Environmental policy was never something that Greek governments could be proud of, even if the Mediterranean climate and the rich natural resources could have been positively exploited and contribute to prosperity.
In 2010, the Greek state was forced to a bailout program, designed and supported by the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A vicious circle of austerity kicked in, which resulted in the dissolution of the social fabric. Guess what; under these circumstances, Greeks and Europeans couldn’t care less about protecting flora and fauna of the country as governmental policies focused mainly on exploiting natural resources in order to make cash and pay back the debt to its creditors.
Air pollution hits record high
According to the study ‘Economic crisis, Troika and the environment in Greece’ – published by scholars Joseph Lekakis and Maria Kousis – there is a linear and profound association between ecological catastrophe and economic crisis. To begin with, dramatic cuts on annual incomes, along with the high cost of oil and gas prices, led to greater deforestation. Forests and green areas have been brutally abused by illegal lumberjacks, who sell massive quantities of wood under the nose of authorities. As the report of Green Party, published in 2014, suggests, deforestation has risen up to 14 per cent in the previous four years.
At the same time, in urban areas such as the Greek capital, the newly inducted phenomenon of smog has been a serious factor in air pollution after 2012. People in Athens tend to use inappropriate parts of wood or other materials – such as old furniture – for their fireplaces, as they can’t afford to pay for proper wood, resulting in emissions of dangerous soot that eventually affects both citizens’ health and the environment. As the Institution of Environmental Research claims in its 2015 report, Athens’ atmosphere received more than 80 μg/m3 of smog per hour in 40 nights, raising the alarm for the near future of the capital’s ecosystem.
The long suffering Green Fund
Into the core of the environmental crisis in Greece lies the Green Fund. This was supposed to be a state institution for the control and coordination of all environmental projects in the country, funding certain actions, supervising and imposing strict fines for illegal activities against the environment. Created by former Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Tina Mpirmpili, the initiative seemed to work well at the very beginning, according to WWF Greece Head of Policy, Theodosia Ntatsou.
However, within a year and a half of its foundation, the government decided to use the vast majority of the Fund’s money for a fiscal sustainability programme. Therefore, only 2.5 per cent of Green Funds’ incomes can actually be used for environmental purposes – the rest remains blocked and is destined to serve as emergency money whenever the government needs to service its debt.
“Right now, in reality we are unable to do anything”, admits the president of the Green Fund, Panagiotis Vasileiou. “Our balance is in the hands of state”, he adds. It is quite obvious that that the environment has been put aside and it is not a priority for any Greek government. “We had high hopes for this Fund. But then the state decided that green economy and sustainability is a minor issue, compared to financial markets”, claims Vasileiou bitterly.
The “big fiesta” in Green legislation
The decision to cease activities of the Green Fund is not an individual issue. General governmental attitude towards Greek legislation brings up other outlooks. Having the 2013 report from WWF, we tried to figure out what is the biggest environmental problem that derives from recession. “It is the full dismantling of the green legislation”, says Theodota Nantsou, the Head of Policy in WWF Greece.
“This legislation was about everything linked to the environment. It was about forests, country planning, environmental licences for businesses. This legislation was destroyed. There was this “big fiesta”, where ministers and MP’s ignored and circumvented all regulations in order to service “their people” against the ecosystem. Under the bailout program, the country needed money and the state treated the environment as an investment opportunity, at all costs. We have come to a point that no one knows exactly right now what is true and what is valid. Many businessmen that try to be lawful call us and ask where they can invest and develop their business, because the legislation is blurry.”
Under the newly elected government, things don’t seem to have changed. On the contrary, even the Ministry of Environment has been abolished and merged with other – quite irrelevant – divisions. Until now, nothing has been done to restore neither the Green Fund nor the legislation.
Where is Europe?
To put it in one word… nowhere. To be fair, nearly 80 per cent of the environmental regulations in Greece are European instructions and laws merely implemented by Greek authorities. Plus, Greece has been accused and condemned by the European Court for several infringements throughout the crisis. One of them is the Achelous River diversion, an issue that has raised global interest due to its importance to natural sustainability.
For the most part, even if the European institutions know about the current non-existent legislation and the situation concerning the crimes set in protected areas, the usual response is that Greece should deal with these by itself. “We have informed EU about deforestation and encroachment of green areas but their answer was that we should deal with the Greek state and they cannot intervene”, says Mrs Nantsou.
Words by Aggelos Andreou
Picture by Athens and its new-found smog (credit: 902.gr)