How Greece loses it’s natural heritage
Since 2012, Greek authorities have failed to reach a significant goal as a member of the European Union. They have continued to ignore EU standards and requirements for natural resources and biodiversity preservation. Even though climate change is knocking at the door and gaining the world’s attention, Greece even now chooses the path of harming and disturbing its national natural treasures.
New environmental legislation is exacerbating the failure of the Greek state by triggering a series of dangers and possible detrimental effects to the country’s natural resources.
On May 4, 2020, the Greek government, in creating Law 4685/2020, authorized a program that gives permission for investment plans at the 446 wildlife sites that are protected by the European environmental network known as “Natura 2000”.
The European Union Environmental Network
Natura 2000 is a network of nature protection areas stretching across all 27 European Union countries that seeks to create a “safe house”, not only for rare and threatened species but also for scarce natural types. It provides a haven for Europe’s most valuable and endangered species and habitats by guarding and giving prominence to biodiversity.
The network was created in 1992 under the Habitats Directive in conjunction with the Birds Directive that was established earlier on 1979, forming the environmental protection network of Natura 2000.
Greece, due to its remarkable location and geomorphology, has rich and precious fauna and flora. Many of these species need to be protected because they are endangered, vulnerable and/or endemic.
For this reason, Natura 2000 has established Special Protection Areas for birds and Special Areas of Conservation of habitats that host uncommon and threatened flora and fauna.
How it all began
The environmental risks began on the day that Greek authorities became enamored with the idea of attracting investments for economic growth for both local and national interests.
The new regulation of the Greek state focuses on “modernizing” the rules of environmental issues and the licensing process by giving permission for investing plans in sites in the Natura 2000 protected network. This decision is in direct contrast to the European legislation of the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC), in which Article 6, Paragraph 1 specifically states: “For special areas of conservation, Member States shall establish the necessary conservation measures involving, if need be, appropriate management plans specifically designed for the sites or integrated into other development plans, and appropriate statutory, administrative or contractual measures which correspond to the ecological requirements of the natural habitat types in Annex I and the species in Annex II present on the sites.”
Establishing vast wind parks amidst Greece’s precious environmental heritage is bound to disturb precious ecosystems, and the results will be easily noticed.
Can the European legislation yield to a claim that local authorities can change and affect an otherwise protected site?
Blowing in the wind
Greece’s first contact with wind energy began in the first decade of the 21st century when significant foreign firms targeted Greece as a potential and undiscovered location for new investments. In an attempt to reduce old-fashioned methods of power energy such as carbon mining, Greece embraced the idea of emphasizing alternative ways of energy in order to battle the emerging climate crisis. In doing so, Greece established a target of producing more than 7050 Megawatts of energy from wind turbines by the year 2030. As of 2019, 49% of the target had been reached: 2407 wind turbines were active.
Specifically, 705 wind turbines were in areas protected by the Natura 2000 network; the remaining 1702 were located in unprotected areas. Furthermore, according to the latest environmental legislation, there are approvals for the construction of 5,514 new wind turbines in the network and 10,258 in other areas.
The regions most affected are those with prospects of high wind energy and areas of important energy service.
The areas of high wind energy are focused on islands, such as Tinos, Skyros, Andros, Evoia and Crete. All of them have significant potential to regenerate great amount of wind energy. Important energy service areas are prevalent in the mountain regions of Olympus, Pindos, Agrafa and Vermio, all of which are located near carbon mining energy factories in western Macedonia. These advantageous geographical locations for wind energy result in a rapid supply to industry sites. In concept, the faster that wind turbine energy can reach energy factory stations, the more quickly it will be able to reach vast areas of the country.
Pandora’s box: a gift of apparent value that really is a curse
Alternative methods of energy initially are seen as one significant weapon against climate change and an important way to resolve the destructive greenhouse phenomenon. The surprisingly rapid increase of carbon dioxide emissions, which cause global warming, has led humanity to seek ways to balance them with a reduction in the production of greenhouse gases. Many developed countries have focused on solar power, biofuels and wind energy as new ways to achieve this goal. But these methods have a limited aspect of “innocence” when another essential crucial dilemma arises from the process of alternative energy methods: cut a tree or not?
Trees are the most effective, and in some ways simplest, method of dealing with global warming. As trees grow, they remove amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, storing it in roots and soil, and releasing oxygen into the air. It is an elegant natural system.
Installing wind turbines and creating vast wind parks create direct consequences that affect natural habitats in a negative wayLarge areas of fields and forests need to be cut for the creation of these energy patterns. New roads through forests are created for better access. Moreover, since many of these areas are natural habitats for endangered species, the loss of trees and forest also affects biodiversity. Eventually, even if wind energy provides a considerable benefit in combating climate change, it can create a new threat to the environment by decimating the natural ecosystem. Instead of helping to eliminate the climate crisis, it eventually intensifies it.
Construction of wind turbines at Kasidiaris mountain in the region of Epirus, Greece. (image by epirusin.blogspot.com)
The rocky road to loss: habitat fragmentation
Fragmentation is characterized as the separation of a landscape into smaller and more isolated pieces. Habitat fragmentation can occur for many reasons. Although this process can be the result of natural events such as floods, fires and volcanic activity, it is more often deliberately caused by human induced disturbances.
According to a new study by Vasilliki Kati and others, Greece’s roadless surface covers only 0.5% of mainland terrain, while six mountains (Saos, Olympus, Smolikas, Leuka Ori, Taygentos, Tymfi) have untouched and preserved natural landscape.
The 2020 Greek roadless map with the six largest Roadfless areas highlighted in the insets, noting the mountain name, size and elevation range of each Roadless Area. (Map and figure description from “Conservation policy under a roadless perspective: Minimizing fragmentation in Greece”, Vasilliki Kati et al.)
Human actions affect the ecosystems by increased road construction dividing the landscape, even in areas included to the protected network. The Natural Environment and Climate Change Agency in 2018 stated that Greece has one of the most rapid increases in fragmentation pressure in the European Union. Kati is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Applications and Technology at the University of Ioannina. She and her co-authors write: “[C]urrent state policies are expected to further accelerate land use change and its negative impacts on biodiversity: a new environmental law just came into force, allowing renewable energy projects and road sprawl, by principle, all over the country, even in the most sensitive zones of the Natura 2000 network (Law 4685/2020).”
Direct impacts on wildlife
Some of the most likely outcomes of establishing wind turbines and parks are the irritation of birds’ ecosystems, affecting directly not only their lives but also species reproduction. One significant example of this aspect is about to occur at Agrafa mountain, located in Central Greece. The Hellenic Ornithological Society officially claims:
Agrafa, designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) of the Natura 2000 network, is an extremely important place for the breeding of birds of prey such as Short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus) and Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), but also a main summer feeding area for the Critically Endangered Vulture in mainland Greece. (author’s translation from Greek)
Natura 2000 sites in cental-western Greece. Protected European sites highligted in green: Agrafa mountain highligted in blue. (map by GEODATA.gov.gr)
Specifically, permission has been granted for construction of two wind parks in different locations of the mountain, each with 20 individual turbines. The first area will produce energy up to 46 MW, and the second up to 40 MW.
According to the Hellenic Ornithological Society, the position of these parks will be in or too close — 900 m and 2.8 km — to the main summer feeding area of the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), peregrine falcon and red-billed chough, causing severe reductions in their reproduction rates. Field observations of the Specific Ecological Assessments estimated that 1,474 and 5,845 vulture crossings have taken place annually prior to the installation of the two wind turbine locations. The wind turbines will put the griffon vulture populations in danger at the crossing area and significantly affect their total population. The affected area is causing trouble for other priority species that share the area, including the highly protected brown bear and wolf.
Geomorphological map of Agrafa mountain in Central Greece. All colorful polygons show wind power stations in the region. Areas with light green color describe the stations with production licenses. Those with dark green show stations with installation licenses. Light blue areas are stations with operational licenses. Yellow areas indicate stations that are under evaluation for future production. (map by geo.rae.gr)
The installation of these two wind farms will morphologically alter more than 843,597 square meters at an altitude of 1600–2000 meters. The affected area is the equivalent of 210 football fields.
Similarly, the only remaining population of cinereous vulture, also known as the black vulture, in Europe is facing total extinction due to the rapidly expanding renewable energy industry. Even if wind energy seems to be technologically mature and harmless, the destiny of the cinereous vulture population is not in safe hands.
The region of Thrace has a significant ornithological importance for Europe. The Dadia-Leukimi-Soufli National Forest Park hosts the approximately 100 remaining cinereous vultures in Southeast Europe. It is the last significant shelter for breeding for this “Near Threatened” species, according to BirdLife International in its 2013 assessment.
Despite these specific dangers and threatened consequences, the Society notes that in 2018 the Council State approved the establishment of two wind parks with energy production of 16.1MW and 12.8 MW in the region state of Evros in locations surrounding the national park, adding to the already installed 178 wind turbines in the area.
“Study site showing operating wind farm locations and cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) population sensitivity map. The map illustrates cinereous vulture ‘population’ range (95% Fixed Kernel), core area, and non-core area. The core and non-core areas are further divided in four conservation zones each in terms of the number of individuals that use each zone: 1: 1–4, 2: 5–9, 3: 10–14, 4: 15–19 individuals. Half of the Wind farm Priority Area (53%) suggested by a Strategic Environmental Assessment study falls within the core area of the cinereous vulture population and also envelopes the Strictly Protected Area of the Dadia Lefkimi Soufli National Park (DLS NP) that contains the vulture colony”. ( map and quotation from “Reconciling endangered species conservation with wind farm development: Cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus) in south-eastern Europe”, D. Vassilakis et al.)
According to recent research, the impacts on the population of cinereous vultures in the area will be catastrophic if the new wind farms are established. The gruesome possibility of collision of these large raptorial birds with the propellers of turbines is more certain than not.
Nothing goes unnoticed
Greece has failed to fulfill its obligation pursuant to European directives to protect its natural heritage, creating an unfriendly environment for habitats and rare species. Many non-governmental organizations in the field of environment as well as citizens are protesting against this phenomenon. The country’s behavior also has been noticed by the European Environmental Agency, and the European Court held an adjudication on Greece’s lack of protection measures on biodiversity.
According to the European Court’s decision, Greece does not adequately protect biodiversity in the Natura 2000 network, and since 2012 the state has not taken specific and necessary measures for the conservation of ecosystems. The decision noted:
The Hellenic Republic, by failing to adopt within the prescribed time limits all the necessary measures for the determination of the appropriate conservation objectives and the appropriate conservation measures with regard to the 239 sites of community importance located in the Greek territory and included in Commission Decision 2006/613/EC, of 19 July 2006 concerning the approval, in accordance with Council Directive 92/43/ EEC, of the list of sites of Community importance for the Mediterranean biogeographical area, has failed to fulfill its obligations under Article 4(4) respectively; and Article 6(1) of Council Directive 92/43/ EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitat and of wild fauna and flora as amended by Council Directive 2006/105/ EC, of 20 November 2006. (author’s translation from Greek)
Greece is in a predicament: it wants to preserve its membership in the European Union while simultaneously fulfilling its intention to accept investments from multi-national energy corporations. The winds of change will alter Greece’s environmental profile forever. The country that gave birth to democracy and a philosophy with deep roots in ethics and respect for “mother” nature runs the risk of sacrificing a true national treasure for the sake of “modernization” and progress. Πηγή : Νικόλαος Παρίσσης Περιβαλοντολόγος https://medium.com