Ukrainian ecologists battle business lobby to join EU’s Emerald Network.

In 2020, the Ukrainian Parliament registered Bill No.4461 “On Territories of the Emerald Network”, under which Ukraine undertakes to protect and conserve its natural habitat according to European standards. Due to a powerful business lobby, the Bill was not adopted in the first reading (July 15, 2021) and was sent for revision.

Today, the Ukrainian ecological community sounds the alarm: the creation of the Emerald Network is essential not only for the sake of the environment as such, but it is also important and beneficial for the country and its people.

What is the Emerald Network?

The Emerald Network is an ecological network made up of Areas of Special Conservation Interest. It was implemented by the Council of Europe as part of its work under the Bern Convention with special focus on long-term conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats. Ukraine ratified the Convention in 1996, committing to creating the Emerald Network in the near future. Therefore, this year Ukraine is obliged to complete the creation of the Emerald Network in accordance with the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU.

In the end, the adoption of the Bill “On Territories of the Emerald Network” is a step towards Ukraine’s transition to European legislative standards in the field of environmental protection.

Natura 2000 is a comprehensive pan-European network for ecosystem conservation. Image: europe.oceana.org

The Emerald Network functions in most European countries. In the EU Member States, the network is called NATURA 2000. It aims to protect and preserve rare species and ecosystems throughout Europe. These habitats and species – such as the black stork, lynx, white-tailed eagle, brown bear, etc. – are listed in Resolution No.4 (1996) and Resdolution No.6 of the Standing Committee to the Berne Convention.

In essence, the Emerald Network already exists in Ukraine, namely 377 valuable natural areas. However, none of them have a legal status at the national level. In other words, without a definitive law adopted by the Ukrainian parliament, there are no real mechanisms for their protection and preservation.

Potential sites for the Emerald Network in the Eastern Partnership countries. Map: www.eea.europa.eu

The Emerald Network and Law No.4461

There are two stages in the setting up of Emerald sites. During the first stage , scientists conduct studies in order to assess the sufficiency of specific sites to ensure the survival of threatened species and habitats. After processing and discussing the documents at the international level, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources approves and sends them to the Standing Committee to the Berne Convention, which decides on the creation of specific sites as part of the Emerald Network. However, an official declaration naming an Emerald site does not ensure its protection.

The second stage is crucial: the development of a management plan for the Emerald Network. It provides a description of the general information to be included in the document, which specifies what measures can or cannot be carried out on this site. The management plan is developed individually for each site of the Emerald Network and takes into account all local features.

There are no restrictions or prohibitions in creating an Emerald site. However, it is at the second stage (developing the Emerald Network management plan) that landowners, land users and other stakeholders will be involved. This is an important factor, because it is at this moment that a compromise can be reached: i.e. how to protect and preserve nature and, at the same time, conduct economic activity.

Does the Emerald Network restrict business investments?

D:\барсучонок\УПГ\статті євромайдан\800px-Боржава_(Закарпаття)_06.jpg

Borzhava region (Emerald site). Photo:Taras r, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

In July, during the first reading, 199 votes were cast in favour of Bill No. 4461 “On Territories of the Emerald Network” . But, 27 more “ayes” were needed, so the law was not adopted in the first reading and sent for revision. Interestingly, only three deputies actually opposed the bill, but 47 abstained and 47 did not vote.

Speaking against the Bill, Batkivshchyna MP Ivan Krulko stated that hotels and sanatoriums should be built first, and only then can relevant authorities think about preserving wildlife.

In fact, it is entirely wrong to claim that the Emerald Network is an obstacle to conducting business. The Bill does not mention any bans on economic activity (in particular, hotels). The Emerald Network is extremely flexible, and according to the Bill, companies can operate wherever they do not harm endangered species and habitats. As an example, Natura 2000 sites in European countries promote outdoor recreation, sport and tourism!

It is important to understand that the Emerald Network includes mostly wildlife and natural habitats, not fields or human habitation. It does not pose a problem for agribusiness unless such companies decide to plow up the last steppes of Ukraine, where plowing is already prohibited by law. Moreover, the Emerald Network does not provide for transfer of ownership of these sites.

The Emerald Network promotes the protection of nature and provides an individual approach to each site. Indeed, in some cases, economic activity (for example, deforestation) may be restricted. However, European experience shows that in many cases, even small changes in economic activity will ensure the preservation of nature and will not cause significant economic damage. Furthermore, the preservation of certain species can even stimulate economic activity: for example, mowing meadows or grazing cattle.

The Emerald Network applies only to specific species and habitats covered by the Berne Convention. Activities that do not harm either of them are not considered a threat and cannot be restricted.

The Emerald Network in Ukraine

The Emerald Network in Ukraine

Will the Emerald Network benefit Ukraine?

Nature and wildlife provide us with many free and valuable services: clean air, drinking water, protection from floods and erosion, crop pollination, tourism, etc. Each of these services can be calculated in monetary terms.

EU states have made many calculations for the Natura 2000 network, which is very similar to the Emerald Network. In 2013, the European Union attempted to quantify the economic benefits of Natura 2000 – on average, one hectare of a Natura 2000 site yields €2447 per year.

In 2020, officials conducted a thorough assessment of the social and economic benefits of Natura 2000 in Lithuania. It is estimated that the annual cost of the network reached approximately 88.7 million euros. But the benefits of nature conservation under Natura 2000 are much greater – at least 193.7 million euros. Therefore, by investing in nature protection, Lithuania earns 105 million euros annually.

Benefits from various aspects of Natura 2000 (excluding costs) according to the results of 2020 calculations in Lithuania

The Emerald Network encourages tourism as long as it does not harm the natural environment. Calculations for Natura 2000 show that between 800,000 and 2,000,000 jobs are associated with these sites throughout the European Union.

In Oslo, Norway, the preservation of approximately 25,000 hectares of forests and lakes has resulted in annual benefits of approximately €7 million for water treatment and another €10 million to €40 million for water supply (these amounts would have been paid if not for the protection of the above areas).

Thus, the creation of the Emerald Network in Ukraine will not only preserve endangered species and habitats, but also enhance Ukraine’s image on the international arena, ensure progress towards European integration, economic benefits and, most importantly, the well-being of Ukrainians, which, in the conditions of rapid climate change, depends directly on the preservation of nature and wildlife.

Why are members of the Ukrainian business community against the Emerald Network?

The Ukrainian ecological community seriously believes that Bill No. 4461 “On Territories of the Emerald Network” will not be adopted due to strong resistance from the business community. Members of the Ukrainian business community offer the following explanations:

  • Unwillingness to allow projects on Emerald sites, which are not currently subject to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to undergo the procedure for EIA.
  • Unwillingness to evaluate geological exploration and experimental and industrial extraction within the Emerald Network
  • Readiness to obtain a permit in order to implement projects that will clearly have a negative impact on the Emerald Network, but can bring in enormous profits (for example, extraction of mineral resources).

These arguments are in line with some unfounded accusations that Ukrainian companies will not be able to work effectively. However, it is known that Natura 2000 – an analogue of the Emerald Network in the EU – occupies 18% of the territories of EU member states and does not prevent European companies from working efficiently. For example according to Poland’s legislation:

  • Any plan or project that may adversely affect Natura 2000 must be evaluated before a decision can be made on its implementation.
  • Such decisions include approvals of plans for geological exploration.
  • If the project clearly has a negative impact on a Natura 2000 site, it can only be implemented if there is no other alternative and only to preserve human life and wellbeing, protect the state and serve the public interest

Geological exploration of peat in Volyn Oblast led to complete destruction of the natural ecosystem

Such norms are quite reasonable, because geological exploration involves the removal of topsoil and drilling. For example, at one time, geological exploration of peat in Volyn Oblast led to the complete destruction of the natural ecosystem.

In Poland (and generally in the EU), any project or planned activity that may affect Natura 2000 sites is subject to evaluation, while in Ukraine legislators limited their list to some types of commercial activity. Therefore, with regard to business activity, Bill No.4461 “On Territories of the Emerald Network” is less stringent than relevant Polish legislation.

Currently, Ukrainian environmentalists and drafters of the bill agree on one thing: the real goal of the opponents to Bill No.4461 is to introduce the Emerald Network in such a way that it does not lead to any restrictions on economic activity… in other words, the Emerald Network will not be applied. In the long run, what the Ukrainian business community wants is to extract mineral resources throughout Ukraine, including in protected areas, which have been recognized as important and useful for all of Europe.

Despite the President’s support for environmental bills, the July vote demonstrated which Ukrainian deputies actually stand for environmental protection and European integration, and which protect the interests of natural resource operators. Currently, proponents of the Emerald Network in Ukraine are trying to get the message out and get through to the authorities and business representatives: they organize peaceful rallies, exhibitions, and consultations to debunk the myths about the Emerald Network Bill, etc. Will they be heard?

The Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group is an NGO aiming to combine the efforts of experts and scientists to protect biological diversity and develop nature reserves.

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