The Malta Independent 23 May 2024, Thursday
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‘We expect Malta to cease spring hunting of Turtle Doves’ – European Commissioner for Environment

Albert Galea Sunday, 25 June 2023, 09:21 Last update: about 12 months ago

Preserving the environment and fighting climate change are two of the greatest long-term challenges which the world is currently facing. Europe is at the forefront of that fight and European Commissioner for the Environment Virginius Sinkevicius is one of those leading the charge. He gave an interview to The Malta Independent on Sunday during his visit to Malta last week.

The European Green Deal is, broadly speaking, the European Commission's road-map towards achieving the first climate neutral continent by 2050. Since it was signed in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have derailed the continent. Do you think these two major events have affected how the Green Deal is implemented across Europe?

It's true that the pandemic and Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine have created significant disruptions and challenges for the EU as a whole, including security, energy and food prices, and competitiveness. But the European Green Deal is a multitasking document - as well as helping us address the triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, it's also very effective against those unforeseen threats. It's helping us build back better in the wake of the pandemic, and it's strengthening our energy independence as we accelerate away from fossil fuels - many of which we imported from Russia.

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In fact, it's never been more important to pursue the green transition, sparing the planet and reinforcing our resilience towards future crises. The pandemic and Russia's war of aggression showed many people the problems of our economic model. The Green Deal helps with that, encouraging Europe to actively diversify its energy supply away from Russia and towards reliable sources, investing in renewables and boosting energy efficiency and savings to reduce dependency on Russian oil, gas and coal.

So yes, of course there has been an effect - but I would say a positive boost to keep going and delivering on our Green Deal agenda.  

 

The predictions when it comes to fighting climate change especially are not particularly rosy. Do you think that we are simply too late to fight this?

It is not too late and this is because every tenth of a degree is incredibly important. We are already seeing the consequences, sadly, just recently of extended droughts and heat waves in France and Spain as well as devastating floods in Italy. The question is, how bad will we let it become?

There are encouraging signs. The EU's greenhouse gas emissions have been on a downward trend, moving towards the 2030 target of a 55% reduction compared to 1990 levels. In 2021, Malta was at -18%, compared to 1990. However, Malta is still exceeding its annual emission allocations under the Effort Sharing legislation and has to be compensated by purchasing allocations from other member states or international credits (2022 Climate Action Progress Report).

And the cost of renewables continues to fall, making them fully competitive with fossil fuels. That includes a significant drop in prices for electric vehicle batteries.

Tackling climate change means fighting three battles at the same time, and they are all extremely important.

You have to start by reducing energy demand. That means helping people change their behaviour and adopt more sustainable consumption habits. It means promoting a circular economy with shorter supply chains and increasing energy efficiency for buildings, transport and industry and so on.

Secondly, you have to get away from carbon. We can do that with a massive transition to electrification powered by renewables like solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass and hydrogen.

And thirdly, we have to make the most of our primary ally: nature. Restoring and enhancing biodiversity is essential for our economy and society, by contributing to the transition to sustainable, circular economic systems and long-term resilience, in line with consumers' expectations. Nature restoration brings multiple benefits such as climate mitigation/adaptation, provision of food, feed and natural resources, clean air and water, health and well-being that by far outweigh its costs. It is an investment to secure a sustainable future. 

That is why the nature restoration law we are currently negotiating is so important. It's vital to bring nature back before the climate and biodiversity crises spiral out of control. By restoring ecosystems like peatlands, forests and seagrass meadows, we can sequester millions of tons of carbon each year. We have to start doing that as soon as possible and get nature back on a path to recovery.

It's late, but it's not too late. We have the knowledge and the technology. By combining that with economic incentives and collective and individual commitment, we can still mitigate climate change and shape a more sustainable future. But there really is no time to waste.

 

What are your views on Malta's implementation of the European Green Deal so far?  What have been, in your view, the strengths and the weaknesses?

Malta is the most urbanised and densely populated EU member state and also faces scarcity of natural resources that pose specific challenges for environmental protection. Integrating nature conservation into economic development and seasonal tourist activities remains a challenge.

As stressed in the last Environmental Implementation Review 2022, Malta needs to step up its sustainability efforts in improving the protection of habitats and species of EU interest by fully implementing the Natura 2000 instruments and strengthening the enforcement of the Birds Directive. Malta also needs to designate and protect all its Natura 2000 sites, particularly the marine sites. Moreover, the large-scale hunting and trapping of migratory birds continues to be a serious specific concern.  

Managing waste efficiently remains a challenge for Malta. Reforms and investments in waste management and the circular economy are needed to move away from Malta's heavy reliance on waste disposal in landfills, which remains significant. Malta has yet to capitalise on turning waste into a useful resource and low recycling rates into business opportunities.

Lastly, Malta still falls short of implementing the EU Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive in some parts of its territory. This requires adequate infrastructure to meet the urban wastewater treatment goals for the benefit of all inhabitants.

Now, there are also improvements that deserve to be underlined. In line with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Commission particularly appreciates Malta's efforts in cooperating with other member states to ensure the good environmental status of marine waters. Also, progress has been made on ecosystem assessment and accounting analysis of the pressures on terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. I also welcome the reform granting free public transport to Malta's citizens.

 

An agreement establishing a Mediterranean Green Energy Hub was recently reached at the Med9 summit held in Malta last month. How important could this be in terms of the Green Deal?

It's a very important moment for Europe.

REPowerEU is a Mediterranean success story. It is clear that our member states in the region not only accepted the challenge to diversify away from Russian gas, but rose to the occasion.

Last year, LNG terminals in EU Mediterranean countries enabled the transport of gas from routes other than Russia to the neighbouring countries. This past year we have also seen a record deployment of renewables in the region and a strengthening in the relations with countries like Algeria, Egypt and Morocco. And it doesn't stop there: new interconnector projects are being set up, such as EuroAsia electricity Interconnector undersea cable and the ELMED Interconnector, connecting Italy and Tunisia, to name a few.

We are working with member states on plans for hydrogen corridors in the EU, namely one from the southwest, via the Iberian peninsula.

By stepping up renewable capacity in the region, the Mediterranean can become a major green hydrogen hub, exporting excess energy to other parts of Europe, including in the form of ammonia.

The EU and Mediterranean partner countries share common energy transition and climate challenges.

The Mediterranean is a region that is faced with droughts and heat waves which will only intensify in the future.

Renewables can play an important role in cushioning their impacts. For example, impacts of droughts can be counter-balanced on reduced hydropower yields, while solar floating can protect water reservoirs.

The Mediterranean Sea also counts with very high potential for floating wind. So it is crystal clear that this is a key component to reach and complement our Green Deal goals.

 

Do you feel that there needs to be more collaboration with countries in North Africa, perhaps in areas such as renewable energy, in order to further the European - and more global - climate goals?

Absolutely, there is great potential there and in fact it's already happening quite intensively.

For example with Tunisia: The biggest area for investment we see is energy. Tunisia is looking to harness its tremendous potential for renewable energy and the European Union needs reliable energy suppliers of clean energy as we are electrifying our entire economy. Thus, we need to invest in our infrastructure so that Tunisia can export clean energy to Europe. An important milestone in this journey is the ELMED interconnector, an undersea electricity cable linking Tunisia to Italy. The European Union is investing more than €300m in the ELMED interconnector and  we are working on a Memorandum of Understanding on renewables with Tunisia.

With Morocco, we have launched  the EU-Morocco Green Partnership, the first such EU initiative with a partner country. It aims to advance the external dimension of the European Green Deal through action on the ground and is expected to become a model for similar partnerships with other countries, including on the African continent, where Morocco already leads in terms of environmental and climate ambitions. The EU-Morocco Green Partnership is also one of the flagships of the EU's Economic and Investment Plan of the New Agenda with the Mediterranean. The programme, Terre Verte, is an important programme under the Economic and Investment Plan, funded under the NDICI-Global Europe. The €115m includes the allocation for Morocco worth €15m from the Food and Resilience Facility, which will support, in particular, priority response measures to optimise national agricultural production as well as support for producers for the development of more sustainable agricultural practices.

And finally another great example is our ongoing work with Egypt: we have in place an MoU on an EU-Egypt strategic partnership on renewables to boost our long-term cooperation on this sector.

So as you see the opportunities are plenty and intensifying and will only bring benefits on all sides.

 

A point of contention between Malta and Europe has consistently been Malta's insistence to allow hunting for turtle doves during spring. What are your views on this subject? Do you believe that action in European institutions should be taken against Malta if it continues to allow such hunting?

The Commission is concerned about the conservation status of a number of bird species. The recent IUCN Red List shows that some bird species are facing a rapid decline for various reasons and now have a "vulnerable status". The Turtle Dove is a prime example for this.

Let me recall that it was on the basis of the listing of this species as "Vulnerable" on the global Red List of birds and of the negative trends observed in the EU that the Maltese government took the decision to implement a moratorium on spring hunting of turtle dove as from year 2017. There is actually more evidence showing an ongoing population decline, based on updated scientific data.

We expect Malta to cease the spring hunting of turtle doves. Malta is already subject to an infringement procedure for failure to enforce the protection of wild birds and the derogations allowing trapping and hunting and must ensure full compliance with EU law.

 

One of the greatest concerns from the Maltese fishing community is the incursion of fishing vessels from Tunisia into Maltese territorial waters in order to fish on their lines. There have also been reports of Tunisian fishermen threatening Maltese fishermen with machetes and Molotov cocktails in the past. Last year, the European vessel 'Lundy Sentinel' was deployed to patrol the waters to combat this, but there were still reports of such incursion. Are there plans to continue, and perhaps further support, this patrolling?

In order to reinforce the control of fishing activities in the Strait of Sicily, the EU will propose for adoption a permanent international joint inspection scheme covering the dolphinfish fisheries during the next GFCM Annual Session and will ensure the permanent deployment of the Ocean Sentinel (the EFCA patrol vessel covering the Med) to support these joint inspections. My services also maintain close relations with Tunisian authorities to ensure the proper follow-up of alleged cases of infringements.


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