The Mediterranean is a cradle of historic civilisations and cultures. All of them characterised by the power of radical thinking, ambition, mobilisation and action. In doing so they advanced humankind in profound and enduring ways. Their transformational impact is still felt by all of us today.
We may now live in a very different age, but we would do well to learn lessons and draw inspiration from our history. In doing so we should pose the question to ourselves; how will future generations think of us?
The escalating climate and environmental crisis is the biggest test we all face. The speed of change to our natural world means that we will not only be judged in history books, but by our own children and grandchildren.
Today, I host the Heads of State and Government of Croatia, Cyprus, France, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Spain, the Portuguese Foreign Minister, and the President of the European Commission, in Athens, for the 8th Summit of the Southern Countries of the EU – the EUMED – where the first item on our agenda is climate change in our region.
We meet after a summer that witnessed many of our countries, and indeed nations across the globe, extreme weather events. In Greece we observed record temperatures and many months of drought, which turned the country into a powder keg. The wildfire flames that burnt down so much we hold dear were unlike anything we have seen – natural habitats and livelihoods were destroyed.
In the wake of the tragedy, I created a Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Ministry, headed by Christos Stylianides to rapidly enhance our planning and action. Christos was the EU’s commissioner for Crisis Management and a leading figure in strengthening the EU civil protection mechanism through RescEU.
The Mediterranean is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and prone to extreme weather events. We are already experiencing longer, more frequent and intensive heat waves, droughts, heavy precipitation, floods, and forest fires. The climate crisis is not now some abstract concept, it has arrived on our beautiful shores.
The serious and significant threat posed to the environment, society and the economy should not be underestimated. The situation demands a fierce urgency and response on many levels. The size of the task before us may seem daunting, but we have seen people collectively achieve things throughout history that were previously unimaginable or thought impossible before.
I am confident that the EUMED leaders will stand united in our strong conviction that urgent and ambitious global action is essential. The Athens Declaration that we will adopt signals a newly enhanced commitment to impactful action in key areas: climate change; biodiversity; forests; the marine environment; and civil protection, prevention and preparedness.
On climate change, we must reaffirm our commitment to limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5°C. To realise this critical goal, we need to ensure that the Mediterranean’s voice is heard more loudly on the global stage, our actions intensified, and the strength of our common endeavour truly unleashed.
Swift and rapid alignment of public and private investment flows around issues of mitigation, climate neutrality and climate adaptation is imperative. We need unprecedented levels of public-private partnership and imagination. For instance, my government is partnering with Volkswagon so that the Greek island of Astypalea becomes a scalable model for climate-friendly mobility and energy supply. All our countries must rapidly become fertile test beds of innovation.
The roll-out of decarbonised and climate-proof infrastructures has to accelerate and we must commit to work together, and engage with the EU, to achieve the best outcome possible at the UN COP 26 summit.
On biodiversity, we are seeing the vibrancy and endemism of the Mediterranean region threatened by habitat loss and degradation. Therefore, collaborating across our borders to monitor and materially change the situation is so important.
On forests, we need to invest in the protection of our climate and ecosystems. The long-term adverse impacts of forest fires in the Mediterranean are huge. We are seeing them fundamentally change the features of drainage basins and increase soil erosion and they endanger species.
We must collectively commit to invest the necessary resources, make use of the best available science, and mobilise societies in order to plan forest cleanups, create firebreaks, and deploy all effective national and local forest fire prevention measures, using IT and digital economy tools.
Where damage has been done, we need to act. We must encourage the sharing of our technologies and experiences for ecosystem recovery and restoration of degraded areas, within and outside of protected areas, and to formulate initiatives that contribute to ecosystem connectivity.
On the marine environment, important progress was made at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille earlier this month. Greece firmly committed to protecting 30% of Mediterranean marine and coastal areas by 2030 and to address overfishing over the next 10 years by declaring that at least 10% of our marine protected areas will be “no-take reserves” where fishing will no longer be permitted.
The role of the Blue Economy in achieving the goals of the European Green Deal in the Mediterranean is pivotal. We have seen pent up demand for holiday travel coming back after the Covid impact, but we need to ensure we now build a model of sustainable tourism. Not narrowly measuring success by the number of tourist numbers that visit but taking a much more sophisticated and holistic approach, particularly on our precious islands. We need to reduce the environmental, climate and energy footprint of all the Blue Economy related offshore, onshore and coastal activities with a view to make them circular.
Finally, on civil protection, prevention and preparedness, we must strengthen and deepen cooperation among Mediterranean partners. The challenges related to natural disasters that we face share a common profile and across the Mediterranean countries we need to exchange experts, lessons, best practices, resources and expertise.
We also need an upgrading of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and the substantial strengthening of the RescEU in the Mediterranean by providing a European Reserve of resources. That means a substantive fleet of firefighting or other planes and helicopters, as well as boats, medical equipment and evacuation planes, for the protection of European citizens and the natural environment from disasters, such as fires, floods, earthquakes, epidemics, as well as the management of crisis and emergency situations, which tend to escalate as time passes.
Time is also not on our side when it comes to the climate and environment crisis that our fragile planet faces. Just as in our past, we need a powerful and sustained phase of radical thinking, ambition, mobilisation and action to drive transformational progress for humanity.
The EUMED as a grouping of nations must rise to this moment. We are all democracies built on a mandate given to us by the electorates we serve. Although quick action to deal with natural disasters and to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis is imperative, we must offer so much more than that.
We have to build a future that is rooted in justice where people and nature can thrive, and everyone has opportunity. One where generations to come look back with pride at what we were able to achieve.
The fight to create a safe, prosperous, fair and sustainable future for our societies will be hard won, but it is a battle we cannot afford to lose.