Friday, 25 April 2008

Greece’s suspension from Kyoto

On April 17, the United Nations suspended Greece for three months from the emissions-trading scheme formed under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The unprecedented suspension, punishment for inaccurate reporting of carbon emissions, combines two of Greece's international hallmarks: lack of transparency in reporting and an apparently complete lack of concern for the environment.

The immediate problem with emissions reporting stems in part from the fact that the National Observatory of Athens, which until March last year was responsible for atmospheric measurements on the environment ministry's behalf, overestimated the emissions for 2004 by 37,000 tonnes. That alerted UN inspectors to a faulty algorithm, which, the ministry says, was corrected.

But since then, the UN remains unsatisfied as to the transparency of the method. In a December 2007 report, the UN Compliance Committee, which enforces the protocol, said its inspectors requested additional information "to determine whether the national system has the capacity to fulfil the mandatory function" of measuring emissions. By this time, measuring responsibility had moved to the National Technical University of Athens.

The report concluded that "the maintenance of the institutional and procedural arrangements, the arrangements for the technical competence of the staff and the capacity for timely performance of Greece's national system is an unresolved problem."

No international body embarrasses its members needlessly. The suspension suggests that, since December, Greece has simply ignored inspectors' concerns.

Practically, the suspension may not mean much at the moment, because European carbon trading for the 2008-12 period does not begin until the end of the year - so Greece has some time to correct its reporting deficiencies.

Politically and symbolically, however, the suspension means a great deal. It is another demonstration of untrustworthy numbers and lack of transparency of the Karamanlis administration.

The first international opprobrium came from the European Commission in 2004, when it put Greek public finances under supervision. Finance Minister George Alogoskoufis triggered a lack of confidence by upwardly revising post-1996 deficit and debt figures - not once but twice - revealing that Greece did not technically qualify to enter the eurozone. The revisions were justified as an exercise in bringing Greece into line with international accounting standards, but they were oversold politically.

The commission's 2004 warning to Greece bears an eerie resemblance to the UN's: it demanded "concrete measures to ensure the credibility of the entire statistical system, namely through the adoption of the highest standards as regards the independence, integrity and accountability of the national statistical service [NSS] and the reinforcement of the control and inspection capacities of Eurostat, the EU's statistical body."
The suspension is, more ominously, another result of the singular contempt in which Public Works Minister George Souflias holds the environment. In another area of deliberate and gross opacity, the environment ministry credited itself with recycling 90,000 tonnes worth of paper and plastic as refuse-derived fuel in 2004 and 2005, which, in fact, ended up being landfilled because the material did not qualify for industrial furnaces.

Souflias has also doggedly pursued the diversion of the Aheloos river into the Thessaly plain; 600 million tonnes of fresh water a year will presumably buy the conservative government votes and keep farmers in the environmentally self-destructive breadbasket of Greece in the subsidised cotton trade until 2013. The diversion has been turned down for funding from the European Union and stopped four times by Greece's Council of State on environmental grounds; but its component parts have been repackaged into new initiatives that must be legally reassaulted. Souflias revived the project for the fifth time by placing it as a rider on an unrelated land registry bill in July 2006.

Greece's environmental record was poor before Souflias. Greece was the last European Union member to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, and it did so within 24 hours of a May 31 deadline. It has taken a backseat approach to renewable solar, wind and geothermal energy, which the country has in abundance, producing 55 percent of its electricity from lignite instead.

Under Souflias, though, Greece has taken spectacular steps backwards, even as Europe has moved forwards. Souflias has never attended a European council of environment ministers. He was not only absent from December's round of UN climate talks in Bali, but failed to organise a representation under the deputy minister for the environment. His plan to convert the former Elliniko airport to a greenfield site involves construction for 20,000 inhabitants - a mistaken priority in a city already concentrating half the country's population.

Souflias' latest environmental initiative was to agree earlier this month to subsidise recycling in the country's two most populous municipalities - Athens and Piraeus - because their mayors say that running a separate collection service for recyclables will cost too much. The subsidy now threatens to bring 446 municipalities into open revolt against the agreements they have signed with the Hellenic Recycling Corporation, under which they are provided with blue bins, trucks and publicity in return for running the parallel collection services.

This newspaper called for Souflias' resignation almost two years ago, when he revived the Aheloos diversion. In the past two years Souflias has vindicated our position. He has failed to report honestly about recycling, doctoring the figures his ministry receives from the Hellenic Recycling Corporation and sending them up to Brussels inflated. He has failed to provide any initiative for renewable energy in collaboration with the finance and development ministries, meaning that Greece is on track to contravene its generous Kyoto allowance of a 25 percent increase in emissions since 1990. On his watch the country has suffered its worst single-year loss of forest cover ever (297,000 hectares), leaving carbon sinks to the mercy of natural regeneration. Souflias does not need to be proven unfit to serve as the head of this country's environmental monitoring and policymaking. He has proven it himself.

Friday, 18 April 2008

How migrants are fertilising a human and civil rights movement

IT IS popular to assume that as a homogenous society Greeks are callous towards the needs of non-Greeks living here. The bureaucratic problems immigrants face in securing residence permits, and Greece's appalling asylum record, usually claim the journalistic spotlight.

Yet the presence of migrants has acted as a catalyst for advocacy among Greeks to distinguish Greek ethnicity and nationality from four broad areas of rights: labour, citizenship, religious and student rights. This activity has emerged quietly and piecemeal, and gone largely unnoticed.

Last week, for instance, Left Coalition MP Fotis Kouvelis pointed out that under current laws European Union students have longer to finish a degree than third-country nationals. The distinction may have made sense before legal amendments in 2007 put an end to a Greek student's right to retake exams in perpetuity, resulting in enrolments lasting many decades. An unscrupulous migrant might easily have used academic leniency as a back door to residence (although such ingeniousness should surely qualify him as a Greek).

By removing nationality as a legitimate basis for such discrimination, Kouvelis is effectively promoting a higher right of equal opportunity in education. It is not only an eminently equitable proposal, but probably necessary if Greece aspires to export tertiary education.

Greeks are also advocating greater citizenship rights for non-Greeks. Our law recognises citizenship by blood, not place of birth. The Hellenic League for Human Rights last February suggested that that be changed. Its four main proposals include automatic citizenship for the grandchildren of immigrants and only perfunctory formalities for the children of immigrants with eight years of legal residence.

The league argues, correctly, that quite apart from the problem of stateless children being born in Greece, the current philosophy would recognise a citizen in a third-generation Greek-American who spoke not a word of Greek, but not in a Ghanaian who had never known any other country or school curriculum but the Greek. It is a fundamental separation of ethnicity from the political conferrance of citizenship, which was never an issue before mass migration to Greece.

Religion has been one of Greece's most marked areas of homogeny (98 percent of the population is Greek Orthodox), but its pervasiveness is being challenged. Last month a Greek lawyer won a case against the Athens Bar in the European Court of Human Rights.

The bar had forced him to declare that he was not of Greek Orthodox persuasion before allowing him to avoid the religious oath. The case was won on the technicality that the bar had no right to exact such a confession, but it effectively establishes the right to avoid a religious oath and it is only a question of time before that right is established as the default position for all secular institutions. Even the church may help in this direction under newly elected Archbishop Ieronymos, who is said to favour a separation of church and state.

The greatest area of rights advocacy by Greeks for non-Greek nationals, however, has been labour. The Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) has built a position that labour rights are universal and distinct from nationality.

For instance, when Pakistani fruit pickers in Marathon went on strike in 2002, GSEE supported their demands for 30 euros a day and 40 hours a week (they were working 12-hour days for as little as a euro an hour). GSEE has argued that its annual wage agreements should also apply to non-Greeks, and that they should also be fully enrolled in social security organisations.

Along with the civil servants' union, ADEDY, it has lobbied for the legalisation of all migrant workers as a means of offering them equal terms. When a Pasok government planned the country's first ever legalisation programme in 1997, unionists forced it to include Albanians and Bulgarians - the two most sizeable minorities - who were deliberately going to be left out.

GSEE dedicated an immigration secretariat to lobby the government to do more to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers and thus encouraging more illegal migration. It worked at the problem from the grassroots end as well, setting up an information centre to inform workers, including migrants, of their rights.

The unions have done all this as a means of limiting illegal immigration and evening the playing field with Greek workers, but also of securing the rights of all workers.

The Greek supreme court, Areios Pagos, took migrants' labour rights a step further. In a landmark ruling last November, it found in favour of two illegal Albanian immigrants who sued their employer for fair wages.

The precedent effectively means that employers of illegals must observe the General Collective Bargaining Agreement, under which employees are entitled to the monthly minimum salary of 657 euros and the right to overtime pay. As we report this week, the government has made it a priority to round up undocumented harvesters this summer (see article on page 14). Since the hiring of illegals carries a fine of up to 15,000 euros a head, while the law is being enforced (in the seasonal manner in which Greek law generally is) the risk to employers is high.

So not only is the right to fair treatment seen by the country's largest union umbrella organisations as equal for non-Greek and non-EU workers, but the law now upholds their right to equitable wages while punishing their employer for contracting them.

The result of these piecemeal actions is that Greeks are beginning to distinguish individual rights from nationality and ethnicity in a way that the relatively immigrant-free society of the 1980s never encouraged them to.

Credit can go to the European Union for anchoring Greece in international law; but much credit goes to conscientious Greek lawmakers, grassroots campaigns, honest unionists and judges, who have helped prove that justice can be blind. Their actions remind us that migrants have played a role in making Greece a better place.

Friday, 11 April 2008

The dearth of food

A basket of measurements shows that the world is moving towards sharply higher food prices, with serious implications for political stability in some areas. The United Nations dates this upturn to 2002, with a 65 percent rise over that period. The Economist reported last December that its food-price index had reached the highest point since it was begun, in 1845.

The sharpest rises were recorded last year, suggesting that the trend is accelerating; and they were recorded in basic grains that lie at the bottom of the food supply chain, meaning that they will in turn raise the cost of dairy products and meat. Wheat, for instance, doubled in price during 2007, according to the World Economic Forum's annual Global Risks Report, and corn rose by half. The UN reckons dairy prices jumped by 80 percent last year.

The causes are numerous. Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN's World Food Programme, outlined the four biggest to the European Parliament last month: the economic boom in China and India has so driven up demand for food that they must now import (India banned the export of all rice except high-value Basmati, the Financial Times reported at the beginning of this month); the production of biofuels, particularly palm oil and corn for ethanol, have diverted food production to energy production; the rise in oil prices has pushed up the cost of harvesting, refrigerating and transporting food; and climate change is hurting agricultural production with drought and extreme weather.

All of these problems are driven by an unprecedented global population, set to reach nine billion by mid-century. Humanity is food and energy hungry and, increasingly able to buy both, returns more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. "This is not a this-year phenomenon," World Bank president Robert Zoellick told journalists earlier this month, echoing a growing consensus. "I think it is going to continue for some time."

Greece and the rest of Europe are not so much threatened by food shortage as an influx of refugees from poverty-stricken or destabilised areas. Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to suffer most, both because it is at risk of drought and because the cost of providing food aid will rise. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) earlier this year asked donor nations for an extra $600 million just to meet its scheduled food aid purchases.

Still, the WFP has the right idea. It has asked nations to switch from providing food to providing cash, which it can then spend buying food grown nearer to where it's needed. That cuts transport costs and supports farmers in the developing world. The approach demonstrates the value of encouraging food production in the developing world, which European and American agricultural subsidies help to stifle. It is, as The Economist opined, an opportunity for the EU and US to revisit agricultural liberalisation, a major obstacle to completing the so-called Doha round of talks under the World Trade Organisation.

The developed world should also rethink biofuels. As abhorrent as the use of fossil fuels is, biofuels may release as much as 420 times the carbon dioxide they do if one takes into account the expansion of farmland at the expense of forests that they encourage (the estimate was published in the journal Science last January). That is a view echoed by EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, but he has stuck to his goal of a tenth of transport energy to come from biofuels by 2020.

Some observers take comfort in the fact that the market will inevitably react to demand and invest in food supply, hopefully making the problem go away. That could be a double-edged sword, however, if it leads to reclamation of greater amounts of forestland. The strain on ocean supplies of food mirrors that on land, as our report on declining Aegean fisheries demonstrates (see pages 6-7). The world needs to produce less and consume more equitably. If the increase in population and affluence in China and India demonstrate anything, they surely demonstrate that.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Back in the game

Greece showed that it can learn from its copious past at the Nato summit in Bucharest, reversing mistakes in the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

It embarked with reasoned arguments, in contrast to the belligerent nationalism of 1992. Its three parameters - a geographically qualified Macedonia that doesn't claim Greek territory, universally applied and ratified by the United Nations Security Council - do not overreach and would restore existing terms Fyrom has transgressed.

Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis placed well-articulated positions in Western newspapers, and her ministry fed the World Council of Hellenes Abroad a non-rabid page advertisement. Fyrom's anti-Greek propaganda, by contrast, seemed to confirm its territorial aspirations, and the Greeks played that up.

Second, Greece established a united front in the government and parliament, in contrast to the near-collapse of the Mitsotakis government in 1993. George Papandreou distinguished himself from his father, Andreas, who, as opposition leader, had baited the Mitsotakis government with charges of anaemia. Bakoyannis kept in close consultation with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, in contrast with her predecessor, Antonis Samaras, who had ridden the wave of nationalism to undermine her father's government.

Third and most important, Greece made official its acceptance of a composite name containing the M-word, something that gained it at least six supporters and five declarations of sympathy from the alliance - a far cry from the international isolation or indifference of the past 14 years.

Standing up to the American juggernaut was possible partly thanks to the unpopularity of George W Bush's foreign policy and the most welcome end of his presidency. Nato did not comply with his wishes to invite Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan, and only France increased its contribution to the mission in Afghanistan. The allies agreed to the installation of a missile defence umbrella over Europe that Americans will pay for and whose inability to intercept a missile seems to perturb no-one. It was a well-chosen moment for Greece - a loyal American ally - to be heard.

New Democracy owes something to Greece's Turkish experience. Having expressed disappointment that the lifting of a veto to Turkish European Union candidacy in 1999 did not lead to reciprocal goodwill gestures that would resolve territorial disputes in the Aegean and reunify Cyprus, Greece decided to play tough - something it does not often do.

New Democracy also owes something to low expectations. World media have buried Greece in years of criticism over what they consider an arcane issue of history and pride, and not a matter of national security at all; and Greek officials played down the chances of a last-minute deal.

The conservatives even owe something to right wing leader George Karatzaferis, whose appearance in the September 2007 election race did much to prompt Karamanlis' incipient promise of a veto during a televised debate.

With its most important diplomatic victory in years, Greece has reversed a stereotype of ineffectiveness. In 2002 it asked for accession of Cyprus to the European Union with or without a political resolution and got it; this time it asked for the exact opposite and got it again. These antidotes to repeated disappointments from Skopje and Ankara justify Greeks' faith in the European Union, not the United States or United Nations, as the best political court of justice.

It is now going to be Greece's job to sustain momentum for a name solution within its stated parameters. Fyrom has only ever showed up to negotiations with its constitutional name, "Republic of Macedonia". When threatened with compromise, it has successfully played on its weakness - a militant ethnic Albanian minority - as a strength. On this basis it rejected the ethnic designation Slavo-Macedonia (Albanians are not Slavs), and continues to propagate the myth of a Macedonian ethnicity (other ancient Greek racial designations such as Ionian, Doric, Aetolian and Lakonian are equally meaningless today); and it successfully avoided the UN-sponsored process diplomacy altogether since an Albanian insurgency nearly split the country in 2001.

After Bucharest Fyrom's internal problems can only increase, but until it decides to do something more constructive than playing the nuisance card or portraying the Greeks as Nazis, Greece must distinguish itself with goodwill and creativity in the UN. That body has proven vulnerable to stonewalling both in the case of Fyrom and of Cyprus; but having proven its willingness to draw lines and defend them, Greece may one day inspire its most influential ally, the US, to support genuine goodwill. More realistically, it might get its European allies with permanent seats on the Security Council to prompt the equitable end to the affair that now seems within reach.