European Perspectives: Climate Protection from London to Skopje

, by Andrea Joveski , Charlotte Felthöfer, Julia Bernard, Rafaela Xanthoula Ayadi, Translated by Carol van Buren

European Perspectives: Climate Protection from London to Skopje
A hazy view over the Skopje valley. Image by Larry C. Price. Macedonia, 2018

Rafaela Xanthoula Ayadi, Greece

“Compared to other European countries, Greece has changed and implemented relatively little so far, in terms of climate protection. Until now, the country has been subject to numerous fines because it has illegally dumped waste in landfills – a violation of EU regulations. In 2016, for example, Greece was sentenced by the European Court of Justice to a fine of 10 million euros for delaying the implementation of an EU law controlling waste disposal. Greece produces around one million tonnes of plastic waste per year. Of this, it is estimated that only 18% is recycled, which is well below the European average of 30%. Some of this waste ends up in the Mediterranean, among other places.

The first measures to combat this problem were put in place early in 2018. Now, just as in the UK, retailers are charging for plastic bags. Since 2019, supermarkets have also started to get rid of the plastic bags in their fruit and vegetable departments. As an alternative, fruit nets are available instead.

Additionally, the Greek island Paros is trying to become the first plastic-free island in the Mediterranean. To this end, the project “Clean Blue Paros” was launched last spring. The island’s efforts are being supported by a somewhat smaller organisation called Common Seas, whose aim is to reduce plastic pollution in the sea. The project is also endorsed by many local shops on the island, which no longer offer single-use plastic such as straws and plastic cutlery to tourists and locals, but instead have switched to environmentally friendly alternatives. Similar initiatives were already adopted on other islands.

In November 2019, the Greek government announced that the country plans to spend 44 billion euros on renewable energy over the next decade. The aim is to close all coal-fired power stations in the next eight years and to increase the use of wind, solar and hydroelectric power to at least 35 percent by 2035. With numerous windy coastal and mountainous areas and high levels of sunshine, the country is ideally placed to make this transition.

For some time now, schoolchildren and young people in Greece have been taking to the streets to protest against climate change. Nevertheless, the Greeks should pursue a stronger and more committed climate policy, as they themselves are increasingly affected by the consequences of climate change every year - especially from forest fires like last year, when more than 100 people died in a fire north of Athens.”

Andrea Joveski, North Macedonia

“Northern Macedonia has also woken up and joined the global climate protests. Under the slogan loosely translated as”Enough is Enough“, environmental activists joined together to create #GreenRevolution (#ЗеленаРеволуција) and organised the”March for Clean Air" on 29th November 2019. Air pollution is a very real issue throughout the whole of North Macedonia. The cities, especially the capital city, achieve worldwide records for fine dust pollution, especially in the winter months.

The protests are mainly directed towards the government’s almost complete unwillingness to take environmental and climate protection seriously. The extremely high level of air pollution in the capital city of Skopje is a result of the wholly inadequate infrastructure, the haphazard development of every free space in the city, which is located in a valley basin, and also the poverty of the people who try to save costs by burning everything combustible to keep warm, including rubber and plastic.

Despite negative reports from the EU, almost nothing has been done to remedy the situation. According to studies, air pollution is responsible for more than 1300 deaths a year. One ray of hope is that trends in air and environmental pollution are now being monitored more closely and data is being collected. This data highlights, for example, that most households are still not connected to the city’s central heating system, something that many citizens simply cannot afford.

Unfortunately, environmental protection, corruption scandals, the absence of the rule of law and increasing poverty levels do not rank very highly on the list of North Macedonian priorities, neither among decision-makers nor among citizens. At the moment there is only a professed interest, sustainability remains a foreign word. And yet, public pressure from civil society is increasing. It is foreseeable that one day the state will be forced to take real measures in the interest of climate and environmental protection, partly in order to achieve its declared goal of joining the EU but mainly for the sake of the people and their future".

Julia Bernard, France

"In 2015, France hosted the UN Climate Change Conference, which represented a milestone in climate policy with the Paris Convention. In many of his speeches, President Macron stressed the urgency of climate change. The subject has also gained considerable attention in the media.

France’s international commitments have been followed by growing public interest: the French Greens suddenly became the third strongest force in the European elections with 13.5 percent, thus joining the European-wide trend towards green movements. Also noteworthy is the evolution of traffic in France’s most densely populated region (Île-de-France), where the use of cars has fallen by 5 percent for the first time.

A number of surveys confirm that climate change is a central issue for most French people. However, these surveys also reveal that 71 percent of those surveyed regard current government environmental measures as inadequate. Despite the fact that the president himself and his party La République En Marche often present themselves as being emphatically climate and ecologically friendly, the domestic political balance sheet is only moderately green. Macron’s plan to reconcile economic growth with environmental recovery is worrying many Greens.

In France, the gilets jaunes (or ‘yellow vest’) movement is one of the main reasons for the failure to implement climate policy effectively - even if this can also be attributed to various other factors. The increase in the CO2 tax was actually intended to be an efficient climate policy measure in accordance with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. However, this measure lacked the socio-political compensation mechanisms, so that anger spread in an already socio-economically disadvantaged class and the increase had to be postponed until further notice. According to climate change activists, this was a good initiative, but the lack of a social policy meant that its implementation was poor.

Even though interest in climate and ecological issues has experienced an enormous boost in recent years, the subject suffers from its own complexity and diversity when it comes to the general public - as is the case in most countries. Now, climate is being viewed from the most diverse standpoints: between the multitude of studies, political ecology, social and legal manifestations - even French media are often overwhelmed. As a result, the media sometimes find this topic difficult to deal with.

Although France lagged behind for a long time, when compared internationally, the growing ecological awareness is now also evident in everyday life: French people are buying more and more organic products, going to plastic-free supermarkets and riding bicycles. Government initiatives for more ecological alternatives, such as the purchase of e-bikes, solar panels or electric cars, are also being increasingly taken advantage of.

Thus, in terms of climate policy, France stands out for its international symbolism at COP25 and its growing environmental awareness (the Greens in the European elections and consumer behaviour in France). France has experienced first-hand the complexity of climate policy and the importance of its social dimension. It remains to be seen whether Macron will actually be able to live up to his highly announced ecological measures.” 

Charlotte Felthöfer, Germany

“Climate change has been on everyone’s lips since the launch of”Fridays for Future" and the European elections, in which the Greens scored a record 20.5 percent.

In a survey conducted by the Forsa Research Institute in Summer 2019, 37 percent of Germans say that climate change is the most important issue for them and that they want this to be at the top of the political agenda. Among 18 to 42-year-olds, the figure is even higher at 42 percent. However, there are major differences between West and East Germany. In the Eastern states, 36 percent of citizens see immigration as the greatest challenge, while climate protection is in second place with 28 percent. 22 percent of German voters would currently vote for the Greens in the Bundestag elections, putting them in second place behind the Christian Democrats.

The climate movement ‘Fridays for Future’ is exceptionally popular in Germany. For example, during the global climate strike on 20th September 2019, in Germany alone 1.4 million people took to the streets. As a reaction to the growing environmental awareness in large parts of the German population, the black-red government [Christian Democrats in coalition with the Social Democrats] has now presented the first German climate protection law in which CO2-saving measures for each sector have been specified and made binding.

However, 53 percent of the eligible voters in Germany already found the first version of the climate package to be inadequate, while the second version of the climate package contains even more watered-down measures. Even in the German media, the issue of climate protection is a hotly debated topic on all sides. Whereas Spiegel magazine denounces the climate policy of the black-red coalition as an embarrassment and disaster, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung criticises the climate rescue plan’s economy laws, which have damaged the German economy.

Even though the majority of the German population supports and demands a stricter climate policy, an ambivalent picture emerges on an individual level: although meat consumption has already fallen slightly to 60 kilograms per capita, German airports have posted record figures and the Facebook group “Fridays for Hubraum” (Fridays for Motor Engines) has gathered together more than 562,000 citizens who are worried about not being able to use their private cars in the future.

So, as far as Germany is concerned, the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement have not yet been achieved either by political determination or by a fundamental change in the consumer behaviour of individuals.”

Update: Environmentalists announced last week (15th January 2020) that they had filed two lawsuits at Germany’s highest court, accusing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government of failing to protect basic rights through its ‘weak’ climate protection law.

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