At Water’s Edge

February 13, 2015 • Features, Print • Views: 1160

By Emma Platoff

FREEDOM OF BEACH

In July, the average temperature in Attica, the district of Greece that includes Athens and Cape Sounion, is almost 30 degrees Celsius or 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This means when you walk somewhere, you should expect to arrive at your destination sweating. This means you shouldn’t be running until after the sun has already set.

Yet this summer, Agis Emmanouil, a well-known Greek actor, spent five searing July days running 240 kilometers along the scenic Greek coastline, always with a smile on his face. Emmanouil did so to combat a new draft bill, presented in April 2014 by then Minister of Finance Yannis Stournaras, which proposed allowing the commercialization of all 13,676 kilometers of Greek coastline and encouraging developers to build up to ten meters from the water. The draft law, “Delineation, management and protection of the seashore and beach,” would have legitimized the bars and resorts that have for decades been built illegally on beaches, absolving their owners of any wrongdoing. It would also have allowed for the modification of the coast through processes like dredging and filling, removing silt and refilling areas with sand in order to reclaim sea for land. The bill blatantly contradicted several existing European and international environmental protection laws, and also, strikingly, the Greek constitution, which guarantees its citizens free and unlimited access to the coast.

Greeks are proud of their beaches. Along with ancient monuments like the Parthenon and Aristotle’s Lyceum, they are what attracts tourists—which contributes nearly twenty percent of Greece’s GDP. In a 2014 survey, ninety-seven percent of Greeks reported that protecting the environment is important to them personally. The fact that beach access is a right enshrined in the nation’s constitution is telling as well. Over 150,000 citizens signed an online petition promising to “stop the sell-out of Greek beaches to private companies.” Letters decrying the law poured in from international environmental policymakers. As a result, only part of the bill was voted into law in August, including a provision that grants illegal property owners loopholes to adjust the boundaries of the coastal zone, effectively narrowing the zone in which construction is not permitted. Environmentalists say they are watching carefully for a time when policymakers might try to enact the rest of it through other more covert procedures.

A press release on the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET)’s website framed the situation best: “Greek leaders seem to believe tourism infrastructure is in more need of protection than the unique Greek nature that is actually attracting tourists.”

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Greece has the most extensive coastline among all Mediterranean countries (Emma Platoff/TYG).

EUROPEAN PRESSURES

According to Liza Boura, MEDASSET’s programs and advocacy campaigns officer, this law is just another way in which Greek policymakers prioritize financial issues over environmental ones. Since the financial crisis, Greece has had to make efforts to comply with EU-imposed economic adjustment programs in order to continue receiving loans, including the directed improvement of certain sectors of the country’s economy. The Memorandum of Understanding for the Second Economic Adjustment Program specifically calls on Greece to promote land use for economic development— hence the idea of coastal development. But the proposed law conflicted with several other EU policies protecting coastal regions.

Stavros Kalogiannis, Greece’s former state secretary for the environment, regional planning and public works and a current member of the Hellenic Parliament, said that after six years of a deep economic recession, economic issues are the priority for both the state and its citizens.

“In general, the crisis has provided this ungrounded justification to watered down environmental policy and laws,” Boura said. “Investments can be made without too much of an environmental impact assessment.”

The crisis hasn’t helped, but this environmental negligence isn’t new, according to Ioli Christopoulou, who has been working with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Greece for the past decade. Though she said that Greece was never a “leader in environmental issues,” she noted that before the crisis there was greater public pressure and advocacy for environmental issues, and that the government had made steady progress to meet European standards.

Those European standards, however, may also be in decline. In July, during her tenure as Europe’s Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki came together with then Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potočnik to write a letter explaining that any efforts Greece made to develop land for economic purposes needed to comply with existing environmental protection limits. This letter and others like it discouraged the Greek Parliament from passing the entirety of the draft bill proposed to commercialize the coast. This edict— merely a reminder to follow existing laws—was effective, but the policymakers behind it have recently left office.

According to an open letter by several European NGOs, the restructuring of the European Commission following Jean-Claude Juncker’s election to its presidency in May 2014 demonstrates a diminishing commitment to the environment. The governing body used to include a vice president for energy and several commissioners individually governing action, maritime affairs and fisheries, and the environment. Now, for the first time in 25 years, there is no commissioner devoted solely to the environment. Instead many environmental considerations been combined into just two commissions: Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and Climate Action and Energy.The latter body will be led by Miguel Arias Cañete, who is known to hold shares in oil companies. Environmental non-governmental organizations are hardly the only organizations disputing his conflicts of interest.

According to environmentalists, even the governing bodies that remain focused on the environment aren’t doing quite what an ocean-lover might hope.

“For the marine issues, the new trend is ‘Blue Growth,’” Boura explained. “It’s not healthy seas—it’s ‘Blue Growth:’ how can we grow more by using marine resources? It’s a clear trend towards growth being the priority rather than sustainable development.”

In a September letter to the members of the European Parliament, Juncker wrote that the reformatting was an attempt to consolidate issues, like economic and environmental matters, and encourage collaborative efforts to combat common problems. Juncker wrote, for example, that, “environment and maritime conservation policies can and should play a key role in creating jobs, preserving resources, stimulating growth and encouraging investment.” Similarly, Kalogiannis explained that several environmental laws in Greece have been altered for the sake of simplification.

But to some, these statements feel stale and disingenuous.

“Of course, government representatives do talk about the environment. It is on their agenda. But when it comes down to choosing how to develop, [the policies] do not seem sustainable and [do] not seem to take into account the environment,” Boura said. “On the ground we’re not seeing theory put into practice.”

However, Kalogiannis said it makes sense that the economy is being prioritized.

“It is natural for the Economic Adjustment Programs to focus more on the economy than the environment as nowadays this is the primary goal: to save the country,” he said.

Kalogiannis also noted that Greece already implements the European environmental legislation—some of the most stringent in the world.

Christopoulou identified the diffusion of responsibility that occurs when two distinct but overlapping powers determine a country’s policy as another problem with the international government structure. She described a “tug of war” between the Greek government and the “troika”—a commonly-used term for the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, the three organizations governing Greece’s financial future.

The troika instructs Greece to remove barriers to economic growth and blames Greece when these initiatives hurt the environment. After all, the country chooses the specific policies. But the troika, Greece argues back, is the force mandating these economic efforts in the first place.

The blame, Christopolou says, is probably shared, but the power dynamic is complicated. Especially given the new structure of the European Commission which came to power early this November, the resolution remains unpredictable.

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GREECE IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT

The Environmental Performance Index put out every year by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network ranks 178 countries around the world, using 20 different indicators in two major categories (environmental health and ecosystem vitality), weighted by their importance, to give each country overall and issue scores. In 2014, in keeping consistent with its position throughout the last decade, the United States ranked 33rd. Greece was 23rd.

According to Jason Schwartz, an environmental performance analyst for the index, this is “not a bad rank at all.” It’s actually quite good, he said, all things considered. Given Greece’s recent environmental track record, this may come as a surprise, but the high ranking may be a product of the limitations of the metric itself. Schwartz explained that because the index is generalized based on many contributing factors, a country’s good performance in one area may disguise its blatant negligence in another.

“Weighting is a major factor here,” he said.

For example, while Greece may not give its coastal habitats the attention they deserve, Schwartz explained that other factors valued more heavily in the generalized index have the potential to obscure these areas of negligence. Four times the weight given to a country’s treatment of Marine Protected Areas, for example, is assigned to a section called Health Impacts, in which Greece is ranked number one. But this high rank is largely just the product of being a first world country—Greece shares the top title of the Health Impacts category, whose sole indicator is child mortality, with twenty-one other developed nations.

Conversely, some of Greece’s ostensibly innocuous rankings may be misleading. In terms of marine protected areas, Greece is ranked 58th—“firmly in the middle of the pack,” according to Schwartz. But this isn’t a particularly impressive pack, he added; for the most part, no countries are treating these sacred areas as carefully as they should be. In cases like these, then, relatively unassuming rankings may disguise huge problems.

Many of the positives apparent in these rankings may also come despite, rather than because of, the government. Boura noted, for example, that Greek seas are among the cleanest of any European country, but that this is probably because it is a less industrialized country than many of its neighbors. Similarly, the financial crisis may have played a part in improving Greece’s sustainability efforts, as common citizens with monetary struggles sought to be as energy efficient in their own homes as possible.

LOOKING FORWARD

Klimis Klimentidis founded the company Klimis in Kalamata, Greece in 1968. The small family business still manufactures lime for construction projects and biomass products for heating use today, but its particular specialty, called a “Klimis barbecue briquette,” is a unique charcoal substitute made from the dust residue of burnt olive pits — in Greek, “pirinoskoni.” The briquettes, an entirely natural source of energy, emit thirty percent less carbon than their sootier counterpart. This year Klimis was selected as a National Champion representing Greece in the United Kingdom’s Trade & Investment Award for Innovation category of the 2014-2015 European Business Awards.

Despite the company’s success, Marketing Manager Makios Nasos said there are great challenges associated with working in the company’s birthplace.

“Unfortunately in Greece there is no reward to companies that demonstrate excellence in environmental protection,” he explained. “In order to become more ‘green’ as a company you need money to invest [in] new technologies. But this is not possible for companies that struggle to survive.”

For Klimis, Nasos said, trying to innovate in a green way is one strategy for penetrating the world market. The barbecue briquettes also fight climate issues like deforestation and rising greenhouse gas emissions by providing a more environmentally sound alternative. Green companies are fighting against the challenges of the crisis, but it’s not an easy method, Nasos added.

It’s hard to predict where anything will be in ten years, but perhaps especially difficult when looking at Greece’s environment. A great deal of Greece’s environmental future rests on the shoulders of the country’s younger generation, —which, Boura says, is thus far developing its businesses in a much more ecologically sensitive way. There are new businesses in fields like greener accommodation and transportation, beauty products, organic food and more.

There is also promise, some say, in the across the board initiatives that the WWF has in mind, what the organization calls “horizontal” efforts. In October 2013, the nongovernmental organization published a roadmap laying out policies to achieve a more sustainable future for the country. According to a statement made by WWF’s international president Yolanda Kakabadse,“it is WWF’s firm belief that the crisis offers a unique opportunity for the elaboration of integrated national roadmaps to sustainability.”

The proposed changes range from the legal realm—greater transparency, knowledge, participation, and accountability in legislation—to economic affairs—revamped tax systems that make polluters pay, reestablishment of the Social Economy Fund to provide start-up funding to sustainable and transparent new enterprises, redirection of the European Central Bank’s funding to priority areas like energy and regional development. Demetres Karavellas, chief executive officer of WWF Greece, describes these tasks as simple in theory but difficult to achieve; according to their organization, it is exactly actions like these that will revitalize Greece’s battered economy and natural treasures.

Despite efforts of this kind, and those of companies like Klimis, with the effects of climate change mounting, it remains impossible to know what lies ahead, especially with a government as uncertain as Greece’s.

“Greece has amazing ecosystems, amazing seas, amazing forests, and the crisis has been a problem but we’re still working to turn [it] into an opportunity for a more sustainable future,” Boura said. “The public is realizing it. The key is to get the decision makers to realize that too.”

Emma Platoff ’17 is in Morse College. Contact her at emma.platoff@yale.edu.

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