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| Researching to Safeguard the Environment

The scientific evidence is mounting that mankind is seriously altering the Earth’s climate, with potentially devastating consequences if consumers, businesses and governments do not modify how they interact with the environment. Changes are needed across the entire spectrum of human activity. Among the first challenges is to effectively communicate the threats and risks of climate change to the public – and ways to reverse the symptoms – as debated vigorously at the European Commission’s Green Week event in Brussels 30 May-3 June.
Green Week 2005
Green Week 2005: communicate the threats and risks of climate change to the public.
"Climate change is one of the greatest threats that we face today – not just an environmental threat, but a threat to our economies, our way of life, perhaps even our security and safety,” Stavros Dimas, EU Environment Commissioner, announced at the opening session of DG Environment’s Green Week. Setting the tone for the event’s debates and exhibits, Dimas said the Union gives high priority to climate change and is leading the global effort to combat it. “The EU will maintain its leadership role in this context," he asserted.

Dimas was joined during the week by a diverse array of speakers from business, consumer affairs, environmental action groups, universities, research centres and government agencies.

An ever-warming Earth

If Green Week participants took home any single conclusion from Brussels, it was the urgency of tackling climate change. Global warming is changing long-term weather patterns and ocean currents, undermining polar cap stability, decimating biodiversity link 1 and draining fertility away from continents as drought and rising temperatures afflict the landscape.

One after another, researchers and scientists presented the hard evidence of disruptions to the eco-systems they study: insects, birdlife, sealife, the size and volume of ice caps, wetlands and littoral regions, pollution levels in the air and soil… a veritable catalogue of climate-change induced assaults on the planet.

Mediating the message

But despite the gravity of such evidence, participants also underscored the difficulty in communicating the complexity of climate change and its solutions to policy-makers and the general public. As one participant at Green Week’s session on biodiversity observed, getting the policy options understood by Europe’s governments is a major challenge for the scientific community. “Let’s face it: our communication to policy-makers about the changes to biodiversity is not really very good,” admitted Per Angelstam, a forestry researcher at Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences.

Members of the media who focus exclusively on science or environmental reporting also confirmed the difficulty of capturing and sustaining the public’s interest in climate change. “By definition, climate change is something that happens over a long period,” said Silvia Rosa-Brusin, science reporter for Italy’s RAI television channel. “Its scale is huge but there are few dramatic images to illustrate its change.”

By contrast, environmental interest among young Europeans – especially at primary and secondary levels – is keen, and a number of Green Week events were especially targeted at them, including workshops between teenagers and scientists, and awards for student videos and art on climate change.

EU confronts climate change

Subtle though changes to the climate change may appear, the European Commission strongly supports a wide scope of research and environmental protection programmes not only to mitigate and reverse their effects but to advance our knowledge about phenomena and to better predict their effects on climate change. These programmes range from clean-fuel technologies and renewable energy sources to sustainable designs for urban living and transport to promotion of wider regional and global environmental efforts such as emissions-trading schemes or the protection of biodiversity.

Indeed, many examples of EU-sponsored initiatives in these areas – and those led by businesses, consumer groups, non-governmental organisations, universities, schools, research centres – were on offer during the week. And many carried the same message: only actions, not words, can save the planet.

Climate change’s silver lining: renewables

While climate change poses serious threats to our quality of life, it also offers opportunities. Few would disagree that switching away from carbon-based fuels to greener alternatives is a bad thing, provided the alternatives are reasonably priced and readily available.

Renewables have a direct impact on climate change due to their absence of carbon emissions. And as the sector grows, it also creates jobs and promotes technological innovation while shifting Europe’s rural development toward better land-use strategies.

The European Commission’s Directorates-General for research, environment and transport and energy all have a finger in research and technology-demonstration projects to promote new and efficient kinds of renewable energy. The Union’s Renewables Directive, for example, sets a target for the EU-25 to produce 21% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2010.

Although EU officials point out that Europe leads the world regarding the use and research of renewable energy, it still has a long way to go before achieving its 21% goal. Nonetheless, certain European regions have already surpassed that benchmark. In Austria, for example, 30% of the Steiermark region’s energy is derived from renewable sources – five times the EU average. And by 2010 the region aims to raise this to 50% of its energy needs! See information on Commission-supported Renewable energy research and technologies link 2.

Clean climate, clean cities

As in much of the world, most of Europe’s population lives in cities…urban sites that have suffered the side effects of 150 years of industrialisation. And no side effect is more obvious, or more immediately threatening to human health, than air pollution. Factories, power plants and vehicles of every sort – from mopeds to 16-wheelers – all pollute the air we breathe in our cities, day and night. Moreover, despite advances in hybrid technologies, a majority of today’s vehicles, factories and residential sectors still consume fossil fuels and thus continue to spew out huge quantities of CO2 and other climate-changing emissions.

Indeed, cities face the greatest challenges in generating environmentally compatible growth. This is why so many EU and national research initiatives place so much emphasis on achieving sustainable transport policies, clean energies and environment-friendly urban design. These were a focus of discussion in sessions held on day two of Green Week debating the international campaign for cleaner air.

Participants agreed that squeezing maximum efficiencies in favour of the environment is the key. This means centralising pedestrian access to basic services, creating bicycle paths and making public transport networks as dense as possible to lure passengers away from their vehicles. It calls for solar-powered buildings, better-insulated infrastructures, and an expansion of recycling opportunities for the huge range of waste that cities produce. For instance, some European municipalities now collect used cooking oil from restaurants for conversion into bio-diesel fuel for their buses – a creative and simple solution to recycling energy. For more information, see: Sustainable cities link 3

The give-and-take of emissions trading

Few transport sectors are more emblematic of the challenges posed by emissions trading than civil aviation. Although Europe’s aeronautics industry has made astonishing leaps in fuel-efficient technologies and aerodynamic design, the sector remains the fastest-growing factor in climate change. Cheap air travel, for instance, has opened up many new business and leisure opportunities, but it has also exacted a price on the environment, with rising noise levels and emissions of CO2 and other pollutants.

Some of Green Week’s most heavily attended sessions, in fact, revolved around the debate over how to reconcile air transport with climate change. Imposing new taxes on jet fuel is one option under review, though whether its burden should be absorbed by the aviation industry or consumers remains to be seen. The European Commission is currently carrying out an assessment of the environmental, economic and social impact of the different policy options.

Meanwhile, its DG Research supports a wide array of projects concerning the links between Climate Change link 4 and the technological and policy responses needed to confront the challenge. 

For more information about the event’s debate and topics on climate change, see Green Week link 5.


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