Interview of the Week: Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries

Photo: Lukasz Kobus, EC Audiovisual

ODP: You have just taken over as Europe’s Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. Tell us how you became interested in conservation and how you have reached such an important position so early in your career?

VS:  As I was Minister of Economy and Innovation in Lithuania, naturally, I was expecting rather a portfolio from a similar area in the European Commission. On the other hand, I thought of the portfolio of Environment, Oceans and Fisheries as a very meaningful one and it was, therefore, a pleasant surprise when President von der Leyen suggested that I take it over. By preparing for Hearings in the European Parliament, meeting with NGOs, environmental and fisheries organizations, and other stakeholders, I went deeper and deeper into the topics. And the more I got to know them, the more meaningful they became for me.

I think no matter the work you do or the position you are in, you have to care about what you do and be committed. And I do. Whether it is the planet, nature, economy, or people’s lives – I care about what I do and how good I do it. That’s my only simple secret.

ODP:  The Covid-19 pandemic sadly re-confirms the urgent need to address the biodiversity and climate crises, and that the risk of disease outbreaks, including pandemics, increases with the further decline of nature. How can we urgently repair our relationship with nature to prevent future disasters?

VS:  It’s true that we need profound changes in the way we live and do business, and in the way we treat nature, and that’s why the Commission adopted a new strategy for biodiversity when the coronavirus crisis was still at its peak in Europe. There are three main pillars – firstly more protection and restoration, to reverse the degradation of ecosystems, secondly building resilience to future threats like climate change, food insecurity and outbreaks of diseases, and then thirdly supporting a green recovery, because nature can play a massive role in helping us and our economies emerge from this crisis.

There’s no single magic solution, but when you put together the incremental parts – a wider network of protected areas on land and at sea, with strict protection for areas like ancient forests, an EU Nature Restoration Plan, lower pesticide use, more organic farming, planting 3 billion trees and so forth – we’re well on the way to mending our relationship with nature.

ODP:  How will the EC address climate change and shifting fish stocks given the country quota system that increasingly doesn’t always accurately reflect where the fish are being caught? Can you foresee a reform effort for the Common Fisheries Policy that will allow for countries to address this challenge?

VS:  To meet our climate targets, we have to make sure that our oceans continue to be climate change mitigators, that our marine ecosystem is healthy and resilient. When it comes to fisheries, an important element that will also contribute to our efforts to protect marine biodiversity is the ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management and the objective of Maximum Sustainable Yield for fish stocks under the common fisheries policy. Although these goals are already established as the main pillars of the current policy, the Biodiversity Strategy will serve as an important boost to step up the efforts.

With current common fisheries policy, we already have a powerful instrument that helps us to keep fish stocks at healthy levels, to protect the marine environment, or to stop the wasteful practice of discards. But there is still a lot of work to do to implement it properly and effectively. The Commission will present a report to the European Parliament and to the Council on the functioning of the common fisheries policy by the end of 2022. The report will also identify how to better address issues such as climate adaptation, the social dimension, and clean oceans.

ODP:  The EU has an ambitious Green Deal agenda. Energy transformation will be at the center of it. What ocean energy technology areas will the EC focus on? And how will you balance them with sustainability goals?

VS:  With 22 million square kilometers, the European Union has the largest maritime space in the world and it is already the global frontrunner in developing emerging technologies at sea, such as floating wind and tidal energy. But we are not going to stop here.

Within the Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy, due for publication before the end of the year, the Commission will consider all forms of renewable energy from our seas and oceans. In addition to wind energy, which has the potential to grow on an unprecedented scale, the EU also has the possibility of developing new technologies that utilize the natural power of waves and the tides.

At the same stage, we will make sure that we do this in a way, which is fully in line with our ecosystems. Hence the strategy will integrate the environmental impacts of offshore renewable energy deployment in line with the commitments in the EU Biodiversity strategy and European environmental legislation. Aspects such as minimizing the impact on biodiversity, marine environment, and fisheries, while ensuring win-win solutions, will be an important part of the strategy.

Thank you so much, Commissioner Sinkevičius, and congratulations on the adoption of the EC’s Green Deal.  We will check back with you in a few months to see how the implementation is going!

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