The need to tackle energy dependence on Russia is even more “urgent,” EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginius Sinkevičius, said in an interview to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency’s (ANA-MPA) Irini Zarkadoula. On the gas issue, he mentioned that “the plan specifically focuses on how to replenish gas stocks for next winter, diversify our gas supplies and transition to renewable gases, and accelerate the European Green Deal to boost energy efficiency, increase renewables and electrification and address infrastructure bottlenecks.”
Asked on the importance of marine biodiversity and especially for countries where tourism is an important factor such as Greece, Sinkevičius said that he believes in “Greece’s enormous economic potential with its extensive coastline, its marine biodiversity and fishing sector and the importance of the blue economy to the coastal and island communities.”
Talking about the EU Protection Mechanism, the EU Commissioner also said that “the Commission signed in December 2021 an agreement with Greece to procure two additional amphibious firefighting planes under rescEU. Greece not only participates in rescEU’s firefighting fleet, but also hosts the rescEU medical reserve since October 2020. Material stored in this rescEU reserve has been dispatched numerous times from Greece to European countries in need.”
Q: How is the EU going to respond to the energy crisis and the increase on prices given the dependence from Russia and the instability created by the war?
A: The Commission was working of the energy sector reforms already for some time. With Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the need to deal with EU’s dependence from Russia on energy supplies becomes even more urgent. The Commission presented earlier this week REPowerEU – a plan to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before the end of this decade. And we will start with gas. The plan specifically focuses on how to replenish gas stocks for next winter, diversify our gas supplies and transition to renewable gases, and accelerate the European Green Deal to boost energy efficiency, increase renewables and electrification and address infrastructure bottlenecks.
Back in October, the Commission adopted the Energy Prices Toolbox, which has been helping citizens and businesses to face high energy prices in recent months. Twenty-five member states have adopted measures in line with the toolbox, which are already easing energy bills for over 70 million household customers and several million micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. The REPowerEU plan also contains measures to respond to high energy prices, including guidance for member states on regulating prices in exceptional circumstances, as well as redistribution of revenues from high-energy sector profits and emissions trading to consumers. EU State Aid rules also offer options for member states to provide short-term support to companies affected by high energy prices, and we will be consulting member states on additional measures.
With the measures set out by the Commission in the REPowerEU plan, we could already cut our dependence on Russian gas by two thirds by next winter.
Q: What is the objective of the EU Green Deal and are you convinced that the ambitious goals can be achieved?
A: We face a triple threat from climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution, fuelled by our excessive and unsustainable use of resources. These crises are putting at risk our health and our economy.
These crises cannot be solved separately because they are interdependent. This is where the European Green Deal can help.
As a strategy for growth that respects our planet’s boundaries, the European Green Deal is our response to this triple crisis. I believe the European Green Deal is our chance to turn the EU into a nature-positive, resource-efficient and competitive economy, and a climate neutral continent.
And I am truly convinced that we can achieve all that, and that once again in history Europe will be able to turn huge challenges into opportunities.
For one, we do not have a choice. Right now, we are driving our planet to dangerous tipping points, which will make our life conditions more and more difficult, with impacts on our health, prosperity and wellbeing. If we all do not take responsibility and change course now, our children will be facing the direct consequences.
Second, the European Green Deal is a response not only to science, but also to demands for stronger action coming from people, in particular younger generations. Nine out of ten Europeans see climate change as a serious problem. They demand greener products, and business models that respect nature. Businesses are already changing their practices, and adapting to public demand. So we have large public support and awareness, crucial to implement the policies needed in the transition to climate neutrality.
Third, we are realistic. We are aware that the transition to climate neutrality will sometimes require difficult action from all of us, across all sectors. There will be steps forward and backward. And like in any change, there are sectors and parts of society which are better prepared than others, and they will lead the way. For this transition to work, it has to be fair and just, leaving no one behind. That’s why we are supporting those regions and citizens most affected by the transition, and engaging with the industry helping them decarbonise.
I am truly convinced that this can be achieved if everybody plays their part – citizens, communities, companies and organisations, alongside government policies and legislation.
Q: How important is marine biodiversity and especially for countries where tourism is an important factor such as Greece?
A: Marine biodiversity is fundamental to ensure healthy and productive seas and maintain a sustainable resource for the coastal communities and economies that depend on it.
In 2021, Greece undertook a landmark commitment to act in protecting both fishing resources and the marine environment with its adherence to the action plan for the Mediterranean to become a model sea by 2030. This is a big initiative undertaken by Greece contributing to the ambition of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. Marine Protected Areas effectively managed and controlled with defined conservation objectives and measures are key tools to restore marine biodiversity, to bolster the ecosystem services they provide and to provide socio-economic benefits to fishers and the whole blue economy, including tourism.
I believe in Greece’s enormous economic potential with its extensive coastline, its marine biodiversity and fishing sector and the importance of the blue economy to the coastal and island communities. Greece has a great opportunity to reap all the benefits of the opportunities offered by the new European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF) 2021-27 focussing on actions that will contribute concretely to resilience and the green and digital transition. This includes the support for the creation, restoration and management of Marine Protected Areas to meet the 30% target of the Biodiversity Strategy, but also the promotion of sustainable development of aquaculture, a main driver of Greek exports with more than EUR 400 million every year and the diversification of Sustainable Blue Economy activities in islands and coastal areas.
Q: Besides, what could be the benefits of Greener Islands on countries such Greece for example adding that Greece has also launched the Gr-Eco Islands Initiative.
A: Many islands are particularly dependent on imports of fossil fuels to generate electricity – frequently relying on oil or diesel-based generators. This means that energy production costs are often higher than on the mainland and usually benefit from taxpayer subsidy to be more affordable. This is a challenge in many different parts of the EU.
Our EU clean energy islands initiative – like the Gr-Eco islands initiative – is aimed at encouraging islands to make investments in modern energy systems, embracing renewables and energy efficiency in order to address these issues and become greener and more self-sufficient.
The obvious immediate benefits come in the form of reduced energy consumption and lower costs, cleaner air and increased self-sufficiency of the islands. In the current energy market situation, this is more important than ever. There are also broader benefits in terms of diversifying the economy, creating local jobs, reducing air pollution and improving each island’s carbon footprint, which can be a boost for the tourist sector, for example.
Islands and coastal regions, heavily dependent on tourism, are in the most vulnerable situation both in terms of destructive change of climate, and in the light of current pandemic.
Greek islands are very active partners of the EU Islands Initiative, both in terms of benefiting from the technical assistance, but also sharing their experiences with the rest of islands community. The ambition of Tilos to become self-sufficient is an example often quoted in Brussels and I must say I am very impressed by it!
Q: Is EU Protection Mechanism ready to contribute member states regarding the climate change and the increased needs in comparison to the past?
A: The EU Civil Protection Mechanism represents a robust, yet flexible system for the EU and its Member States to prevent and prepare for disasters, and coordinate swift assistance to a country affected by a disaster. EU Civil Protection builds on the core value of solidarity – and just looking back at last year’s 114 emergency response operations, the Mechanism works remarkably well with one country offering and mobilising help to another the very moment that a country is overwhelmed. But in fact, we cannot overlook that climate change is bringing along more extreme weather events. That we have to expect happening more frequently.
In anticipation of these greater disaster risks, the EU has continuously strengthened its crisis management tools. In 2019, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was reinforced by establishing rescEU: a safety net that consists of additional emergency reserve capacities placed at the disposal of EU Member States when no other country can provide the needed assistance. The rescEU initiative started with the creation of a fleet of fire-fighting airplanes and helicopters, and was later extended to other capacities, including stockpiles of medical material to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and other health emergencies. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism was further enhanced with additional tools in 2021 to respond better to new risks, including those posed by climate change.
In fact, the rescEU firefighting fleet’s first mobilisation was to Greece in August 2019 when a state of emergency was declared for fierce forest fires on the island of Evia. In 2021, too, the rescEU firefighting fleet was mobilised in Greece but also in Cyprus, Italy, Austria and Turkey. As the risks of large forest fires are increasing with climate change, additional firefighting aircraft will be added to the rescEU fleet over time. The Commission has signed in December 2021 an agreement with Greece to procure two additional amphibious firefighting planes under rescEU. Greece not only participates in rescEU’s firefighting fleet, but also hosts the rescEU medical reserve since October 2020. Material stored in this rescEU reserve has been dispatched numerous times from Greece to European countries in need.
Yet, focusing solely on disaster preparedness and assistance will not be sufficient. We need to work on Europe’s resilience and do much more to put in place actions on disaster reduction and prevention. In only a year, we have put forward a new Climate Adaptation Strategy, a Soil and a Forest Strategies focusing on strengthening forest and soil ecosystems’ resilience, and next month we will table a legal proposal on nature restoration, to foster the protective functions of healthy ecosystems against growing disaster risks due to climate change.
As scientific research shows, investing into disaster prevention and preparedness does not only save lives but also pays off economically: The benefits of investing into disaster prevention and preparedness almost always exceeds its costs. We can achieve cost-effective adaptation to climate change and more effective forms of disaster reduction and prevention by protecting and restoring wetlands, peatlands, rivers and lakes, coastal and marine ecosystems, by developing urban green spaces and installing green roofs and walls and by promoting and sustainably managing forests and farmland.