We need an environmental protection agency now

We need an environmental protection agency now

Greece has weathered an apocalyptic natural disaster this week. We have lost beautiful forests that will take generations to regrow, the former royal estate of Tatoi was destroyed, Evia suffered wholesale destruction, hundreds of houses burned, and close to 100,000 acres of wooded areas are now smouldering ashes.

The recent catastrophic fires were brought about by a prolonged drought. All this is unusual, if not unexpected. Nature is responding to our human complacency and shortsighted exploitation, and the resultant climate crisis we have created.

The current government and the prime minister are not to blame for this year’s drought. Unlike the criminal firefighting mistakes of the Mati disaster of two years ago, they executed planned evacuations which preserved human lives. However, the magnitude of these fires is the result of more than just drought; it is also the result of aging firefighting equipment and patchy training.

Absent policy

The fire service is ill-equipped to address the climate extremes we could have seen coming. Above that, they are the result of absent policy. Greece has a weak administrative structure that lacks any authority to prevent and control the circumstances that lead to fires. Pair this with its lacking environmental policy, inexplicably allowed to worsen over the last few years, and the scope of destruction should come as no surprise.

Chronic delays in preparing forest maps and unscrupulous legislative “exceptions” to legalize unlawful dwellings and businesses in forests undermine the integrity of forests and motivate arsonists who believe that they may be able to exploit land better without the burden of wooded areas. The Natura protected area regulations have been unjustifiably delayed, resulting in the condemnation of Greece by the European Court in 2020. A law passed this year allows for investment projects in direct contravention of European directives.

This is part and parcel of an unproductive and anachronistic view that Greece espouses in terms of environmental protection which risks undermining the foundation of its touristic advantage. (See “Greek tourism and the environment: On the edge of a precipice,” with Lydia Carras, eKathimerini, 15/10/2020, and “Open letter to the PM.”)

There are a handful of inspiring initiatives, including a commitment to large-scale reforestation (planned before this week’s fires), and pilot projects to find common ground between development and environmental protection (e.g. for sustainable tourism in Kea). Greece is also vocally committed to rapid adoption of alternative energy sources (AES), yet this rhetoric hits a wall as AES implementation is done without adequate consideration of its impact on other relevant aspects of the natural and cultural environment.

Furthermore, AES becomes a byword for “green,” conveniently sidestepping other, crucial aspects of the environment and its protection. For example, Astypalaia was declared by the government as “the first green island,” even though the program consisted of little more than an agreement with Volkswagen to encourage electric car adoption on an island whose road network is not really suited for such vehicles, and a commitment from the government to ultimately substitute diesel electricity production with AES on the island. More to the point, Astypalaia suffers from significant “green” problems, such as issues with (non-potable) water and waste disposal known to affect its beaches – a problem on many islands, including Mykonos. 

The underlying challenge is that environmental protection has no advocate in Greece. The Environmental Inspectorate, instead of being strengthened and upgraded into an independent authority, has been repeatedly downgraded and undermined. Its 200-odd employees have no legal support, no technical support, no resources and no authority to impose fines. Compare this to the 1.6-billion-euro annual budget of the Environment Agency of England or the 100-million-euro budget of the Regional Environmental Authority of the Italian region of Lombardy.

Adding insult to injury, a recent government initiative requires that the secretary-general (and therefore the ministers) of environment and development co-sign any environmental audit. It should come as no surprise that the number of controls dwindled in a few years to 200, and to just 65 four years ago. The number now is anyone’s guess, as published data of this sort has also ceased to be supported.

Greece must overhaul its approach to the environment, and this ghastly week of fires gives it the burning platform from which to recognize how wanton environmental destruction is a direct affront to the health of it citizens, economics and sovereignty. Much as we justify investing a significant share of our GDP in military protection from external threats to our nation, we should similarly dedicate a similar share to protect what lies within our borders. The giant firefighting plane Beriev-200 costs 1/50th of what the new frigates will.

The good news is that while planes and ships require substantial capital, most of the changes required to protect the environment will only require political courage and a bold change agenda.

Governments the world over are sprinting to contain the results of climate change and environmental degradation by heightening environmental controls with stricter laws and coordinated policies. Despite this, and for all its rhetoric, Greece has shown little action toward similar safeguards (see “Green in name only” with Dimitris Vagianos, eKathimerini, 2/1/2021).

The environment requires dedicated, focused attention, not greenwashing. We need an independent environmental agency as a well-staffed structure with resources and an enduring commitment to the environment. For this to exist, the head should be chosen by government and confirmed by the Parliament, as is done in the UK, the US, the Netherlands and many other countries. The Pissarides Committee suggested it, and the opposition supports it.

After all, as the world changes, so do the priorities of the electorate. The government, and personally the prime minister, may have underestimated how important the environment is to many of us individually, and how desperately backward we are as a collective in this respect.

The traditional nucleus of the ruling party has not historically shown much initiative or interest in this regard. Yet the political center ground, from which the prime minister draws his significant lead, is keenly aware of the environmental requirements of this changing world. Given the electoral math of the new direct representation law, the prime minister should rise to the occasion, grasp the initiative and show real leadership, before this turns into his political Achilles heel. Time for bold moves.

Michael G. Jacobides (www.jacobides.com) holds the Sir Donald Gordon Chair of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School where he is professor of strategy. He is a strategy adviser to the Hellenic Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.