Sinkevicius: “My call is to invest in forests and wetlands, rivers and coastal areas, and in protected areas, in organic agriculture, and in green and blue infrastructure.” (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) Sinkevicius: “My call is to invest in forests and wetlands, rivers and coastal areas, and in protected areas, in organic agriculture, and in green and blue infrastructure.” (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Interview: Sinkevicius on his first year as environment commissioner

It has been a big year for Virginijus Sinkevicius, the EU’s youngest ever commissioner, who has been tasked with steering key parts of the European Green Deal through choppy waters as the bloc grapples with Covid-19 and a major recession.

Sinkevicius declined ENDS’ proposal for an interview in real time, instead opting to reply in writing to a set of emailed questions. This is the complete text of the responses we received from Sinkevicius’ office, edited only to correct typographical errors.

How, in one sentence, would you rate progress during your first year as environment commissioner?

I think that with the green deal and subsequent decisive actions in the area of circular economy, biodiversity and chemicals we were able to show leadership for necessary change at a European level and set the ambition for the rest of the world; we now need to keep up the momentum.

How willing are the public, politicians and industry to get behind the European Green Deal? The high level of environmental ambition of the von der Leyen Commission is arguably due to the ‘Green Wave’ in the 2019 European Parliament election. Do you feel the public mandate for action remains as strong a year in?

The European Green Deal was welcomed broadly by the public, politicians and stakeholders and we have been busy delivering on the various initiatives over the past year. In fact, Europe’s commitment to the green transformation became even clearer this summer when the European Council, bringing together the heads of state and government of the EU member states, agreed on the plans for the economic recovery and the next Multiannual Financial Framework, underlining that the recovery needs to bring about a green and digital transition, as well as enhanced European resilience to crises.

It was also agreed that 30% of the agreed €1.8trn should go to climate-related spending which makes it the biggest green investment package the world has ever seen. These ambitions for a greener Europe will be guiding our work for the next years to come. Of course, there will always be those arguing for slower transformation or for focusing on different priorities. They might have legitimate concerns. My aim is to engage with them so that the transformation will be inclusive and leave no one behind.

The commission has pressed ahead with the launch of a number of major environmental strategies despite the Covid-19 crisis, but when it came to a key piece of concrete legislation – reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – environmental aspirations appear to have collided with hard political reality. Are you concerned that it will be more difficult to turn the aspirations contained in the various strategies into actual legislation?

The European Green Deal is our strategy for sustainable growth. With the NextGenerationEU, where we vowed the twin green and digital transformation [would be] our main tool for responding to the crisis, we have reconfirmed that. CAP should do its part in this sustainability transition and help the European farmers to be part of tackling climate change and protecting the environment. Biodiversity loss and extreme weather due to climate change negatively affects farmers’ livelihoods, so working for a more sustainable farming in balance with nature is a win-win strategy.

The commission assessed the compatibility of the CAP reform proposals with the green deal last May 2020, and concluded that they have the potential to accommodate the green deal’s ambitions, as long as the environmental and climate ambitions of those proposals are maintained.

Therefore, I and my colleagues at the college of commissioners are committed to further work with the EU Council and the European Parliament to make the CAP reflect our European Green Deal priorities, in line with our Farm-to-Fork and Biodiversity strategies from last May.

The European Council is due to debate the European Climate Law (more specifically, the proposed 2030 emissions reduction target) on 10-11 December, and the last chance for adopting a joint position this year is the Environment Council on 17 December. What would be your message to the 27 heads of state or government ahead of these meetings?

I would like to underline the importance of agreeing at the European Council in December the 2030 climate ambition in order to give certainty to all – investors, stakeholders, authorities and international partners. It is important to underline that investing in the 2030 Climate Target Plan means investing in a more resource-efficient economy, one that is less dependent on imported resources, thereby giving our industries a head start. Europe would reap multiple ‘first-mover’ benefits from leading the global transformation to a climate-neutral economy. 

Moreover, investing in a more ambitious emissions reduction target for 2030 will also contribute to a faster economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, as well as enable us to build a stronger and more sustainable economy that is resilient to future shocks. 

Finally, we welcome that many important international partners are now embarking on a path towards climate neutrality, following the example the EU has set. By increasing our 2030 target under the Paris Agreement to at least 55%, Europe can again lead the way to higher global ambition for the next decade.

Just as the economic crisis of 2008 saw lots of talk of fundamental change (which never came), the early days of the Covid-19 crisis saw EU leaders, notably French president Emmanuel Macron, saying there is no way people will want to return to dirty air after the lockdowns. How far do you see the crisis as a potential window of opportunity to accelerate environmental reforms? How strong is the danger that more immediate concerns over jobs and growth could push things towards a return to business as usual, or worse?

There have of course been adaptations to the timeline of rolling out some of the commission proposals during the current crisis. This was necessary in order to focus on supporting member states dealing with immediate health and economic needs. But we largely stayed on track with the green deal initiatives. We delivered on the Climate Law, the Biodiversity Strategy, the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Farm-to-Fork Strategy. And the Recovery Plan proposed by the Commission made the European Green Deal one of its central pillars, making sure investments in the recovery will be green. The decision for a direction has been taken, and it will help us to build back better. When you invest in nature, there is major potential for green growth and new jobs for people with a wide range of skills. So my call is to invest in forests and wetlands, rivers and coastal areas, and in protected areas, in organic agriculture, and in green and blue infrastructure. 

Investing in nature means investing in local jobs and business opportunities. That’s a great way to build a more resilient society.

With rampant deforestation in Romania – which has led to the murders of a number of forest rangers, most recently Liviu Pop and Raducu Gorcioaia – what would you say to those who feel betrayed by the EU’s apparently limited ability to guarantee the rule of law across the bloc? And can the EU really claim to be a global leader on tackling illegal deforestation when it is still struggling to contain it at home?

Generally, the forest area in the EU has remained rather stable in the last decades. The commission is nevertheless worried about local cases in some member states where valuable forests are being degraded or where illegal logging activities are taking place. The EU’s forests are also under pressure due intensive forest industry, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.

The commission is also concerned by illegal logging activities in Romania. Earlier this year we opened legal proceedings against the country for breaches of EU environmental law in relation to forestry activities. It is regrettable that freedom of expression has come under threat by associations or federations clamping down on activists, NGOs and journalists militating for forests’ protection.

We should not forget your portfolio covers oceans and fisheries as well as environment. Given the constant reports of overfishing, plastic pollution and global warming impacts, what is the most radical proposal you are prepared to put on the table to improve the state of European seas?

A variety of pressures are impacting our marine environment including pollution, illegal fishing, unsustainable fishing, sea floor damage from other economic activities, and the spread of non-indigenous species. Furthermore, climate change has a general negative impact through sea level rise, deoxygenation, acidification and ocean warming. That is why we are pursuing a holistic, integrated approach.

To choose just one example from this, I would point to our recent work on fisheries. I have sought to make full use of the scope in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to ensure that fisheries and aquaculture are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable in the long-term, and that they provide a source of healthy food for EU citizens.

To this end, I brought ambitious proposals to the council on the setting of catch limits for fish stocks in the Atlantic, Baltic and North Sea. I have always followed science, putting my proposals in line with the advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). Fisheries ministers have already followed the commission’s proposals for the Baltic and taken responsible decisions notably on Western herring and Eastern cod. It is now for the ministers to take further responsible decisions on the North Sea and Atlantic total allowable catches.

Stepping back, we can observe the progress that has already been made in these basins. It is expected that more than 99% of landings in the Baltic, North Sea and the Atlantic managed exclusively by the EU will be fished at sustainable levels in 2020. In other sea basins, in particular the Mediterranean and Black Sea, where progress has been less advanced, I have taken decisive steps, in particular through intensified activities at the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM). I am confident the multitude of recent measures can have a positive impact, however we know from experience that positive results on the status of the stocks can take a few years to emerge.

Finally, it is important to also stress the critical and complementary role of member states if we are to succeed in our objectives. Enhanced implementation and enforcement, for example, could arguably achieve more than legislative changes to the EU policy framework.

What has been the biggest surprise since you began working as environment commissioner, and what was the most difficult adjustment you had to make after your previous life in domestic politics?

As I was a minister of economy and innovation before becoming European Commissioner, the biggest surprise actually came from the business community. When you meet businesses in the capacity of the minister of economy and innovation, you hear a lot about investment, export, human resources, innovative products, social initiatives from them and very little about their environmental initiatives. When you start meeting the same companies in the capacity of the commissioner for environment, oceans and fisheries you learn a lot about what they do on circular economy, biodiversity and climate neutrality. Businesses see opportunities in green transition. That reinforces my belief in our cause.

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