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Interview 13:58 29 Jun 2022

European Commissioner for the Environment: "We are witnessing in Ukraine what has not happened since the World War II"

Instruments for recording russia's war crimes against the Ukrainian environment — how will the EU help restore the Ukrainian environment?

On Friday, June 24, Rubryka met with Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries. The next visit of the politician to Kyiv is connected with a significant event for Ukraine — joining the EU's LIFE program.

In an exclusive interview with the Commissioner, we found out what this program is about and how the EU will help Ukraine restore the environment and recover compensation from russia for the environmental crimes committed by the aggressor.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

Before our interview, Mr. Sinkevičius managed to visit the cities most affected by russian aggression: Borodyanka, Irpin, and Bucha. Like other high-ranking officials, seeing everything with his own eyes, the European Commissioner was shocked:

It's awful. Many war crimes were committed here. You can see the destroyed infrastructure and destroyed houses. But, of course, this is not the most important thing. Most importantly, there are many lost lives. Many people have also lost their homes. For example, we were in Hostomel yesterday and saw many people working there at the Antonov plant. They are now homeless.

 

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

Virginijus Sinkevičius also visited the forests around the Kyiv region. That was enough to understand it would take a long time to return them even to the pre-war state:

— There are environmental problems in the forest we visited, and those war crimes committed against the environment will have long-term consequences. More than 700 hectares of forest are dotted with trenches and excavations, and the whole area needs to be demined. All this means that you will have to deal with the restoration of forest cover and so on. But it will take many years. You can do this step by step, but it is still a very long process.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

—What can you compare to the damage you saw? Have you seen anything like this before in other countries?

— Absolutely not. Now, of course, we are witnessing something that has not been seen in Europe since World War II. From the point of view of cruelty, from the point of view of looting, and so on. It's disgusting! It is obvious that this war will leave deep scars on the history of Europe. The generations to come will not be able to forgive and forget these war crimes.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

What is LIFE climate program?

"I can't think of a better way to start with EU candidate status than to sign an agreement on Ukraine's accession to the LIFE environmental and climate program"

Rubryka spoke with Virginijus Sinkevičius on the day Ukraine joined the LIFE environmental program, which will provide resources and funding to address the long-term effects of russian aggression and restore the environment as a whole.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

LIFE is a European Union program dedicated exclusively to nature conservation and climate action. Over the 30 years, it has successfully implemented more than 5,600 projects in the European Union and abroad. The program budget for 2021-2027 is 5.43 billion euros, which is 0.48% of the total EU budget.

— Only last night, it was announced that Ukraine received the EU candidate status. I can not imagine a better way to start with candidate status than to sign an agreement on Ukraine's accession to the LIFE environmental and climate program. The total budget of our program is about 5.5 billion euros, and Ukraine must now accept a part of these funds fully to implement various types of projects.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

During the thirty years of the program's existence, projects on biodiversity, reserves, plains, forests, as well as simplification of waste management systems have been implemented.

— I already see great potential here. We discussed the possibility of implementing projects in Ukraine related to such war crimes as the affected forest, which I mentioned, with the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources of Ukraine. I think that for a start, we can allocate a part of this forest, completely clear it, and restore it. It is already a big step toward restoring Ukraine's beauty and returning it to the Ukrainian people.

Our interview took place in the heart of Kyiv, at the Intercontinental Hotel. Next to it, on Sofia Square in the open air, there are russia's burnt tanks, another reminder that the war is going on in Ukraine.

— Hundreds and thousands of tons of scrap metal, which we can see even near this hotel, are now in Ukrainian territory. It must be properly disposed of so that it does not remain in the environment and does not spread pollution.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

From now on, applications for cooperation can be submitted by the Government or public organizations:

— This is a great opportunity to strengthen Ukraine's civil society. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to meet with them now, but the last time I was here, I had a round table with NGOs. Our European delegation in Kyiv works closely with them. I have already met many promising non-governmental organizations working on projects, such as the Emerald Network, its expansion, and protection. These are the kind of programs that are funded by LIFE. Therefore, I am sure that with the assistance of our delegation and the help of the European community Ukrainian NGOs can also access these funds.

Reference: The Emerald Network is a network of protected areas created to preserve species and settlements that need protection at the European level. The Emerald Network is formed in non-EU countries and is similar to the Natura 2000 network, which operates in EU countries. The development of the Emerald Network of Ukraine began in 2009 and continues to this day. Currently, the Emerald Network in Ukraine includes about 12% of the country's territory, including many Ukrainian forests.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

In your opinion, what environmental problems in Ukraine should be solved in the first place?

— First of all, I will say that we are talking against the background of the war, so it is very difficult to talk about environmental legislation when a war going on. But now, a decisive and significant step has been taken — the law "On Waste Management" was adopted. It is a great law in line with EU directives, and its idea is good. Now, it is crucial to implement it properly. The implementation process is always difficult. It requires the involvement of society, regions, and so on. I hope that Ukraine successfully implements waste management legislation. Secondly, of course, the best protection for the environment is to create protection zones and ensure their functioning. The third step I would probably mention is forest protection. It is especially important to protect the old natural forests that are part of the Emerald Network.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

russia's ecocide in Ukraine and ways to compensate for environmental damage

How will Europe help?

In addition to the LIFE program, Ukraine expects russia to compensate for the losses caused by the aggressor. In early July, the Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, Ruslan Strilets, said that the damage had already exceeded 200 billion hryvnias. These are only the cases submitted to the application for recording environmental crimes "Eco-threat."

—Virginijus, can you call what is happening in Ukraine ecocide? It is a rather controversial term, but now, unfortunately, it is gaining relevance.

— Absolutely. I mean, on the one hand, the concept of ecocide is not yet in our legislation, but we understand that it is happening. Look, bombs are being dropped on chemical plants, russians are attacking sewage treatment plants. It means that pollutants just fall into the water, into rivers. Hundreds of hectares of forests have been almost completely destroyed or polluted, and it is impossible to clear them because the whole area is mined. So, without a doubt, their actions put unprecedented pressure on the environment.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

— How will the European Union contribute to the collection of evidence and assistance in compensating for the damage caused to Ukraine's environment?

— This is a good issue, the solution of which requires a large amount of work. We need to work on documented war crimes against the environment. And I am glad we have a methodology – together with the Ukrainian authorities, we are working on collecting war crimes and evidence. We will use our Copernicus system to map and monitor the environment in various locations throughout Ukraine, which can then be processed and used for further research. Only after we gather all the evidence can we obtain compensation for the environmental damage. And one way to do that is to freeze the assets of the russian federation. But this requires a court decision.

Єврокомісар Віргініюс Сінкевічюс

Reference: Copernicus is an updated environmental and security research program supported and managed by the European Commission with the European Space Agency, Member States, and EU agencies. The aim is to use the vast amount of data from satellites and terrestrial, air, and marine measurement systems to obtain timely and quality information, services, and knowledge, and to provide independent access to environmental and safety information globally to help service providers, government agencies and other international organizations to improve the people's quality of life.

— How can Ukraine record environmental crimes committed by russia in the temporarily occupied territories, where Ukrainian specialists are not allowed?

— It is the Copernicus system I mentioned that could help with this. We hope we can use it. But, of course, there are always difficulties, and we cannot be naive and hope that absolutely all of russia's crimes will be documented. But we will make the most of our opportunities.

Such support inspires and gives strength and confidence to move forward to Victory. Finally, Virginijus Sinkevičius encouraged:

— I am sure these territories will return to Ukraine, and I believe in the Ukrainian victory. The Russians will be pushed into their territories, back to the borders of Ukraine by 2014, the European Commissioner concluded.

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