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.

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