itself on delivering ‘better regulation’, this is spectacularly inefficient.”

Read more: European Commission, WWF EUCrisisWatch




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.

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