An annual report released by the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shames Greece for systematic violations of the environmental rulebook, while lamenting the waste of a historic opportunity to make the financial crisis a starting point towards a “truly sustainable economy.”
“We are pretty much in the same mess as last year. Despite some progress in certain areas, the overall picture is quite grim,” WWF Greece chief executive Dimitris Karavelas told a press conference Tuesday at the organization’s headquarters in Athens.
“This is the picture of a country that is paying a hefty price for inaction, a lack of transparency, the ‘tidying up’ of violations and bad legislation,” Karavelas said.
“This is the picture of a country that is killing its own hopes for a truly sustainable economy,” he added.
Among other faults, the annual study, now in its 12th year, criticized the leftist-led government for not doing enough to curb illegal construction, for its plans to build new coal plants and for lax waste management resulting in more European fines.
The Environment Ministry is drafting a bill that will make it easier for homeowners to protect illegal buildings from demolition. Under the proposed legislation, the charges for homes at the lower end of the scale in terms of value would be reduced in a bid to encourage owners to come forward and register their property and pay the appropriate penalty.
The draft bill has triggered alarm bells among environmentalists, as it contains provisions widely seen as a precursor to the legalization of illegal residential developments in forests and woodlands.
“Legislation to protect forest areas is in tatters,” said Theodota Nantsou, head of policy for WWF Greece.
The near 150-page report also criticized plans by Public Power Corporation (PPC) to construct two new lignite-powered plants in Ptolemaida and Meliti, in northern Greece.
Greece has signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, a binding global compact to slash greenhouse gases and keep global temperature increases to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile, a 2013 study commissioned by WWF questioned the economic viability of the PPC projects.
The WWF report also lambasted delays and omissions in implementing waste management regulations that have repeatedly triggered warnings and fines from European authorities.
The European Court of Justice earlier this year ruled that Greece has violated key EU laws on hazardous waste management and slapped Greece with heavy financial sanctions: a lump sum of 10 million euros, plus a penalty payment of 30,000 for every day of delay in complying with the decision. This came on the back of a 10-million-euro fine last year for flouting European regulations regarding the management of urban wastewater.
Quoting recent data by the European Commission, WWF said Greece is second among the 28-member EU bloc in the number of open legal cases it faces with regard to infringements of EU environmental rules.
The WWF report acknowledged some positive steps, including an initiative to expand the areas in the EU’s Natura 2000 network (up to 1.93 million hectares of marine areas, among them the Gulf of Corinth, the sea around Crete, the coasts of Paxoi, Pylos and Andros, and the sea between Kavala and Thasos) and the introduction of designated marine wildlife parks.
WWF officials dismissed skepticism that the environmental rollback is the unavoidable byproduct of a painful financial crisis that has seen the country’s gross domestic product drop by about 25 percent since 2008.
“Things do not necessarily have to be this way. All this does not derive from some bailout commitment, it is not mandated by the financial crisis. What we see is the outcome of intended policy decisions,” Karavelas said.
“We still believe that Greece should use its strongest card, its natural environment, and that this could contribute to a truly sustainable way out of the crisis,” he said.