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Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner For The Environment, Oceans And Fisheries

Balancing The Green Agenda With Other Global Crises

Multiple crises have brought security, energy and EU competitiveness to the political forefront. While concerns about the burden of the green agenda on citizens and businesses are valid, we must tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution as existential threats by taking the kind of decisive action recommended by the European Green Deal

As the world faces a triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, compounded by excessive resource use, it has become clear that it is necessary to fundamentally transform our economic model in order to address these challenges. However, with headlines dominated by other pressing global issues, such as inflation, slow GDP growth and conflicts, the importance of environmental action risks being overshadowed. That’s why we asked Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, to share his thoughts on the ups and downs of addressing these crucial issues at both global and local levels. In this CorD Magazine interview, we delve into the challenges and opportunities facing environmental policies today, as well as exploring the glass that is both half full and half empty.

Is there climate fatigue nowadays, when the world is preoccupied dealing with inflation, slow GDP growth and war in the EU’s neighbourhood? How do we fight back?

We can’t deny the severity of any of these crises. The war in Ukraine and the energy crisis has brought security, energy, food prices and EU competitiveness right to the top of the political agenda. It’s no surprise to hear people asking us to slow the pace with the green agenda and find ways to avoid additionally burdening citizens and businesses. Those concerns are totally legitimate and have to be addressed. But – and this is very important – we can’t deny the severity of the other crises either. Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are all existential threats. Climate change is here and we have to tackle it. That means determined action to deliver resilience; action of the type recommended by the European Green Deal.

So, it would be an unforgivable mistake to allow the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its consequences to stop the implementation of the European Green Deal. And I like to think that there is a shared understanding that the European Green Deal is part of the solution. We have lost a lot of time and there is still resistance to change, but we are also witnessing a rising wave of public support and awareness of what’s at stake.

When you look back at what the EU has already done when it comes to addressing climate change, what brings you a sense of satisfaction and what do you view as some of the more worrying issues?

I am satisfied that Europe showed strong leadership. We presented the European Green Deal and its far-reaching legal proposals, we stuck with them in the face of Covid, war and economic headwinds, and we saw others taking notice and following our approach. We have shown, for many years now, that it is possible to cut emissions and grow our economy at the same time. This has given hope and inspiration to others around the world. My worry is that for all the progress we have made on climate and energy issues, we still face a tough battle to harmonise our critical laws on nature protection. These two issues cannot be separated. You cannot fight the climate crisis without also tackling the biodiversity crisis. With species loss, deforestation, soil harm and warming oceans, we will struggle to sustain lives and livelihoods. We must also reach agreement on these policies as soon as possible.

Do you feel alone given that COP 28 is seemingly getting much less attention than COP 27, or has the general public failed to fully grasp the efforts and goals of the forthcoming summit?

No, Europe is less alone than ever before on climate. We are already working towards COP28 with our partners around the world. The recent G7 meeting of climate, environment and energy ministers was an important milestone. We committed to accelerating our work on tackling plastic pollution, deploying renewable energy and green transport, to give just a few examples. We will also work with the G20 and other allies to bring us to a successful outcome at COP28. This year will be the first Global Stocktake of the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is a critical juncture for us to agree on what needs to be done to keep the 1.5 °C temperature change limit within reach. Every fraction of a degree over that does greater harm to our planet. The world understands that. Now we need to agree on how to stop it.

Climate change and falling biodiversity don’t recognise boundaries or borders. When it comes to the EU’s close neighbourhood, i.e., candidate countries, do you see enough vigilance?

For a long time, action on environmental issues was not necessarily viewed as a political priority in the EU and the neighbourhood. Fortunately, this is changing. There is increasing recognition that measures for cleaner air and water, effective waste management and biodiversity protection benefit not only public health and wellbeing, but also provide a significant contribution to the economy. The European Green Deal – the EU’s manifesto to transform the EU into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy – recognises that climate change and environmental degradation are existential threats to Europe and the world.

You cannot fight the climate crisis without also tackling the biodiversity crisis. With species loss, deforestation, soil harm and warming oceans, we will struggle to sustain lives and livelihoods. We must also reach agreement on these policies, as soon as possible

The EU’s ambitious agenda has also been embraced by the Western Balkans, with regional leaders endorsing a declaration and action plan to align with the EU Green Deal’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. While good progress has been made by the Western Balkan countries on implementing these ambitious roadmaps, there is certainly room for further improvement. Across the region, there is an increasing appreciation of the finite nature of the resources available to us and the need to deal with them in a more sustainable way. The focus on developing a circular economy in both Montenegro and Serbia, for example, is a key element of this. In order to reduce pollution, air quality monitoring systems need to be improved and EU industrial pollution and risk management legislation, including the Industrial Emissions Directive, is challenged by limited capacities and investments. Further commitments have been made on water management, on soil and nature protection and biodiversity, but those commitments need to be developed further.

So, progress is being made, but more efforts are needed. Western Balkan countries need to effectively integrate environmental objectives into other policy areas – such as agriculture, transport or urban development – for a coherent approach to ensure more fundamental change.

After passing important regulations when it comes to environment and climate change, what should Serbia do to be in line with the EU goals?

To become an EU Member State, countries must align their national laws with those of the EU. This is a process that requires wide-ranging changes at national, regional and local levels. For the environment, this includes changes to laws on water, waste, biodiversity, air and chemicals, among others. After adopting the necessary laws, the challenge is to effectively implement them. This means ensuring the necessary administrative systems and staff are available, and the physical infrastructure – where appropriate – is in place.

Serbia needs to significantly enhance the capacity of administrative bodies at all levels and improve coordination. Serbia also needs to demonstrate that all appropriate administrative structures and adequate training will be in place well before accession, in order to enable the implementation and enforcement of EU environmental laws.

As we’ve seen with former candidate countries, this is a long process requiring both political will and financial investment. But establishing legislation for citizens and the environment that can be robustly and fairly enforced and relied upon is at the heart of the enlargement process.

We read that, as of 2024, the European Commission will require companies in Europe to back up climate-friendly claims about their products with evidence, to stamp out misleading green labels for products from clothing to cosmetics and electronic goods. How well are companies in the EU generally responding to the goals laid down in the Green deal?

Tackling the triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, compounded by our excessive use of resources, requires a radical shift in our economic model, changing the way we produce and consume. Businesses have a crucial role to play in this shift, in the EU, the neighbourhood and worldwide. Consumers want to play their part as well, but to do that effectively, they need reliable information. We want consumers to get information that’s reliable and verifiable, through environmental labels that are more transparent and easier to understand. And we’re improving legal certainty for companies, as well as levelling the playing field on the internal market. That will boost the competitiveness of businesses that are striving to increase the environmental sustainability of their products and activities. It also creates cost-saving opportunities for those engaging in cross-border trade.

Western Balkan countries need to effectively integrate environmental objectives into other policy areas – such as agriculture, transport or urban development – for a coherent approach to ensure more fundamental change

On the more general point about how companies are responding to the Green Deal, let me give you one example. Half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature and the resources it provides, but nature has always been invisible in economic equations. This is now beginning to change, with a number of green deal initiatives that reinvent accounting – the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation is now in place, and detailed rules are on the way for the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. The Taxonomy Regulation will soon include criteria for environmental sustainability. And companies are responding: just a few weeks ago, ten leading international business networks signed a letter strongly supporting ambitious nature restoration in Europe. They understand the importance and urgency of the situation. Businesses need a clear policy direction. The Green Deal provides exactly that, and it’s being welcomed on those grounds.

Which tools are at your disposal, and ours, when it comes to the work in the Western Balkans, where we see many foreign companies being relaxed about following imposed environmental rules?

This question comes back to the importance of effectively implementing legislation. A transparent and robust enforcement system is key to ensuring that relevant laws are applied fairly. On the environment, this is more difficult where it concerns “public goods” – air, water or wildlife, for example – and strong public administration is key. In this context, NGOs can also play an important role, as they represent the public interest in identifying a lack of compliance.

In that respect, do you follow current developments when it comes to plans for lithium extraction in Serbia or ongoing plans for more robust plans with regard to mining? How well is Serbia aligned with the principles of green mining, processing, production, reuse and recycling?

Serbia is a candidate country and is currently in the accession process. Our Delegation in Belgrade is in regular contact with Serbian authorities. While we do not specifically monitor developments related to lithium extraction in Serbia, we expect candidate countries to adhere to the environmental, social and governance rules that are applicable in the EU.

We have taken note of the recent updates to the relevant legislative framework, specifically the adoption of a new mining law on 21st April 2021. This law supports the sustainable development of the mining sector by ensuring compliance with EU regulations on environmental protection and guidelines set forth by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) regarding the environment, health and safety.

You were quoted as saying that, with climate, we are probably ten years ahead of where we are with biodiversity policies. What makes the latter harder to negotiate and understand?

The biodiversity crisis is as bad as the climate crisis. We are risking the extinction of a million species in the next decades if we don’t act urgently. The impact of the climate crisis is generally understood – dangerous sea level rises, floods and droughts, extreme weather events – whereas this is much less the case with the biodiversity crisis. We have to realise that much of our economy, not least our food system, depends on nature. Food crops, freshwater, timber, fish, medicines…

All of those depend on ecosystem services that come free of charge, provided we stop destroying our environment. What’s more, nature is our first and best ally in the fight against climate change. Mangroves protect coastal areas from flooding. Healthy soils prevent desertification. Trees, peatlands and sea grasses absorb much of the greenhouse gas emissions. Biodiverse forests are much more resistant to wildfires. And so on.

We have to realise that much of our economy, not least our food system, depends on nature. Food crops, freshwater, timber, fish, medicines… All of those depend on ecosystem services that come free of charge, provided we stop destroying our environment

That’s why we launched a proposal for a nature restoration law, which EU Member States and the European Parliament are currently discussing. And that’s why it is so important that the level of ambition from our proposal is kept high. Last year in Montréal, after five years of negotiations, more than 190 countries, including Serbia, managed to adopt a global agreement to protect and restore nature. So, on a general level, the political consensus is already there. We now need to walk the walk and make sure that it is implemented quickly and with determination.

How well do the EU and Serbia cooperate when it comes to preserving biodiversity?

At the regional level, the EU and Serbia are cooperating closely to establish a system of areas to protect important habitats and species, known as the Emerald Network. At the same time, at the global level, the EU and Serbia are both party to the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and were involved in drawing up an ambitious set of goals and targets to halt biodiversity loss, adopted last year. The agreement – known as the Kunming- Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – aims to protect and restore nature, ensure its sustainable use and spur investments for a green global economy. Close transboundary cooperation between the EU, Serbia and other countries in the Western Balkan region is key to ensuring effective protection for its habitats and species.

MISTAKE

It would be an unforgivable mistake to allow the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its consequences to stop the implementation of the European Green Deal

HOPE

We have shown, for many years now, that it is possible to cut emissions and grow our economy at the same time. This has given hope and inspiration to others around the world

CONSENSUS

Every fraction of a degree over1.5 °C does greater harm to our planet. The world understands that. Now we need to agree on how to stop it

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