By Harry van Versendaal
Environmental campaigners WWF Greece on Wednesday unveiled a series of ambitious policy proposals aimed at providing the debt-hit country's economy with a green kick-start.
The five-year road map, which was drawn up by a group of more than a dozen WWF experts and independent scientists, contains a wide range of institutional, financial and educational measures for a more workable and sustainable economy.
“The crisis signals the need for change. Greece has to change,” WWF Greece CEO Demetres Karavellas told journalists at the organization's Athens headquarters during a presentation of WWF's 90-page blueprint that was published under the title “A Living Economy for Greece.”
“Environmental protection is unfortunately still treated here as an unnecessary luxury, as a stumbling block to growth, or as an expendable product in the efforts to recoup the country's debt,” Karavellas said.
Stuck in a six-year recession, Greece is eager to attract investment to generate growth and jobs in its depressed economy. NGOs have repeatedly warned of an environmental rollback in the country and accused authorities of using the financial crisis as a pretext for easing laws and regulations designed to safeguard the natural environment.
Recent legislation tabled by the Environment Ministry relaxes the restrictions on building in public and private forests, even if they are considered protected areas. The draft law was slammed by a number of local NGOs, including WWF, who refused to take part in the public consultation process.
The WWF proposals call for greater transparency, the scrapping of tailor-made regulations and the simplification of Greece's notoriously nebulous legislation.
“Laws must be clear and well understood by everyone whether they are citizens, businesses or societies at large,” said Theodota Nantsou, environmental policy coordinator for WWF Greece, also calling for less bureaucracy and more financial incentives for green companies.
The organization put forward a number of far-reaching interventions in Greece's primary production – agriculture, livestock farming, forestry and fisheries – as well as directions for sustainable reforms in secondary production, i.e. industrial and manufacturing activity.
Greek industries must substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, promote energy efficiency and adopt resource efficient productive processes (like organic farming, recycling and sustainable waste management), said the report. WWF officials however warned that little will be achieved without a strong inspection system, while also calling for the introduction of the “polluter pays” principle.
“We want Greece to become the testing ground for this policy,” said Nantsou.
Tourism, which is Greece's biggest industry accounting for about 16 percent of GDP and one in five jobs in 2011, is also addressed in the report. The sector must maximize economic gains with the minimum possible level of damage to the natural habitat and cultural heritage, WWF officials said, warning against unchecked construction.
“We must promote investment in areas where construction has already taken place rather than build new facilities all over the country,” said Nantsou, emphasizing the need for innovative ideas.
The WWF official proposed the revival of deserted villages that could be put to use for tourism while ensuring that their historic character is preserved and with the lowest possible footprint. She offered the example of Gavros, a village of adobe (sun-dried clay) houses in the Western Macedonia region of Kastoria.
According to a recent Eurobarometer survey quoted in the press conference, the natural environment is the key factor in picking a tourism destination. Cultural heritage ranks second.
Training and education also feature high on the agenda of the conservation group, which recently announced a new interactive, grassroots campaign to promote a more sustainable lifestyle. The WWF'sKalyteri Zoi (Better Life) campaign, which is subsidized by the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, will debut on Thursday.
WWF said the report has already been made available to several Greek ministries and government agencies.
“We are not deluding ourselves. We just want to provide a framework and pursue anything that is possible for us to pursue,” Nantsou said.