Interview with Mr. Aitor Zulueta – Director of Natural Heritage of the Basque Country
nrg4SD: The Basque Country is a founding member of nrg4SD’s Regions for Biodiversity Learning Platform and has implemented important actions for biodiversity conservation with an eco-systemic approach. Could you share with us some of those actions and how are they aligned with the 2030 Biodiversity Agenda?
AZ: First of all, I would like to highlight that all of our actions are aligned with the according legislations and regulations. As a regional government, we have the obligation to align and adjust our policies to the European and National laws. We believe that to differentiate ourselves, we must take the basics from those mandatory regulations and build from them to implement braver and more progressive policies in sustainability, conservation of natural heritage and not only biodiversity, but also geo-diversity.
In this sense, we are currently working very hard to approve the new law of conservation of natural heritage of the Basque Country, which will enable us to consolidate those normative frameworks with a more progressive approach for nature conservation, taking into account climate change adaptation and integrating new trends that involve the primary and traditional sectors from around the declared natural areas. We aim at policies that could go beyond mere conservation, giving opportunities to economic growth with activities linked to conservation. All of this is incorporated in our 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, which is in turn a sectoral strategy related to the Basque Country’s Environmental Program, our global environmental strategy.
nrg4SD: You participated at the International Conference “A Territorial Rights Based Approach to Biodiversity” in Cuenca, on 21-22 June 2018. In particular, you participated at the panel “Regulation and mitigation of human activities with pressure on biodiversity”. What kind of initiatives your government presented and what is their importance in the development of biodiversity conservation policies?
AZ: Our presentation was about the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, located in the Basque Country and dependent of the Man and Biosphere Program of UNESCO. We presented this case as an example of conciliation and co-existence between conservation and socio-economic development. We believe it is crucial that nature conservation does not put a hold on socio-economic development and that the latter is not an obstacle for conservation, using science not only as a source of information, but as a tool for all administrations involved in conservation.
Our differential feature regarding the biosphere reserve is that it is a fairly populated reserve of 225 km2 with 45 thousand inhabitants and increasing tourism pressure. Obviously, the differential feature is that even under those conditions of demographic and socio-economic pressure we still manage to maintain nature conservation. We believe this is our strong point.
nrg4SD: Regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), recently the Lehendakari Mr. Iñigo Urkullu, announced the Basque Country’s 2030 Agenda. This is the first time a Spanish region incorporates the SDGs into their official government program. How can this action improve the policies and thematic actions of the Basque Country?
AZ: We have worked with the SDGs for a very long time from the Environment Deputy Ministry, and more specifically, from the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. To us, the SDGs are a well-known tool. We also have the Basque Country’s Sustainability Declaration, which is a sort of materialization of our 2030 Agenda, but with a very sectoral, environmental point of view. To us, the fact that the Lehendakari announced a global 2030 Agenda for the entire Basque government served as a support for a tool that we already used and that has thus become extensive for the entire government. The advantage of this common 2030 Agenda is the alignment of all sectoral policies with the SDGs, regardless whether they fall under the industry, energy, health or education sectors.
nrg4SD: The Basque Country is also part of the BreatheLife Campaign, which seeks to reduce air pollution and improve people’s quality of life. What actions have been developed since your adhesion during the COP23 last year?
AZ: Here I would also like to highlight that we already had an interdisciplinary Committee within the Environment Deputy Ministry. Such Committee includes representatives from the health and environmental sectors, who analyze together the impact of air pollution and air quality on health, in particular regarding respiratory diseases. On the last year, aside continuing with this Committee’s work, we have developed a project regarding climate change, air pollution and health. We are taking the basic data on how air pollution affects respiratory health together with the scenarios extracted from the fifth report of the climate change intergovernmental panel, and from there we foresee how climate change will impact public health in its more drastic scenarios, specifically heat waves. We believe this study will be very useful for the health sector to anticipate and make forecasts regarding the vulnerability of the population to certain type of pathologies. In addition, it will enable civil society to make mindful decisions, as well as the necessary adjustments in to their daily actions. The study is currently in a very primary pilot phase, but this is its essence.
nrg4SD: This year the COP24 will be held in Katowice, Poland. How is the Basque Country preparing to collaborate in the discussions and what adaptation actions will you share?
AZ: We are working both in adaptation and mitigation. In regards with mitigation, we are working within our possibilities, because as a subnational government we many times have issues to establish our own policies. Regarding adaptation, we are completely aligned with the European Union Climate Action policies. We are preparing, not specifically for the COP24, but for a longer term, including the International Conference on Climate Change to be held in March 2019 in San Sebastian, and we are trying to go beyond the national policies. For this, we are currently in the drafting phase of a Basque Country Climate Change Law, in which we are trying to -taking into account the cross-cutting approach of climate change-, reach broader and more ambitious goals, regarding mitigation and adaptation.
We believe we need to re-think adaptation because we see that it is often considered as a kind of resignation, that is, let’s adapt to what already exists, but it is not really that. Adaptation, above all, is prevention of risks, it is associated with the induced risks, and this is what we are working on, concretely, on the four risks that affect most the Basque Country: the risk due to impacts on the coast, flood risk, heat waves and droughts.
nrg4SD: RegionsAdapt is a project that reaches a very large scope of regions. Regarding the Basque Country’s adaptation plans and the challenges you face, how do you see the project and how do you think we can further develop it to help the regions to fulfilling their adaptation goals?
AZ: What I find most interesting about RegionsAdapt is the networking and exchanging opportunities. This helps us to see things that we cannot see for ourselves, because as subnational governments we face certain limitations regarding our competences and our own resources. For me, RegionsAdapt is an initiative that allows us to work further more than what we could work on our own, and of course, our intention is to keep this exchange and share with other regions best practices and knowledge that we can replicate.
nrg4SD: Our next General Assembly will be held in March 2019 in the Basque Country. What message would you like to share in regard to this event in the context of greater recognition of subnational governments are having now?
AZ: We plan to hold an international conference on climate change, conceived as a plural and universal event. Very often climate change is a restricted topic to experts, leaving others aside. Our aim is to help people to learn certain concepts that are very easy to understand when they are well explained, and that perhaps was lost because of the prominence of technical vision or language. We also want to give much importance to the regions. In fact, we will be previously attending the Global Climate Chance Summit in California next 12 – 14 September, with the intention to invite different regions around the world. We are very interested in the cooperation between regional governments and we aim at promoting that in the climate change topic. On one hand, we conceive climate change as a civil society matter and, on the other hand, climate change as a competence of subnational governments. We think this will definitely be an excellent framework to hold the nrg4SD’s General Assembly meeting. So we would already like to invite everyone to participate and learn about our region. We do not guarantee good weather, but a lot of good food, good organization and a warm welcome.