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News: December 2018

Monitoring air quality from street to country

Image: ATMOSYS VITO
Image: ATMOSYS

11 December 2018More and more environmental agencies and city planners across the EU are using air quality monitoring technology developed within LIFE ATMOSYS, 5 years after the project concluded.

Public authorities in Belgium,  Croatia, France  and Poland are taking advantage of data modelling from the VITO ATMOSYS system developed under the LIFE ATMOSYS project which ran until 2013. Further activities are in motion across the EU, either for testing and fine-tuning or implementation by authorities.

Building data models

The modelling system was originally set up by VITO, a Flemish research and technology organisation. Researchers, city authorities and the public can use applications from the tool to check near real-time levels of pollution in their area and beyond, monitor changes and see forecasts.

To ease EU-wide uptake, a re-analysis dataset from CAMS, the EU’s atmosphere monitoring service, has been integrated into ATMOSYS. The re-analysis provided by CAMS gives extra certainty to pollution estimates from ATMOSYS, especially where existing data is not detailed enough.

Helping cities’ transport networks

Image: ATMOSYS VITO
Photo: ATMOSYS

ATMOSYS is highly versatile because it has customisable components to help authorities decide what measures to put in place when air quality problems occur. Based on modelling, cities can employ measures such as smog warnings, reduced traffic speeds and low-emission zones.

As Lisa Byth, project manager at VITO, explained, “the tool can provide insight into where annual average levels are exceeded, if a high episode of pollution is forecast, how short-term measures might reduce levels if a high period is coming, and how long-term actions like low-emission zones should help cities stay within limits.”

Transport authorities in Krakow, Poland, are benefitting from such insights. VITO has provided them with a tailored planning module called ‘Atmo-plan’ to help the city assess its long-term air quality strategy for transport.

In wider Poland, the large-scale LIFE Integrated Project ‘Malopolska in a healthy atmosphere’ uses modules from ATMOSYS to generate near real-time insights into air pollution across the regions of Malopolska and Silesia – and beyond into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Lasting cross-EU applicability

Image: ATMOSYS VITO
Image: ATMOSYS

The Flemish Environment Agency and Belgian Interregional Environment Agency use ATMOSYS data to present pollution levels to the public. Pollution types monitored include nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter (PM10) and ozone (O3).

In Flanders, detailed air quality levels for NO2 can now be provided right down to street level, with practical applications including helping people decide the healthiest route to work. The region has also pioneered monitoring and modelling of elemental carbon which is a more suitable indicator of traffic pollution than particular matter.

In France, the national air quality surveillance laboratory (the LCSQA) uses a web-based evaluation tool from ATMOSYS. Having a consolidated model ensures that air quality evaluations across the country can be approached systematically.

And in Croatia, VITO will use ATMOSYS modules to support authorities by offering near real-time data, 3-day forecasts and a historical air-quality maps service for the whole country.

Air quality infringements in the EU

The ATMOSYS applications evaluate air quality within the framework of EU legislation on ambient air quality. They can help authorities stay within pollution limits defined by the EU.

In May 2018 the European Commission referred 6 EU countries to the Court of Justice for the EU for failures to limit pollutants. There are 13 infringement cases pending against EU countries to date.

ATMOSYS was among 17 projects in 2015 to receive the award for ‘best LIFE Environment projects’

Low emissions at high altitudes

Photo: Crops for better soilPhotovoltaic panels at Lizara hut
Photo: Sustainhuts

10 December 2018Mountain huts by their nature are remote, off the grid and dependent on fuel deliveries. The LIFE SustainHuts project is showing that installing green technologies in extreme conditions can make even off-grid buildings more energy efficient.

Solutions to mitigate climate change are needed everywhere, even in some of the most challenging environments where people live or visit. The project LIFE SustainHuts takes the task to remote areas, using mountain huts as testing locations. These huts are often in sensitive ecosystems that can easily be affected by emissions and pollution.

By developing installations at locations in Italy, Spain and Slovenia and assessing the impacts, the project will show that building emissions can be reduced even in these conditions.

Why mountain huts?

Trekking and tourist huts in the mountains need a continual supply of energy to stay habitable. Often disconnected from the electricity grid, they tend to rely on diesel tanks, helicopter or cable-car supplies and fossil-fuel powered generators. As a result, the traditional power sources available to them tend to be inefficient, expensive and need regular maintenance.

"This is why the project is very interesting for hut owners," explained project coordinator Pedro Casero from The Foundation for the Development of New Hydrogen Technologies in Aragon, Spain. "The life cycles of older batteries are much lower than they should be." As a result, there are high economic incentives to adopt new technologies.

Installations on track

Photo: Crops for better soilThermal chimney installation
Photo: Sustainhuts

The team is installing and testing around 20 approaches using wide-ranging technologies including photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, automated systems, insulation, thermal chimneys, pellets, water treatment and hydrogen fuel. These will enable mountain huts to move closer to energy and water self-sufficiency, and significantly cut their carbon footprint. By selecting and planning the locations, "we've been able to propose clear changes that hadn't been spotted before," said Mr Casero.

The project chose places with different altitudes so that results could be gathered from the widest possible scenarios. Altitudes range from around 1 000m to over 3 000m.

Now halfway through the project, the team has installed green technologies in 5 of the 8 huts in its proposal. These include

  • photovoltaic (solar) panels and wind turbines
  • replacement batteries and inverters for charging batteries
  • innovative insulation techniques
  • new water collection, management and treatment systems
Photo: Crops for better soilPhotovoltaic panels in winter
Photo: Sustainhuts

One technology proposed for the Bachimaña hut in Spain has particular promise. This is a renewable hydrogen-based seasonal storage system, where electricity which has been converted into pressurised hydrogen is stored and used in fuel cells to produce electricity on-demand. Power can be stored for long periods, marking a clear improvement on existing batteries. In combination with solar panels or wind turbines, this can help huts achieve much higher self-sufficiency.

Benefits and replication

At the end of the project, the team expects to see

  • CO2 reduction of 21 tonnes per hut per year
  • NOx (nitrogen oxides) reduction of 0.5 tonnes per year
  • 20% improvement in energy efficiency

On top of the energy saving and environmental gains, hut and tourist operators benefit from a business which is better equipped and more attractive to visitors. For this reason, SustainHuts has been reaching out to hotel operators and tourism businesses to share and gain practical examples of how the sector is lowering its environmental footprint.

To help replicate project activities at other mountain huts and off-grid areas, the team will produce technical guidelines as well as results and recommendations for policymakers.

Related links

More on the Sustainhuts project

Spanish farmers go organic at a profit

Photo: Crops for better soil Photo: Crops for better soil

05 December 2018Organic agriculture is boosting crop revenues and restoring soils across some of the driest regions in Spain. As part of the LIFE-funded Crops for better soil project, some farmers boosted their profits from €50 a hectare to over €300 in just five years. To do so, they abandoned fertilisers, adopted soil-friendly farming techniques and shifted to higher-value organic produce.

According to Professor Juan Pablo del Monte, an agronomist at the Technical University of Madrid, organic farming offers more than money. The vast monocultures of wheat that sprawl across the Iberian Peninsula today use ploughs and fertilisers on scales that suck the life out of soils and erode farmland.

“Conventional agriculture tries to fit ready-made solutions to complex natural problems. But there is no simple recipe to boost soil quality,” said Professor del Monte. “Farmers have to constantly adapt the earth that they work and the plants that they grow to conditions as they evolve.”

Up-market farming

Crops for better soil invited farms across the autonomous communities of Castilla-La Mancha, Castile and León, Aragón and Navarre in Spain to take part in the project. In all, 26 farms covering 400 hectares of semi-arid land ended their use of external inputs and shifted production towards more lucrative crops that can grow off mere rainfall.

“Rather than produce cheap wheat for cattle feed, we encouraged farmers to grow premium durum wheat for organic pasta and baby food,” explained Mariano Saz from Transati, an agricultural supplier in Madrid. “We also reintroduced crops grown generations ago, like chickpeas and lentils, that are better suited to local climate conditions.”

Mr Saz, who led this LIFE project, is not surprised by the upswing in farm revenues. He points out that organic agriculture cuts costs for pesticides, fertilisers and machinery, and that organic produce fetches higher prices on international markets. Embracing these benefits, however, requires a change in both farming techniques and mindset.

Going organic

Photo: Crops for better soil Photo: Crops for better soil

“Organic farmers have to be constantly on the lookout,” said Professor del Monte. “You think more, you react more, you have to evaluate everything to stay on top of your work.”

To improve water retention in their fields, some farmers taking part in the project decompacted their soil mechanically. To counter water evaporation, they left crop residues on harvested fields. To boost soil nutrients, they planted crops that extract carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere and store it underground.

“The trick is to rotate crops each year between cereals, legumes and an oil seeds,” said Egbert Sonneveld, a sustainability consultant involved in the project. The nutrients deposited by the first harvest help grow the next. “None of this is rocket science, we are just applying what agronomists have been advising for years.”

It will take years to appreciate the full impact of organic agriculture on soil quality, but already farms with longer experience are showing promising headway in terms of recovering carbon content and ground nutrients. In the meantime, the financial impact for farmers remains clear.

"I am never going back to conventional agriculture," said Luis Ballesteros, a farmer who took part in the project.

Crops for better soil is a Best of the Best LIFE Environment project 2016-17

 

LIFE supports international biodiversity efforts at COP14

Photo: Indemares Photo: Indemares

04 December 2018The EU is calling for an urgent global response to the existential threat posed by losses to wildlife and ecosystems. To gain from international efforts, several LIFE projects exhibited at the COP14 UN biodiversity conference in Egypt.

An EU delegation led by environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella attended the 14th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP14) as part of its leading efforts for a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

Global impact

Speaking at the event, Commissioner Vella highlighted the value of EU funds, saying "To support commitments made at such events, we need programmes such as LIFE which continues to invest in projects that safeguard biodiversity and find solutions to some of today's greatest environmental concerns - air pollution, water scarcity, marine littering. Protecting biodiversity on land as in the ocean is important for future generations, but also for our current wellbeing. We have a choice, support life or end up on life-support."

Fields covered at COP14

The UN biodiversity conference focused on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, biodiversity and core economic sectors, protected land and sea areas, and conservation and management.

The private land gap

Photo: Pixbay Creative Commons Photo: Pixbay Creative Commons

60% of Europe's Natura 2000 area is privately owned. Reaching biodiversity targets thus depends on engaging owners and managers of private land in nature conservation.

Most EU countries have created voluntary programmes supporting landowners to implement biodiversity management activities. However, many of these programmes are relatively new and landowners are often unaware they exist.

The project LIFE ‘Land Is For Ever’ is now looking at existing incentives around the world and conducting field research to see how to raise engagement of private landowners in conservation efforts. Incentives include payments, subsidies and building public recognition.

The European Landowners’ Organisation, which is leading the project, ran a side event at COP14 with its partner, TNC (The Nature Conservancy). “With this event we wanted to raise awareness on the possibilities and present the need for a private land conservation framework of tools and incentives in the EU,” explained project officer Anne-Sophie Mulier.  

Photo: Land Is For Ever Land Is For Ever

Project  representatives highlighted that private land conservation needs greater global recognition in terms of legal language, including in the Biological Diversity COP, to guide decision-makers. Growing awareness can make policy-makers understand the effect that supporting private land conservation can have on meeting international biodiversity targets.

The EU is the biggest donor for the protection of biodiversity in the world, committing more than €350 million per year on biodiversity in developing countries. 

Marine protection

The Spanish marine protected areas project, LIFE IP INTEMARES presented a practical guide for ecological restoration at COP14. The guide was produced by project beneficiary Fundación Biodiversidad in partnership with 6 large enterprises.

INTEMARES builds on marine biodiversity management efforts conducted under the 6-year LIFE + INDEMARES project which Fundación Biodiversidad ran until 2014. The earlier project had a significant impact on marine biodiversity protection in Spain, contributing more than 7 million hectares to the Natura 2000 network.

Sonia Castañeda, Sonia Castañeda,
Fundación Biodiversidad

Sonia  Castañeda, director of Fundación Biodiversidad, described the progress made. “We took a huge step in marine conservation projection areas, increasing protected areas from 1% to 8%”. This trend continues, she added, with protected areas now totalling 12%. This is above the 10% Spain needs to comply with its international commitments.

Now INTEMARES is strengthening this network of marine areas to make sure they are properly managed. It is implementing a wide programme of actions up to 2024. This covers protection of marine ecosystems, research, monitoring, surveillance and governance, as well as awareness and educational activities.

INTEMARES is one of LIFE’s Integrated Projects. These allow EU countries to use other EU funding sources, national funds and private sector capital. Thanks to the scale of funding, “these projects give us – together with many other stakeholders – the scope to work towards common goals,” says Ms Castañeda

Related links

COP14 concluding press release [pdf]

Practical guide for ecological restoration (Spanish) [pdf]

 

 

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