Focus on renewable energy sources
Athens Plus, 20 November 2009

Tina Birbili's agenda as the country's first minister for the environment, energy and climate change includes plans for Athens that have been heard in the past but which she seems determined to carry out - opening up the seafront, creating more pedestrian walkways and continuing the program of unifying the city's archaeological sites.

In this interview, she also talks about plans for developing renewable energy sources and restricting illegal construction on the islands as some of her ministry's priorities.

What can be done to change Athens?
We have to take action in areas we believe are important. The seafront has to be connected to the city itself and provide opportunities for recreation. Another way to change things is to provide support for activities within the city, with a reduction in traffic, connecting the archaeological sites but also with narrow pedestrian streets and cycle paths leading to wider pedestrian streets. The city center should be for walking.

Concerns have been voiced about having the portfolios for the environment and energy under the same roof.
At first that also concerned me but it is the trend in Europe. We can't meet our targets for 20-20-20 [20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 20 percent increase in energy efficiency and in renewable energy sources (RES) as percentage of total energy production] by 2020 if we don't approach issues of energy and climate change as part of the environment.

How will you get the question of RES off the ground?
It is a challenge for the government and myself personally. We will be reviewing the entire legislative framework; We have to simplify procedures and reduce the amount of time needed to make an investment. We will make some small changes to the zoning framework for RES and look at applications on a case-by-case basis.

Many are concerned about the effect of wind farms on the landscape in protected areas.
First of all, no development is allowed in the core areas of Natura regions. I understand islanders' concerns about their landscape. Nevertheless, I think wind turbines are beautiful, an evolution of wind- mills. It is just a question of scale. We will have to see just where and how many wind turbines will be sited on each island. But do we want clean energy for our islands from wind farms or do we want to keep internal combustion engines?

Isn't it utopian to talk about a "green" Public Power Corporation, the biggest polluter in Greece?
We are not talking about a "green" PPC but one that can be both profitable and clean. PPC has to play a large part in the development of RES. We are waiting for proposals from its subsidiary, PPC Renewables.

Secondly, we have to have cleaner lignite-burning power plants through a major modernization program. As a society, we can't have PPC paying for carbon emissions and not for cleaner power plants.

There are funds for PPC investments; the question is how to use them. I want to reiterate the government's commitment to freezing public utility costs for a year. Electricity bills have to reflect the real energy cost.

There is money for the environment and for energy. What is needed is an overall political decision regarding where to focus development through the National Strategic Reference Framework (ESPA) and the Cohesion Fund. The ESPA program is behind schedule but we have begun to set priorities. We are also restricted by the situation left by the previous government, such as the fact that the Thessaloniki metro expansion has been included in funding for RES. It is an important project but has nothing to do with RES.

We also want the program for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development (ETERPS) to become a major green fund exclusively for environmental priorities under a new principle - absolute transparency about where the money goes.

How can you convince businesses not to pollute when it's cheaper for them to pay the fines than to change their methods?
That is a difficult issue and has to do with the mentality of the nation. We have upgraded the environment inspectors from a service to a general secretariat. It is understaffed, a problem throughout the public sector, but there is also the political will to deal with cases of unrestricted pollution without the imposition of fines.

Fines have been imposed but not collected. That has to end. One of the [inspectorate's] first tasks will be to study the Asopos River diversion to see how fines can be collected and pollution restricted.

We want to prevent pollution before it occurs, and, failing that, to restore the environment to its original state, we will begin a dialogue shortly with industries and give those that pollute the opportunity to adapt.

Sustainable development means economic growth hand in hand with environmental protection and social cohesion. If an industry wants to be competitive and have a future so that it can keep its staff, it will have to adapt to the new conditions.

What will you do about the spread of construction?
We have to see how far we can curb the unrestricted spread of towns. We can't allow the space between towns on islands to be completely built over. And we have committed ourselves to reviewing the entire Regulatory Plan for Athens.

What about the previous government's tourism zoning plan?
We have promised to present a new one for debate. We already have a working group on this issue and are studying the views of different organizations.

Does the environment need our protection?
Absolutely. The environment is up to us - first of all, the citizens, and then the state. There has to be a grassroots environmental movement to guide political choices.

The people seem to be disillusioned about political choices.
That's why they have to take matters into their own hands.