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Spain’s Green Groups Slam Rollback of Conservation Policies

MADRID, Feb 7 2012 (IPS) - Spain’s new conservative government has announced changes in environmental policy that are a significant step backwards for environmental protection in the country, provoking an immediate, harsh reaction from the opposition and civil society.

Mario Rodríguez, head of the Spanish chapter of the environmental NGO Greenpeace, told IPS that the only fit response to the government’s announcement is “citizens’ protests to demand that the achievements for the defence of the environment over the past two decades are not all torn down.”

In Rodríguez’s view, environmental organisations and affected communities should “be ready to take legal action”.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Environment Miguel Arias Cañete informed the lower house of parliament that the government led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy since Dec. 21, 2011 will propose a “thorough” reform of the 1988 Coastal Law to “harmonise protection of the coastline with the development of non-detrimental economic activities.”

Rodríguez says that if what the minister announced comes to pass, “pro-environment legislation achieved over the last 20 years will be demolished.”

Presenting the government’s plans to his parliamentary party, Arias Cañete defended the proposed reform of the Coastal Law, arguing that it would contribute to the improvement of legal security for owners of land rights on the coast.

In his opinion, it would also allow economic resurgence in “zones that are already degraded and lacking in environmental value”, and foment a proper ordering of economic activity on the Spanish coast, where anarchic development and unrestrained urbanisation has already drawn reprimands from the European Union.

The governing People’s Party has an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, and can therefore approve the reform without legislative hindrance.

Several organisations stress that the reform will allow new land uses on pristine coastlines, so large areas that are currently protected will lose that protection.

Minister Arias Cañete made some other announcements that alarmed environmentalists. He said the legal framework for the protection of the natural environment will be revised, measures will be taken to improve management of the network of national parks and the Red Natura 2000 (an EU biodiversity conservation scheme), and there will be a reform of the National Hydrological Plan.

“The grey economy is back,” after all the progress the country had made towards a green economy, said José Díaz Trillo, the regional environment minister for the government (Junta) of Andalusia, the largest and most populous region in Spain, governed by the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

Rodríguez gave IPS an indication of how Greenpeace will respond to the measures announced. “When these measures begin to come into effect, we will decide what response to make, but no doubt it will include organising demonstrations and analysing the legal situation to see if the changes to the laws can be appealed,” he said.

Greenpeace issued a communiqué on Feb. 1, just after the minister announced the new policy, expressing its fears that Spain would return to the bad old water management policies, and that lower standards would be applied to environmental impact assessments for future development projects.

“After the minister’s speech, it is clear that the present government regards environmental policies as an obstacle to economic development, and not as an opportunity to overcome the crisis,” Rodríguez said.

“While we wait for the details of the ministry’s strategy to emerge, Greenpeace will vigorously oppose any measure that would lead to lower levels of environmental protection than those that have been achieved so far, especially if they involve the Coastal Law, the fight against climate change or regulation and control of overfishing.”

According to Greenpeace, the Rajoy government’s stated intentions strike at the basic principles of the defence of the Mediterranean coastline, and of public use of the coast.

This interpretation is based on the premise that increasing the number of coastal concessions and relaxing their conditions, especially in the tourism industry, “will accelerate the loss of the land-sea public domain and open the door to new forms of land use on the coast, leaving the Coastal Law without effect.”

Greenpeace particularly criticises the ambiguity and vagueness in the minister’s speech; “when he said ‘curbing economic activity on the coast does not guarantee conservation,’ he is opening the door to new urbanisation projects,” Rodríguez said.

In Greenpeace’s view, such a prospect would affect the environmental health of the “saturated” Spanish coastline.

The NGO also complains that the minister did not clarify whether he supports a 30 percent reduction in European greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, as a way of mitigating climate change.

“This omission is striking when, two days before the minister’s speech to parliament, the European Commission published a study showing clear economic benefits for each of the EU member states from intensifying the fight against climate change,” Rodríguez said.

That is why Greenpeace is calling on the government to end public subsidies to dirty industries, and to commit itself to ensuring that new emissions rights granted to the electricity sector after 2012, are all allocated by auction.

In 2009 it was determined that electricity companies would cease to have free emissions rights from 2013. Spanish electricity generating companies will need to buy emissions rights for an estimated 104 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) next year, at a cost of some 2.8 billion dollars.

The PSOE environment secretary, Hugo Morán, said “the minister’s strategy of demolishing all current environmental legislation poses the greatest risk to the future viability of our country’s principal economic pillars: agriculture and tourism.”

Meanwhile, the regional environment minister for Andalusia, José Díaz, said that if the government’s reform package goes through, it will “set Spain back 40 years in terms of environmental policy.”

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