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image European Research News Centre > Environment > Sustainable development: time to decide
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image Sustainable development: time to decide
RTD info special FP6
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  The Fifth Framework Programme already clearly identified sustainable development as a research priority. Since the Gothenburg Summit of June 2001, European leaders have adopted it as a key common component of all EU policies. In keeping with the new direction taken by scientific and technological research with a view to the European Research Area – aimed in particular at concentrating support in priority fields – pride of place is awarded to the two most strategic components of sustainable development: energy and transport. A third priority reaffirms the importance Europe attaches, at global level, to research on change worldwide.
   
   

There is one fundamental component which dominates the sustainable development equation: energy production and consumption, together with its principal associated sub-sector, transport. Transport alone accounts for one-third of European energy consumption and is responsible for almost 30% of total CO2 emissions.

Energy

The Union has decided to make a particularly committed effort in these two fields. On the energy front, the goal of sustainable development will be combined with the key strategic dimension of 'energy independence', the importance of which was set out in a recent Green Paper. Research here must answer two questions: first, how to exercise better control over the unavoidable use of fossil fuels – and in particular coal and its derivatives, guaranteeing increased security of supply? And secondly, how to encourage the increasingly vital use of renewable energies?

As regards the latter, two verdicts can be reached: one positive, the other negative. In the space of ten years (1989-1998), the contribution of renewable energies to primary energy supplies increased by 32% and to electricity generation by 29%, with some spectacular success stories such as wind power which experienced 2 000% growth! Yet at the same time, these 'clean and independent' energies are still not contributing enough and, if nothing is done to give them a new impetus, by 2030 they will account for just 9% of total consumption. This when the Union target is for them to meet 12% of European energy supplies by 2010.

Research must therefore continue on improving the available technologies, reducing their cost, improving their efficiency and, most importantly, incorporating them in the major electricity distribution networks. Photovoltaic solar energy, for example, is already benefiting from research to reduce the production cost of sensors and improve panel yield.

Hydroelectric power, which accounts for 13% of the Union's electricity production, stands to benefit from the development of micro-power stations. Using marine hydraulics to harness the power of waves and tides is another area of under-exploited potential. In the field of wind power, where there is now increasing emphasis on offshore sites, research on limiting noise pollution and achieving a more competitive cost per kilowatt hour is proving very promising.

Other essential areas of European energy research in the medium to long term include fuel cells, alternative fuels (of agri-forestry origin) and the clean burning of coal (with funding available following the expiry of the ECSC Treaty).

Sustainable mobility

The Union's commitment is equally resolute in the field of mobility, as demonstrated by the recent adoption of the White Paper on European transport policy. The transport sector is responsible for 32% of energy consumption and 28% of total CO2 emissions, the chief culprit in the latter case being road transport. The main challenge lies in the major urban areas where the excessive use of the private car is causing problems of air pollution and is more of an obstacle to mobility than anything else. On a more global level, and for goods transport in particular, a new balance must be achieved between road, rail and sea transport. The fields of research and innovation are many and varied, including environmental protection, competitiveness, safety and interoperability of modes of transport.

Global monitoring

Over the past decade, European research has played a large part in identifying the phenomena of global change and their growing susceptibility to the influence of human activities. The Union is determined to adopt a responsible attitude in implementing the major international conventions which it largely inspired, namely the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, UN conventions on biological diversity (1992) and combating desertification (1994), and the Montreal Protocol (1987) on substances which deplete the ozone layer. It also aims to retain its research status and to continue to make a substantial contribution to this vital field of the Earth Sciences.


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Examples of projects

The hydrogen solution: Hydrogen fuel cells are a particularly promising new means of vehicle propulsion. The only gas they emit is steam. Below, a prototype of the Citaro bus, designed by Daimler Benz and used during the 'car free day' in Brussels last September. A number of European research projects are studying this pollution-free public transport options, in particular the Cute project (Clean Urban Transport for Europe) which is active in nine cities (Amsterdam, Barcelona, Hamburg, London, Luxembourg, Madrid, Porto, Stockholm and Stuttgart), and the Ectos project (Ecological City Transport System) which is looking at hydrogen transport and storage solutions following trials carried out in Reykjavik (Iceland).

http://ec.europa.eu/energy_transport/en/prog_cut_en.html
http://www.fuel-cell-bus-club.com
http://www.newenergy.is/ectos.asp

Studying the ozone layer: In co-operation with Nasa, the huge Theseo-Solve project is studying the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere, with the help of the very best European experts. Over the last ten years, balloons and aircraft packed with measuring instruments have been taking measurements in the stratosphere to model depletion of the ozone layer at different altitudes.

http://www.nilu.no/projects/theseo2000/

Safety first: Reducing the number of road accidents is one of the Union's transport priorities. A number of research projects are currently looking at new means of both passive and active vehicle safety. Above, a protection simulation test at TNO Crash-Safety in Delft, which specialises in accident simulation using bioconform models and is coordinator of the Adria project to improve safety in the event of head-on collision (as provided by air bags, for example).

http://www.tno.nl

The history of climate : The huge ice cap which covers the continent of Antarctica is a genuine 'hard disk' of information on the air and climate of the past. Over the next five years, experts on the European Epica project will be taking ice samples from depths of up to 800 metres, which should make it possible to build up a picture of the paleoclimate of 500 000 years ago. This will shed valuable new light on global and climate changes which are of interest to researchers studying phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels and the melting of the permafrost.

http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/

Can carbon be 'fixed'? Can forests act as reservoirs, fixing the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, which is the main cause of climate warming? This key question is being studied by the CarboEurope initiative which is drawing on the expertise of eight multidisciplinary research projects, 190 scientists, 69 institutions and about 30 sites in the 15 EU Member States. These small sensors are placed at tree-top level and can calculate the net flow of carbon dioxide between the vegetation and the air.

http://www.bgc-jena.mpg.de/public/carboeur/carbo.html

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