SOCIETY

WWF’s Europe chief warns of austerity’s effects

Tony Long, director of the World Wildlife Fund?s European Policy Office, spoke recently to Kathimerini about the impact of Greece?s austerity measures on its environmental policy, arguing that Athens, as well as the country?s creditors have failed to address important issues that can have a long-term impact on the environment and on society by focusing instead on short-term economic goals.

Earlier this month, the conservation group addressed letters outlining its concerns to International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

The reaction of WWF?s international and European offices with respect to stressing the negative environmental impact of economic policies being implemented in Greece is surprising. Do you consider the problem to be so grave?

The crisis unfolding in Greece is not only Greek. Despite the specifics and particularities, it has become clear that the crisis is systemic, European and global. It should not be surprising that we act together — we do so often.

WWF is concerned that the response to the crisis is one-sided, focusing only on immediate economic results, disregarding the need for long-term sustainable solutions. We believe it is vital that the troika [Greece?s creditors: the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund] stops fixating on short-term structural change but starts looking at the long-term picture. The troika needs to mainstream the environment into its bailout conditions.

What is the negative impact? Are European treaties at stake and/or being violated? And, if so, how?

Over the last few years Greece was on the way to introduce more sustainable measures for the environment. The consequences of the adjustment program prescribed by the troika risk rolling back important gains that Greece has made on the environmental front.

A special area of concern would be the implementation of European directives, particularly where they affect land use planning, for instance the Birds and Habitats Directives and the Environmental Impact Assessment Directives.

If we give up on the environment and allow loose planning rules that permit construction to go unabated we will see, among others, tourism suffer, as visitors will be turning away. Greece needs to value its ?brand identity? as a natural paradise. If this is lost it might take several lifetimes to restore. Hence, it is not only a matter of violating European or any other environmental law; it is about making a choice about a development path.

Does the implementation of the program in Greece create a bad precedent for potential (future) adjustment programs in other European countries?

Unfortunately the program implemented in Greece is disturbingly similar to past adjustment programs implemented in many countries facing financial troubles. It seems that the recipe is the same, as if there are no lessons learned.

And, the IMF is already writing the budgets of other eurozone countries like Ireland and Portugal and forcing through some very tough measures. The IMF?s only concern is balancing the government books and encouraging repayment. Securing measures that protect the environment are simply not a priority. If this becomes a common practice with other struggling countries, then we could see the destruction of European patrimony across the whole continent. We can?t let what is currently on the table become the generic medicine for the rest of Europe. The European Commission needs to take responsibility for what is happening and ensure that the IMF respects environmental commitments.

How do you respond to the argument that the salvation of the economy, the flow of funds and growth constitute immediate priorities and that we should deal with the environment later?

 

What needs to be understood is that what we are witnessing is not a financial crisis alone. It is a crisis of the prevalent economic model, which is based on the wasteful use of resources, including natural resources. It is commonly said that in a crisis there is also opportunity. It is now time to revise the predominant economic model and set the environment as a recognized foundation, rather than as a ?free good,? carelessly exploited at will.

The bottom line is that when we destroy the environment, it is virtually impossible to restore. It will cost billions to restore the precious Greek coastlines and biodiversity if we reduce to close to nil the support to its protection. Most likely all European taxpayers will have to contribute over many, many years to repair these mistakes.

It makes much more — economic and ecological — sense to integrate green solutions into whatever economic adjustments are needed, and begin the transition to a sustainable development model.

Do you believe that the European Commission shares responsibility?

The European Commission is coordinating its work with the ECB and the IMF, so, yes, it is responsible.

The Commission has formal legal responsibilities in its role as guardian of the treaty, which includes specific obligations on the protection and improvement of the environment. The Commission needs to address not only the short-term challenges as dictated by the markets or national governments, but also look at broader EU policy in areas such as biodiversity protection, climate change and land and water management when considering the imposition of conditionalities on an EU member state.

Very importantly, the treaty also includes a requirement to integrate the environment into all policies. So why is the Commission not doing so now? If anything, it should be calling for increased standards in this field.

If the Greek government, the European Commission and the IMF continue to implement the same policy, what are your planned next steps?

 

We really have no alternative. WWF will stand strong against proposals to roll back the environmental gains, while advocating in favor of solutions that can bring to realization an economy that is environmentally and socially sustainable.