“Portugal is a giant with its marine area in Europe and only has 2.5% under protection” | Interview

Virginijus Sinkevičius arrived at the 10th floor of the Jean Monnet European Center at a fast pace and ready to be interviewed. The Lithuanian is the European commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries and made a two-day visit to Portugal with a busy schedule between Lisbon and Porto. The tour included meetings with parliamentary committees and ministers, including Environment Minister Duarte Cordeiro. In Porto, he was at the Palácio de Cristal at the signing event of the “Green Commitment to the Planet”, in the footwear sector.

The sea is one of the most important topics for the commissioner and that is currently on the rise. On Monday, a new round of talks began at the United Nations, in New York, for countries to reach an agreement on the protection of the oceans on the high seas, outside the jurisdiction of States. “It’s crucial that we have this agreement,” says Sinkevičius. About fishing and the package of measures that were released this week, at the level of the European Commission, for the protection of marine protected areas and the sector’s energy transition, the official says that decarbonization is “the Achilles’ heel” of fisheries.

The interview also covered the situation of the wolf in Europe, European measures to combat desertification of soils and the need for Portugal to increase marine protected areas, as the country is a “giant” in maritime terms. But the conversation took place the day before the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the theme of war loomed: “Missiles may miss their target, but they never miss damage to the environment.”

Virginijus Sinkevicius was on a two-day visit to Portugal

The War in Ukraine is a year ago. What has changed in EU environmental policy since then?
I wouldn’t say there was a change in environmental policies because of the war. The biggest change was because of the energy. Russian propaganda said that Europe would freeze [no Inverno], would be deprived of energy resources, industry would stop because we took a strong stance in support of Ukraine. A year later, we see that we managed things very well. We reduced Russian gas by 40%. Now we only have about 9% Russian gas in our gas mix. We’ve seen increases of 41% in solar and wind energy projects, 40% in heat pumps, 15% in electric vehicles. We have proven that we are united and can handle such an unexpected crisis.

How can the European Union (EU) help Ukraine recover from the environmental damage caused by the war?
It is a huge pain to see lives lost and infrastructure destroyed every day, but also the environment. Missiles may miss the target, but they never miss the damage to the environment. Mines were laid in large areas of forests, or there were fires. The estimate of the cost of destroyed ecosystems already reaches 57 billion euros. The Russians deliberately target water treatment facilities, power plants, chemical warehouses, and all of that ends up in nature. So what we’ve already done: Ukraine is the first country outside the EU to join our Life program, it’s our environmental and climate fund. Ukraine and civil society can apply and implement nature restoration projects. We developed a plan called Fénix, in which we raised seven million euros allocated to Ukraine within the Horizonte and Life programs.

The commission has now presented a package of measures to improve the fisheries and aquaculture sector. What are the objectives?
The future of fisheries will depend on two factors: what is caught, which depends on ecosystems, and the fossil fuels. Unfortunately, our fleet is very dependent on fossil fuels. The recent more than threefold increase in marine diesel means there is no reason to operate and the fleet is left in port. So we have to find a way to decarbonize our fleet. This is the Achilles heel. We are now able to help them with crisis management measures. And I hope those funds reach the fishing industry as soon as possible. But we must ensure that they are less and less dependent on fossil fuels. And that will allow them to modernize and ensure that the profit is higher.

One of the measures proposes a total decrease in trawl fishing in marine protected areas by 2030. Is this date not too late?
We have to understand the role of trawling. It is the backbone of European fisheries and cannot be banned overnight.

But we are talking about protected regions.
We ask Member States to prepare a plan by 2024. Then we will re-evaluate these plans. If we see that the efforts are not enough, then the commission can initiate a process of legislation.

What is the EU’s position on the High Seas Treaty negotiations?
We established the Coalition of High Ambition and two days ago I welcomed South Korea as its 52nd member, before that it was the United States. We managed to have a group of countries and speak with one voice. It is extremely important because we realize the importance of negotiating the BBNJ (acronym in English for the Biodiversity Navy beyond National Jurisdiction). Without an agreement, we have no chance of protecting marine areas or implementing what was achieved in Montreal (in Canada, last December, during the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity COP15). Therefore, it is crucial that we have this agreement, negotiations are ongoing.

What results do you expect to come out of here?
Sufficient protection of the high seas and a clear set of rules regarding the operation of ships on the high seas, which we currently do not have.

COP15 was considered a success. What are the biggest challenges going forward?
The implementation phase is the most important, so that in 2030 we will not be in a position where it has not been implemented. In the EU, we are going to see what we still have to implement and then we are going to put these proposals at the forefront of our legislative work. Second, we’re going to work closely with the international community and make sure that there are funds dedicated to the deal, that’s the crucial part.

What is the European Union’s strategy towards this objective?
We have doubled the funding we have given to biodiversity. There is a significant contribution from Germany and France, and we are very grateful for that. Other Member States are contributing a little less. It is very important to have measures to attract private investment. We are actively talking with international investment banks, with philanthropists who are also willing to finance, but want to see concrete projects. So we are trying to map these projects. We want them to target the most vulnerable countries, the ones that are most in need of funding. These countries often lack strong administrative capacity to absorb the funds, and we are helping them to build that capacity.

The number of climate refugees is increasing. It is estimated that in 2050 there will be 1.2 billion people. What is the EU’s response?
Our clear answer is the Ecological Pact and we have to implement it. We must not forget that it is not just about Europe, it is about global actions. We see that we are no longer alone in aiming to achieve zero emissions by 2050. More and more countries are joining in. That’s the only way. Of course we can talk about the smaller measures, about the integration of refugees. But that would put enormous pressure on our borders.

We have seen fires, floods and high temperatures in Europe, phenomena increasingly associated with climate change that jeopardize the restoration of ecosystems. How will the 2030 biodiversity strategy address this issue?
The 30% protection strategy [da área terrestre e marinha] by 2030 has a lot to offer. Forests that are better equipped and better managed have much more resilience. We have a forest monitoring proposal in hand. Second, there is our water resources. If aquatic ecosystems are kept in good condition, especially inland waters, they can help with prevention measures. It is very important that Member States prepare plans and share best practices on measures that make the forest resilient. And eliminate practices that unfortunately increase your vulnerability.

Virginijus Sinkevicius made a two-day visit to Portugal

What practices?
Plant forests of one type of tree. Cutting and clearing practices that destroy forest ecosystems and the soil.

Portugal has many Natura 2000 Network areas but often lacks active conservation. Can we expect pressure from the European Commission in this type of situation?
We are in constant dialogue with Portugal about the implementation of the Natura 2000 Network. I think that 20% of the protected area in Portugal is a good number, because when we talk about 30% we are talking at the level of the European Union and not of each country. Where Portugal could do a better job is to secure a larger marine protection area. Because Portugal is a giant with its marine area in Europe and only has 2.5% under protection.

How to ensure that these areas are protected?
A management plan needs to be prepared and implemented. For this, administrative capacity is extremely important in order to have human resources to fully implement conservation measures.

Portugal faces a problem of soil desertification. But in recent years, intensive crops such as olive groves have increased. What measures can we expect from the European Commission to help with a more sustainable transition in land use?
We are finalizing our proposal on soil protection. We want to have the soil at the same level of protection as water and air. Because land degradation could have a huge impact and threaten our food security, and we need to help our farmers transition to more sustainable practices. The new common agricultural policy is mainly dedicated to these measures and farmers have new opportunities to switch to new practices.

A recent European Parliament resolution downgraded the protection of the wolf on the grounds that its population was increasing and causing more harm to farmers and livestock producers. But 12 environment ministers, including Duarte Cordeiro, sent him a letter asking for the maintenance of the wolf’s protection status. What will you answer them?
Legislation works both ways, that’s my answer. And reducing the wolf’s protected status won’t do the trick. If we want to manage a population of wolves, the state of the ecosystem it has to be good. However, exemptions do exist and if a wolf threatens the farmer’s welfare, that individual can be removed.

Changing the subject, will it be necessary to reduce the consumption of plastic?
Yes. Plastic is a great material that will probably be with us forever. However, it puts enormous pressures on the ecosystem by being used for too short a time. We’ve taken the first steps towards getting rid of some of the problems with single-use plastic, but we have more to go. We proposed the packaging directive to get rid of packaging that is absolutely unnecessary, like small shampoo bottles in hotels.

He is in the final stretch of his mandate. What was the biggest achievement of these years and what is the biggest challenge you have ahead of you?
The Ecological Pact. It is the biggest achievement because we managed to get it going, in a solid way, and it is the answer to many of the crises. The biggest challenge will be to implement it. But I’m optimistic. Our goal of reducing 55% of greenhouse gases greenhouse effect until 2030 is solid. Most of our carbon dioxide emissions carbon comes from energy and the energy transition is inevitable. Now, looking to 2050, decarbonization will not be so straightforward and easy, because it will require a significant societal transition. In some areas we will need new technology, as in fuel for the maritime and aviation sectors.

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