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COVID-19 is the opportunity to speed up the environment agenda  

​Dimtrios Karnavos​

In this interview, Dimitrios Karnavos (EL/EPP) answers five questions on the 8th Environment Action Programme (EAP). The Mayor of Kallithea is the rapporteur for a draft opinion that requests adequate resources for local and regional authorities to implement environment policies on the ground. The draft opinion will be put to the vote at the next plenary session on 3-5 February after a general exploratory debate at the ENVE commission meeting on 1 February. While EU environment policies have delivered substantial benefits in the past decades, Europe still faces unprecedented environmental, climate and sustainability challenges. These include biodiversity loss, climate change, resource use and pollution. The 8th EAP is pivotal for tackling these challenges in a post COVID-19 era. 

From a local and regional perspective, what priorities should the 8th Environment Action Programme focus on?

The 8th Enviro​nment Action Programme provides a long-term strategic vision and guidance for achieving a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and sustainable economy by 2050, in line with the European Green Deal, the new EU strategy for achieving climate neutrality by mid-century. The 8th Environment Action Programme, alongside the six priority objectives described in the proposal, reflect the objectives and expectations of local and regional leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that a healthy living approach needs to be at the basis of all EU policies promoting human health, a healthy planet, a healthy economy and a healthy society with opportunities for everyone. In this context, a better link between health and environment is both fundamental and necessary. We need to ensure that the 8th EAP contributes to a toxic-free environment, provides better living standards for people and creates communities that are more resilient. We must also ensure that the 8th EAP promotes a sustainable business environment and fosters green investments at all levels (EU, national, regional and local). All this is needed if we want to have a stronger and sustainable EU in the post-COVID era.

How can the new EAP ensure better integration of environment and climate prerogatives with other EU sectoral policies? How is the 8th EAP connected to the European Green Deal?

Integrating environment and climate with other EU sectoral policies more effectively is not always easy, as different sectors have different priorities. Sometimes, even environment and climate policies themselves seem to work as opposing forces. For example, climate protection and carbon emission reduction policies promote the installation and operation of renewable energy projects. On the other hand, the particularly important policy of halting biodiversity loss and maintaining the cohesion of the Natura 2000 Network seems to clash, partly, with climate protection policy, for instance, when renewable energy projects are deployed and operated in protected areas. We must therefore be consistent and move in the same direction as we all face the same challenges. It is important to make the maximum use of available tools and methods so as to put in place a framework for ongoing monitoring and continuous improvement of environmental performance, including investments in environment and climate protection. We should also agree on a clear roadmap that will lead our journey to climate neutrality by 2050. As far as cities and regions are concerned, we must not forget that local and regional authorities have a special role to play in bringing together businesses, research institutes and academia as well as in engaging individuals and local stakeholders in designing and implementing environment policies.

How can we ensure that environment policies are fully implemented in all EU communities?

I certainly welcome the fact that the 8th EAP identifies more effective and efficient implementation as a key priority. In order to improve the implementation score, local and regional authorities should be equipped with the right instruments and adequate resources. We are responsible for implementing 70% of EU legislation, 90% of climate adaptation measures and 70% of climate mitigation actions. We need to have innovative approaches that empower local and regional authorities to provide tailor-made solutions to improve the implementation of environment policies on the ground, be it in urban, rural or mountain areas, islands or coastal zones. More research, data and knowledge are needed to address the specific environmental challenges we face and seize opportunities in different types of local and regional communities as each geographical area has its own challenges, weaknesses and strengths. Therefore, in my opinion on the 8th EAP, I call for a holistic, place-based or area-oriented approach as the best way to reach healthy living standards. We will not be successful if we do not put in place a functioning multilevel governance framework and encourage all levels of governance to promote cross-administrative, interregional, inter-municipal and cross-border cooperation on environment policies. We also need to strengthen the environmental knowledge base, harnessing the potential of digital and data technologies and increasing the use of nature-based solutions and social innovation to improve the implementation of environment objectives. For example, in Kallithea, the eighth largest municipality in Greece and the fourth biggest in the Athens urban area, we have implemented a project based on the use of digital technologies (iBeacons technology and Augmented Reality) to motivate residents and visitors to use sustainable forms of transport, such as walking and cycling, in order to reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality and highlight the need to preserve the city's historical and cultural heritage.

How can the 8th EAP help to ensure that local and regional communities in the EU have adequate resources to implement EU environment and climate policies in the framework of a COVID-19 green recovery?

As I mentioned, adequate resources are key if we are to implement environment and climate policies on the ground successfully. Resources include targeted financing and a clear legal framework but also administrative resources such as human expertise, capacity building, knowledge and sharing of best practices. The 8th EAP must develop an integrated framework to equip local and regional authorities with the right tools in line with the COVID-19 green recovery strategy. It must include incentives to move towards more ambitious environment policies, in particular for those that are lagging behind but also for those that are performing well so as to motivate them even further. I must admit that I regret the mismatch between the agreement on the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 and the 8th EAP. They should definitely be better coordinated. On the positive side, I am glad to see that the next EU budget places the climate and digital transitions at its core and that it has allocated 30% of both the EU's long-term budget and the NextGenerationEU package to fight climate change and that it also pays special attention to the environment and biodiversity. I hope that the 8th EAP will create the right framework for green and blue investments and innovation at all levels of governance. These are vital if we are to build resilient communities while creating growth and jobs in a fair and inclusive society based on solidarity. I also expect the 8th EAP to provide capacity-building instruments, a database of knowledge and best practices and incentives for city-to-city cooperation such as peer reviews and mutual learning activities, site visits and green twinning, to move the green recovery forward.

Concerning the impact of COVID-19 on the environment agenda, is it a barrier or an opportunity to speed up action?

It goes without saying that COVID-19 should be treated as an opportunity to accelerate the environment agenda. We have seen improved air quality, restoration of biodiversity and a general improvement in ecosystems during the last months. We should build on this. I welcome the fact that the EU plans a COVID-19 recovery that goes hand in hand with the green and digital transitions. Our local communities need to recover economically but in a sustainable and resilient way. What I think is important here is the need to improve our communication with individuals in order to have them on board as implementation can only be achieved with the full and daily engagement of everyone. We need to raise awareness of the benefits of climate, environment and biodiversity policies and demonstrate how these improve our health and wellbeing while making our local economies more sustainable and competitive.

Background Information:

Since the mid-1970s, EU environment policy has been guided by consecutive Environment Action Programmes (EAP), which define priority objectives to be achieved over a specific period of time. As the 7th EAP ended in 2020, the European Commission approved a proposal for the 8th EAP for the period up to 2030, aimed at complementing the European Green Deal.

The CoR has adopted legislative opinions on past EAPs. In 2019, the CoR adopted an own-initiative opinion entitled Towards an 8th Environment Action Programme led by rapporteur Cor Lamers (NL/EPP), Mayor of Schiedam. The opinion was supported by a dedicated study.

Building on the European Green Deal, the 8th EAP has six priority objectives. In order to measure and communicate whether the EU is on track to meet these objectives, the 8th EAP proposal suggests setting up a new monitoring framework.

The European Committee of the Regions and the European Commission cooperate closely to ensure the effective implementation and development of environment policies through the Technical Platform for Cooperation on the Environment.

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