By Harry van Versendaal
Nongovernmental organizations are warning of an “unprecedented environmental rollback” in Greece as green policy, perennially on the back burner, has suffered a hefty blow as a result of the nation's financial meltdown.
More controversially, several civil society groups allege that in a number of instances, the authorities have used the brutal debt crisis as a pretext for easing laws and regulations meant to protect the natural environment.
“A series of very disturbing developments indicate that the environment is already being called on to pay a significant part of the soaring Greek debt,” said Theodota Nantsou of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Athens.
“As a result of the economic turndown and the resulting structural adjustment and austerity policies, Greece has witnessed an unprecedented environmental rollback,” she said.
The government recently unveiled an austerity budget which aims to unlock foreign aid by slashing public spending even more, even though the country's economy is shrinking fast. More painful cuts are anticipated as Greece faces what is expected to be a sixth year of recession.
The budget of the fire brigade was this year slashed by up to 45 percent, taking a toll on the maintenance of water-dropping aircraft and fire engines, as well as the ability to pay for overtime work.
Just 18 of the 21 yellow Canadair aircraft were airworthy this summer while none of the five helicopters owned by the service could fly as the renewal of the pilots' flight licenses was held up for financial reasons, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias admitted in Parliament.
A wildfire on the island of Chios destroyed at least 15,000 hectares of vegetation in August. The blaze, which went on for five days, ravaged the island's trademark mastic tree plantations, dealing a massive ecological and financial blow to the islanders.
Meanwhile, economic hardship and rising heating costs are said to be responsible for a dramatic spike in illegal logging across the country -- also evident in forests near the capital. Unauthorized logging has intensified as forest patrols have been reduced. A last-minute amendment submitted to Parliament earlier this year, which reduced penalties for offenders, has not helped much either.
WWF's 2012 report on the status of environmental legislation in Greece, published three years after George Papandreou's ambitious yet dismally ill-fated “green development” program, found “an avalanche of serious environmental losses.”
“Policies introduced by the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate change upon its establishment in 2009, were canceled, betraying hopes for good environmental policy-making,” the report said.
Under pressure from its foreign lenders to reduce the number of public entities and slash public spending, the government decided to merge the country's 29 protected area local management agencies, bringing their number down to 14.
Also on an institutional level, authorities decided to divert the vast majority of money from the Green Fund -- a national environment fund set up in 2010 to support regeneration projects -- to make up for shortfalls in the country’s public finances. The government said that just 400 million euros of the 4 billion the fund was expected to raise by 2014 will be used for building parks and similar schemes, while the rest will go elsewhere.
The Environment Ministry told this newspaper that any money transfer away from the Green Fund requires prior consent from its own head; but it's hard to see how this serves as a safeguard.
NGOs assert that some of the damage to the environment is far from unavoidable, and accuse authorities of compromising protection policy by catering to narrow sectional interests.
“The crisis has been used by the government as an excuse for undermining environmental legislation and promoting legal provisions that are tailor-made to specific investment plans,” Nantsou said.
In April the Environment Ministry gave the green light for a massive tourist investment at Atalanti in central Greece in spite of the fact that most of the area is registered as forestland, which cannot be built upon. Investors -- who are planning the construction of three hotels, three golf courses and 3,712 holiday homes -- reportedly took advantage of a recent amendment that doubled the percentage of forestland that can be used for tourism and adjacent sports facilities in areas bigger than 300 hectares.
Notwithstanding opposition from green groups, locals are in favor of the 2-billion-euro project which, investors say, will create up to 8,000 jobs.
The contrast drives home one of the key dilemmas facing Greece at the moment: The debt-wracked country needs investment to generate growth and jobs in its depressed economy, but it has to balance this with preserving its natural assets.
It is a similar story in Halkidiki, a Central Macedonia regional unit with 25.1 percent unemployment at the end of the second quarter. Locals and NGOs there have vehemently opposed the operation of the Skouries gold mine despite claims by the Vancouver-based company behind the project that this will create more than a thousand jobs. The courts recently referred to the economic argument in their temporary ruling that the project should proceed.
As police and protesters once again battled on Sunday, supporters of the project reportedly staged a counterdemonstration with banners saying “no to violence, yes to jobs."
The above examples fit into a much bigger, much more damaging pattern as opportunistic administrations have again and again rubber-stamped laws to legalize hundreds of thousands of illegally constructed properties in a bid to cajole voters while raising revenues from fines.
Greece's Environment Ministry last month extended the deadline for owners of illegally built or illegally altered homes to declare their properties and be exempted from future fines or demolitions until January 31, 2013.
By the end of July more than 400,000 Greeks had declared illegal homes, almost 80,000 of which have now been approved. This protects them from demolition and further fines for the next 30 years.
“Hundreds of thousands of illegal buildings are legalized without any assessment of their environmental impact, even within protected areas,” Nantsou said.
The Environment Ministry denies the allegations. A press spokesman said the law on illegal dwellings was designed “to strengthen equality and the rule of law, as well as to protect and restore the environment.” At the same time, the ministry said, the law aims to make sure the state is compensated for any urban-planning violations -- that is, fetch some desperately needed cash into state coffers.
Meanwhile, recent legislation proposed by the Infrastructure Ministry regulating construction in resort areas, including Greece's famed Aegean islands, has come under fire for giving in to greedy developers and other vested interests under the pretext of stimulating growth and investment.
“The new draft law paves the way for an unbelievable amount of construction in areas that really cannot tolerate it, without taking the necessary restrictions and sustainability concerns into consideration,” said Georgia Kikou head of the Sustainable Aegean Program of Elliniki Etairia -- Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage.
The Environment Ministry says that lingering recession and high unemployment dictate measures that will attract investment and spur growth -- but not in an unregulated fashion. “The simplification and facilitation of tourist investments does not take place uncritically, but comes with checks on illegal construction and on construction outside the town plan,” the ministry said.
The cost-cutting drive prompted by the financial crisis has also given fodder to enemies of cleaner energy practices.
Environmentalists criticize the Public Power Corporation, in which the Greek state holds a 51 percent stake, for insisting on making most of its electricity from lignite. They say lignite, a form of brown coal, does not come as cheap as its champions would have us believe.
According to Greenpeace, the use of lignite burdens Greece with up to 3.9 billion euros annually in environmental and health costs.
Meanwhile, purchase of CO2 emission rights as of 2013 is estimated to cost the company -- and, in effect, consumers -- some 400 million euros per year, at current rates.
With around 50 million tons per year, PPC is Greece's biggest offender in carbon dioxide emissions as the country is trying to meet a renewable energy quota (20 percent of national electricity production) by the end of the decade.
Greece has pledged to boost solar and wind power generation. But recent measures -- such as cuts of feed-in tariffs on photovoltaics and a ban on new photovoltaic applications -- appear to be pulling the country in the wrong direction as they target renewable energy, solar power in particular.
“Instead of challenging the current energy status mainly depending on lignite, the discussion on the energy market liberalization is mainly restricted to allowing access to lignite for private investors, thus extending the country's dependence on dirty fuels,” said Dimitris Ibrahim, campaigns coordinator at Greenpeace Greece.
Last month PPC won an EU court bid to overturn a 2008 decision ordering Greece to loosen the company’s stranglehold on lignite. The European Commission failed to show there was an abuse of a dominant position by the power company as a result of its preferential treatment in the market, the EU General Court in Luxembourg ruled.
In a sign of Greece's myopic insistence on obsolete and failed recipes, Ibrahim said, PPC is desperately looking for investors to fund the construction of a new lignite-fired power plant while shelving plans for two major solar parks in Kozani and Megalopoli, the two lignite centers.
Instead of planning new lignite factories, environmentalists say, Greece should move in the direction of energy efficiency and renewables as they offer more jobs, less waste for fuel imports and lower energy bills.
Researchers at Thessaloniki's Aristotle University have estimated that existing photovoltaic systems will help save more than 230 million euros in 2012 and over 400 million in 2013-14.
For civil society groups the PPC case demonstrates the need for a broader paradigm shift built around the notion that the safest way out of the crisis is by switching Greece's production pattern, and consumer culture, into an environmentally friendly one.
But behind the usual flood of eco-sensitive statements, few Greek politicians seem really convinced that, despite some inevitable trade-offs, the green thing to do can also be the profitable one.
“Panic-stricken policymakers have failed to identify environmental protection and sustainable development as a substantial part of a solution to the crisis,” Ibrahim said.
Key is the realization, NGOs say, that the environmental destruction caused by unrestrained growth can be so severe as to undermine growth itself.
“Safeguarding Greece's natural and cultural capital -- which is also the country's comparative advantage -- is extremely significant,” said Kikou, warning against a grow-first-clean-up-later attitude.
“The loss of this capital, after all, would be irreversible.”
[Additional reporting by Ioanna Fotiadi and Giorgos Lialios]