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Leading the sustainable revolution

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 11:48

The Basque Country has positioned itself among the leaders of local sustainability and its environmental policy has a proven track record dating three decades back. In an exclusive interview with Janani Krishnaswamy, Commissioning Editor, Government Gazette, Ana Oregi, Minister for Environment and Territorial Policy of the Basque Government, shows a firm commitment to improving the environment and tells us what European cities should learn from the Basque Country

European Cities will have to find sustainable solutions to current challenges and create social and economic value for the benefit of the local population. How can this value be captured in Europe today?

I believe that the answer to that question is through open participation, collaboration, solid funding, circular economy principles and a strong awareness of the need to change the current social and economic model.

Cities need a socio-economic transformation so as to boost the local economies, create small scale investment opportunities and jobs, apply new innovative approaches to financing, and prioritise the purchase of products and services with high environmental performance, among others.

In the Basque Country we have a strong model of participation that includes some good examples of value capturing. Such is the case of the Udalsarea 21 network, working with over 200 municipalities to implement and monitor transversal public policies on sustainable effective development; the Ner group, an initiative where local companies share knowledge and experiences. They support each other financially, so as to change the current relations model in the private sector from a human development and sustainability perspective; or the Koopera Reusing Center, a private-public partnership project that works on the integral management of local solid waste, based on environmental co-responsibility, social inclusion, and community-based economy.

We are confident that cities are valuable centres of economic growth, and we trust that local value will be reflected in the transformative actions of European cities and organisations.

The Basque country’s newly adopted Environmental Programme for 2020 shows a firm commitment to improving the environment and also aligns with current European strategies on job creation, enhancing standards of living and building a low-carbon economy. What are the major highlights of your latest strategy?

As the Minister for Environment and Territorial Policy, I am proud to say that the major highlight of the Environmental Programme for 2020 is that our society and citizens are at the core of the strategy.

We are convinced that obtaining an advanced, modern and prosperous society is only possible by protecting and respecting our natural resources and by scrupulously preventing the environmental risks for the health and quality of life of everyone.

One of the main goals of the Basque Government is to leave for future generations a territory that is more pleasant, more sustainable and with greater development potential.  The Basque Government understands the environment as the key concept that gathers all the factors that condition human life, natural, cultural, economic or social. Thus, our Administration has incorporated the environment in all its policies as a cross-cutting element that decisively contributes to wellbeing, creation of green jobs, development of a future-looking and strong economy, as well as building a fairer and more equitable society.

In this context, we are working on: protecting our natural capital as a source of wellbeing and quality of life; moving towards a new energy model to face climate change; promoting public health and its interdependence with the environment; fostering a circular economy and a competitive territory; developing an education system that prioritises commitment to future generations; and leading a governance model based on co-responsibility.

The Basque Country has positioned itself among the leaders of local sustainability and its environmental policy has a proven track record dating three decades back. Can you explain how the Basque Country has continued to make significant progress, and what do you think other European cities should learn from the Basque Country?

Four decades ago the environmental performance of the Basque Country was rather poor: there were very few urban water purification infrastructures; we did not have networks to control the quality of the air or water masses; and there was no expertise and experience regarding environmental policies among the Public Administration, companies or citizens.

In the 90s, we started working towards reverting this situation. So we invested in innovation and R&D, the heavy industry was restructured towards a more sustainable and efficient model, the unemployment rate began to drop steadily, and environmental indicators began to evolve positively.

In 2002 the Basque Network of Municipalities for Sustainability, Udalsarea 21, was created to facilitate inter-institutional coordination and the intervention of municipalities in this change process. As of today, 97% of Basque citizens live in towns and cities with Local Agenda 21 plans of action.

We have a trajectory of over 30 years now and we have developed a coordinated and participative governance system, we have prioritised the environmental actions within the government budget, and we have introduced sustainability as the key factor in the economic activities of our production model, and that is the key to the transformation of our region.

The Basque Country is nowadays among the advanced European regions leading environment-linked policies and instruments, as it was shown at the COP21 in Paris with the participation of the Basque Government, municipalities and companies that presented 12 examples of excellence and transformative programmes to combat climate change, as an opportunity to produce goods and services with lower emissions, and train co-responsible and well-informed citizens.

With both the EU Urban Agenda and the Habitat III New Urban Agenda to be adopted in 2016, cities will continue to be in the focus of international policy processes. How do you think these two agendas interrelate with the political reality in European cities? What guidance can they provide for cities, and what do city leaders expect from them?

City leaders are asked to design and shape the transformation of our countries in a context of financial and economic crisis in Europe, and the challenges of unemployment, regional conflicts, economic and social divide, as well as the increased migration that is one of their consequences.

The EU Urban Agenda and the UN New Urban Agenda aim to be frameworks for sustainable urban development that will foster cooperation between local and national governments and international organisations, and will enable the integration of urban policies and cohesion of actions. I understand that both tools promote a new working method to ensure maximum utilisation of the growth potential of cities and successfully tackle the social challenges.

However, I would say that in addition to a reference framework, cities expect to see a multilevel governance and implementation mechanism: supportive legal and programmatic framework conditions; financial programmes to generate and increase urban value; and strategic urban planning and design guidelines with a focus on citizens and aiming at driving sustainable development and an equitable society.