Posted on 01 February 2023
Russia’s shocking war against Ukraine triggered a giant European leap from deep dependence on fossil fuels towards the liberation of the European energy system from Russian gas. It is for this reason that renewable energy sources were nicknamed “freedom energy”. Yet, sustainability remains far from near, especially as last year was marked by serious environmental setbacks which tested Europe’s limits. In Greece, 2022 marks landmark developments, but was also marred by serious rollbacks in green policies, certain milestone developments have occurred that could potentially lead us to climate neutrality and effective nature conservation.
Global community: slow steps towards climate stability and conservation optimism
2022 was marked by two global meetings of critical significance for our planet’s future: the 27th United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP27) and the 15th United Nations Conference on Biodiversity (COP15). Although they did not result in ambitious binding agreements, they nevertheless mark some important steps towards the conservation of climate stability and biodiversity. At a time when the UN Secretary General was declaring that "we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator", the scientific community has once again sounded the alarm about the enormous threat that these twin crises pose to the present and future of humanity and life on our planet.
Science is clear: at their current rates, global CO2 emissions and biodiversity loss are leading the planet’s vital systems to collapse. According to data published this year by the International Meteorological Organization, global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, the culprits of the unfolding climate crisis, have already increased compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019 when restrictions were still in place in several countries. WWF's Living Planet report (2022) shows an average decline of 69% across tens of thousands of wildlife populations since 1970, while monitored freshwater populations have seen an alarming decline of 83% since 1970, more than any other species groups. Almost three years of the COVID-19 pandemic seem not to have been enough for our 'last generation that can save the planet' to realise that under the threat of the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse, the fate of humanity on Earth is common and that no economic or geopolitical competition makes sense.
A milestone that sparks hope: 2022 clearly marked the decline of fossil fuels, especially gas, which the multinational oil giants now struggle to promote under the label of ‘green’ transition fuel. In its 'World Energy Outlook 2022', the rather cautious and reserved in its statements International Energy Agency (IEA) includes a special chapter entitled 'Is natural gas losing steam?”. The IEA explains that the crisis fueled by Russia's war against Ukraine has for the first time shown clearly the peak of fossil fuels happening this decade. It also stresses that if we want to reach net zero emissions by 2050 no new infrastructure or oil and gas extraction is justified.
Europe: panic is not a good environmental strategy
The war of Russia against Ukraine has exacerbated the energy crisis and brought the fossil fuel crisis to the fore. I hate to say “we told you so”, but we did: WWF was sadly right when in 2009 we rang alarm bells about the consequences of the deep energy dependence of our 'old' but unwise continent on Russian energy sources, especially fossil gas. As all energy market analyses consistently show, the future of the gas industry is existentially threatened by the price rally that has plunged Europe into an unprecedented energy crisis.
Gas is already losing ground in its competition with renewable energy sources. A recent report by Rystad Energy shows that in Europe it will be 10 times more expensive to operate existing fossil gas-fired plants than to build new photovoltaics. Despite the expected fall in prices, when the war is finally over, gas will hardly remain competitive without significant state aid, i.e. without European economies and households paying for it. Russian aggression against Ukraine, with Europe's energy dependence as its main weapon of massive blackmail, has put EU on the path to urgent liberation from Russian energy sources. But it has also brought about a realisation of the geopolitical, economic and environmental benefits that the transition to a 100% clean energy system would bring.
Amidst the panic of predictions of an unprecedented energy crisis caused by cutting fossil gas supplies, Europe is embarking on a frantic and chaotic transition to clean energy. This is,no doubt, a battle with time. Yet Europe is choosing to waste its best chance for a much better, resilient and socially just new energy system, as it opts for urgent measures that may cause more harm to nature than the benefits to the fight against climate change. The most striking example of this is the emergency regulation on the development of renewable energy sources which brings forth a fake dilemma: is the development of clean energy an objective of overriding public interest that goes beyond even the objective of nature conservation? The answer is “obviously not!”. Renewable energies as infrastructures serving an environmental cause should be models of environmental and social excellence.
A very important development, whose progress has unfortunately slowed down due to the crisis, is the proposal for a European law on nature restoration. After several postponements, this proposal eventually reached the table of EU environment ministers in the end of 2022. This is an extremely important legislative initiative by the Commission, which comes as a result of demands from European civil society.
Among the positive developments of the year was the new European regulation to combat deforestation caused by the trade in certain products reaching European markets. A great victory for WWF's European network and many other organisations that fought against powerful economic interests that prey on the forests in poor countries.
Greece: one step forward, five back
In Greece, the adoption of the first national climate law was undoubtedly a very important development. A small but clear step forward, as it enriches the national legal framework with binding targets and national climate policies, while it paves the way for climate justice.
On a parallel track, the development of renewable energy has been dramatically faster than the policy developments for fossil fuel decoupling: up to November, renewable energy resources provided 47.23% of total electricity generation (including the interconnections balance). Impressive, considering that the current national target for renewables is 61% by 2030.
However, when it comes to concrete policies and regulations for nature and the climate, where governments are really tested, things are not good. At the EU level, Greece supports some of the worst environmental policy initiatives, such as the labelling of fossil gas and nuclear power as 'green' investments under the Taxonomy Regulation. At the national level, things are even worse, as a number of policy initiatives prove once more that Greek political leaders detest long-term planning, policy monitoring and environmental law enforcement.
Greece’s adherence to outdated and environmentally destructive oil and gas extraction, is sad proof that Greek governments decide for the future of next generations, with their sight fixed on the past. While the oil giants themselves now acknowledge that fossil fuels are running their final countdown, Greek governments since 2014 remain stubbornly and unjustifiably stuck to the outdated narrative of a mineral wealth that, depending on the situation, promises economic riches or can be used as a geopolitical 'weapon' in the field of competition with Turkey. In reality, however, oil and gas exploitation offers neither economic prosperity nor geopolitical stability. Already two petroleum companies have announced that they are abandoning their oil and gas endeavors in Greece: TOTAL Energies stated its withdrawal from its blocks in the sea of Crete, while REPSOL has already withdrawn from all its Greek concessions since 2021.
Steps backwards were also taken in relation to Greece’s lignite phase-out strategy, whose announcement back in 2019 by the current government was rightly hailed as a flagship initiative towards a cleaner future. Twice in 2022, the government granted new life extensions to lignite plants that should have been shut down long ago as they emit pollutants well above EU limits, making us wonder if lignite phase-out is really happening.
All in all, Greece faces serious policy and law gaps that hinder its path towards climate neutrality. In particular, with regard to critical areas of environmental policy, there is a serious regression that can only be compared to the eight years of the economic crisis and the invocation of memorandum commitments.
- Lack of protection for Natura 2000 sites: the country continues to unjustifiably stonewall on the adoption of specific conservation measures for all the biodiversity cores protected by EU legislation as Natura sites. This year, the policies of the Ministry of Environment and Energy have directly threatened Natura sites with one of the worst legislative rollbacks in recent years. Fortunately, the dangerous articles were withdrawn in the face of fierce public criticism. In relation to the unacceptable political indifference and legal deterioration of the situation of Natura sites, WWF Greece submitted a report to the European Commission, to which the Commission replied that it is clear that Greece is clearly in violation of the Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC.
- Chaotic planning for renewables: An outdated (2008) spatial plan for the deployment of renewable energy infrastructures causes major problems in the process of site selection for wind and solar parks, especially with regard to the proper assessment of impacts on Natura 2000 habitats and species. WWF Greece has developed a policy proposal for a new RES siting system (a new law) which makes a distinction between land and sea “go-first” area) and avoidably go-to areas (go-to only if proven scientifically and beyond reasonable doubt that the stock of preferred areas has been fully exploited). As the aim of renewable energy infrastructures is to serve an environmental cause, they necessarily need to be developed as models of environmental excellence. Causing damage to sensitive natural ecosystems cannot be justified and can only harm the good name which clean energy technologies need to honor.
- Top violator of EU environmental law: Greece ranks first in violation of EU Court of Justice judgementson environmental law. Most cases concern poor implementation, indicating that the major cause is the lack of political will, and relate to deep inefficiencies in environmental compliance and control mechanisms. Since 2015, Greece has paid€187,308,072 in financial penalties resulting from ECJ rulings on EU environmental law violations.
- 4.Collapse of the environmental inspectorate: The (already scant) publicly available data shows that in 2022 Greece’s Environmental Inspectorate (jurisdiction of the Minister of Environment and Energy) has not carried out any inspections. Lack of transparency has always been a major problem underlining the lack of accountability very public policies in Greece, however these past two years have marked a major blow to this critically significantAlso, for the first time in the history of this very important institution, no annual report and no data have been published for the past two years. WWF Greece has been calling for years for the establishment of an independent environmental control authority, a call which is also shared by the “Pissarides commission” of experts who planned Greece’s growth strategy in 2020.
2023 is national elections year for Greece. Will environmental policies feature in party campaigns as prominently as they deserve? Time is not on anybody’s side on this planet. 2023 is time to claim a living economy and a truly sustainable future for Greece.
Theodota Nantsou, Head of policy, WWF Greece