Category Archives: environment

A bite of the Apple

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s always interesting to step back and try to work out what it is that makes otherwise calm and collected people suddenly lose their sense of proportion and temporarily mislay their faculties. The death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs last week was one such moment. The outpouring of grief and praise that followed his sad demise is usually reserved for statesmen and do-gooders of the highest order. Although a supremely talented individual, Jobs was neither.

There was something unnerving about the fact that thousands of admirers, and bandwagon riders, heaped adulation on Steve Jobs the man because of the objects he helped create. Those who came to praise him will argue that Jobs changed the concept of computing, technology, marketing, business and, ultimately, how we live. It’s difficult to argue against that; Apple had a rare knack of inventing the future before its competitors and staking a claim to the most imaginative plots of thinking in our minds.

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The climate change threat vs the growth conundrum

Photo by Theresa Cua - ASEF

Budapest – It is an indication of how pervasive the threat of climate change has become that the foreign ministers of some of the world’s most powerful and wealthy countries should address it as a “security challenge,” albeit a “non-traditional” one. Climate change, along with nuclear safety, terrorism, piracy and organized crime were among the topics discussed by the diplomats when they met for the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Godollo, near Budapest in Hungary, on June 6 and 7.

However, it was climate change more than any other issue that fed into the various strands of the debate between the Asian and European ministers. Consider, for instance, some of the other topics now regarded as “non-traditional security challenges”: energy security, food and water security, inclusive growth and poverty reduction. These are all issues that are affected in one way or another by the environmental debate.

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Maintaining momentum in the climate change debate

I have been fortunate to take part for the past two days in the 6th Asia-Europe Journalists’ Seminar in Szentendre, Hungary, which has been organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) in conjunction with the 10th ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

Our main topic of discussion has been the climate change debate and the role that the media can or should play in it. The meeting has provided a fascinating insight into the often different but sometimes converging views and experiences of climate change in Europe and Asia. It is clear that the need for action on both continents is becoming more urgent by the day. It is equally clear that the media has to play a role in informing the public about the growing challenges and opportunities that are emerging on both sides of the globe.

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Creating a climate for change

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Over the last few months, Greeks have become accustomed to the idea that they need to adjust the way they live in order to survive. In the years to come this may stand them in good stead among their European peers when it comes to environmental, not just economic issues, because the European Commission’s latest targets for emissions cuts are going to require serious changes to daily lives across the continent.

After extensive economic modeling, the Commission earlier this month adopted a “roadmap” for transforming Europe into a competitive low-carbon economy. The proposal, which is now being put to member states, MEPs and EU leaders, calls for an 80 percent reduction in bloc emissions — compared to 1990 levels — by 2050. Unsurprisingly, there is intense debate over whether this target is ambitious enough.

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The power of four

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

If scientists could find a way to measure people’s units of thought, they would discover that the British think in pints, the French in grams, the Germans in euros, the Italians in kilometers per hour and the Greeks in “stremmata.”

One “strema” is equivalent to 1,000 square meters, or 0.1 of a hectare, and it’s the yardstick that many Greeks use to measure their social status, their wealth and their happiness. If you have plenty of stremmata in your name, the thinking goes, you and your children are set for life. It’s like real estate kryptonite to ward off any unwelcome financial surprises life may throw at you.

It’s the fact that the concept of owning land and homes is rooted so deeply in the modern Greek psyche that led to the MPs on Parliament’s environmental affairs committee rising up in unison last week against Environment Minister Tina Birbili’s attempt to rein in construction in conservation areas. They unleashed a hell-like fury when Birbili dared to bring before them a bill that would ban landowners who possess less than 1 hectare (10 stremmata) of land from building in areas protected by the European Union’s Natura 2000 program – a network designed to protect threatened habitats and species.

Environmental groups backed the idea but Birbili was left standing alone like a wetland reed being blown one way and then another by the furious MPs who felt her 1-hectare limit was much too harsh. They demanded that this restriction be reduced to 4 stremmata, or 0.4 hectares. This lower figure was not just plucked out of the air: In Greece, four is the magic number. The law allows anybody who owns 4 stremmata of land to build on it, regardless of whether the area is within the town plan or not. The apparent logic behind this is that it’s better to have a few people building huge monstrosities rather than having lots of them building small ones.

Four stremmata is landowning nirvana because it allows each Greek to build his oversized, distasteful cement block of a castle without regard for the state, the community or his neighbors. It’s perhaps the most selfish and shortsighted piece of legislation in this country’s vast but dilapidated legal framework.

The lawmakers who proposed this amendment to Birbili’s law came up with a novel way of defending their reluctance to part company with the 4-stremmata rule – even in areas that need environmental protection. They claimed that tougher building regulations would choke any potential for growth. How will people in rural areas or on islands, where, by definition, most Natura 2000 areas are located, be able to build hotels, tavernas, shops, factories and whatever else they need to make a living if the law doesn’t allow them to do so? Some MPs gave the example of Alonissos: The small island in the Sporades is one of six in the EU that is completely protected by the Natura directive.

It’s a cunning argument because no government wants to be seen as deterring entrepreneurship or the potential for growth, especially one navigating its way through an economic crisis. However, the ferocity with which both PASOK and New Democracy MPs met Birbili’s proposal suggests that narrow, not broader, interests were uppermost in their minds. It suggests these deputies didn’t want to be the ones who would have to return to their constituencies and explain why locals could no longer build the three-story lopsided villa they had promised their children or why the taverna owner cannot locate his business so close to the sea that fish jump straight into the frying pan.

The feebleness of the MPs’ argument underlines how egotistical and myopic their position is. After all, not every Greek island is like Alonissos, where building would be severely limited under Birbili’s initial proposal. It’s hardly the yardstick to judge the rest of Greece by. Also, the fixation with linking construction to growth is a remnant of the thinking that led Greece to the economic dead-end it finds itself in today – where every rule was bent and every policy molded to favor the construction sector in the hope it would drive the economy. It is incumbent upon Greece to adopt a smarter approach to creating jobs and revenue; for instance, to ditch the monolithic hotel complex in favor of the versatile ecotourism destination.

The lawmakers’ inability to countenance anyone infringing on Greeks’ sacred right to build where, when and how they want was enough to send political newcomer Birbili back to her drawing board. With the pressure of all the political parties, including her own, bearing down on her, the environment minister caved in and reduced the limit for building in Natura areas to 4 stremmata – in other words, the exact same criteria that exist in any other part of the country.

The European Commission says that the aim of the Natura network of nature protection areas “is to assure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats.” Legal experts have pointed out that the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court, is likely to block the second version of Birbili’s legislation for the very simple reason that if an area is designated “protected,” then the laws that apply there cannot be the same as in other parts of the country. It seems straightforward logic that the rules in such an area should be tougher than elsewhere. But then again, it’s difficult to think straight when you only have stremmata on your mind.

This commentary by Nick Malkoutzis appeared in Kathimerini English Edition and on on January 28, 2011.