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BEACON, a beacon in the dark?

Are journalists able to take a neutral stance? Who chooses the stories they work on, and who decides the way these are presented? Do they portray reality and describe it through their words – like someone dressing a mannequin in a shop window? What are these stories that journalists write? What influence does intuition have in their work? What is the perspective of journalists when they observe and ask, listen and touch, sense the taste and smell, and then tell their story? What pictures do they choose? Questioning yourself and your work also calls into question the meaning of what you report to the world with text and images every day.

How should I classify this topic that I’m writing about now: a climate catastrophe, or is it still just climate change? Some say that time is running out. And others talk about credibility. By 2030, we have to emit 40% less CO2. By 2050, we will be “clean”. Is this a conversation between a drug addict and his therapist? Am I having a consultation about a detoxification cure? No. I’m having a brief conversation during the coffee break at BEACON in Heidelberg, Germany; BEACON, the bridge between European and local climate action. This is where we get some support. But, as a journalist and participant at a congress (funded by the German Ministry for the Environment) – where there are close on 100 council leaders, architects, urban planners and climate specialists from seven countries, meeting together to discuss ways to reduce CO2 emissions – can I assume that these representatives of the ruling system, on their way to Heidelberg, have tried as much as possible to avoid emissions which will contribute to the warming of the atmosphere, by travelling not by plane, but by train?


No, I can’t. Municipalities are pioneers on the road to a greener future, someone from urban planning tells me. There is a lot of talk that day, focusing on the future. We need to act, says Jose Maria Costa, the Mayor of Viana do Castelo. Where States and Governments have failed, the municipalities are now acting. Is this so? Villages and towns aren’t built for the comfort of drivers, write the traffic planners in their pamphlets, but then they don’t work at Monchique town hall. Architects now build houses with active, or at least passive, energy, advising people to live in natural shelters, to make their lives more pleasant, say others. Green is the colour of choice. All discussions about the future of humankind centre on a life that is neutral in terms of carbon emissions. One of the climate scientists says CO2 is colourless and odourless. So, today, in Heidelberg, there’s a meeting promoted by the European BEACON project, which was described extensively in the last edition of ECO123, and in which, this time, countries from Eastern Europe are also participating. The next meeting will be on the Greek island of Syros and the one after that in Viana do Castelo, in Portugal once again, in November.

So, how do I get to Heidelberg while emitting as little CO2 as possible? That was the first question I asked myself. How do I get to such a congress? For months, I’ve been walking through the ashes of burned forests and thinking about the state of the Earth. Almost no one is interested in the forest now. Many people don’t know how to distinguish an oak tree from a chestnut tree. No one goes on foot to see the state the forest is in. I see the trees with my own eyes. Trees are considered to be decorative features when planted next to buildings or, the rest of the time, as an investment in monocultures. Basically, those who really deserved a congress were the European forests and the people who have been left living in burned, roofless houses under the blue skies of the Algarve: the victims of the climate in Europe. There are people who are living in tents on their burned land, while the council’s architects shelter behind their regulations. When a building permit has to be issued for a house that has burned down, a bureaucrat always finds some impediment. But how can forest fires be prevented? Floods? Hail and thunderstorms? That should be the subject. How can the impoverishment caused by catastrophes be prevented?

A question for the participants at the BEACON conference: how did you come to Heidelberg? Will the journalist find harmony between people’s words and deeds? Representatives from more than 50 municipalities in Greece, Portugal, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic flew to Heidelberg, paid for by taxpayers. How is it possible for so many politicians to be searching for ways to achieve sustainability, and seeking to reduce their municipality’s emissions by 40 percent by 2030, when they don’t even start by setting an example themselves? When I ask them what means of transport they chose to come to the conference, they either look away or shrug. By plane. Guilty conscience? No. Why?

ECO123 pays for its own travel expenses. We aren’t funded by the minister for the environment. It’s the support of our readers that gives us our freedom of choice. It’s Tuesday 21 May, and it’s raining in Heidelberg. There’s hardly any daylight. Three days earlier, after we’d studied and compared all the options, we set off from Monchique at dawn in a hybrid vehicle. We now only fly in emergencies. On the first day, we reached Miranda de Ebro, in the north of Spain; on the second, we spent the night in Châteauroux, in the heart of France; and, the next day, we arrived in Germany. And here we are, in this united Europe without borders. We’ve travelled 2,709 kilometres and are responsible for 82 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometre. We refilled the car four times, almost 100 litres in total. There are two of us, and each is responsible for half of the 222kg and 138g of CO2 (or 112kg of CO2) that we emitted. This was what I registered at https://kyoto.eco123.info before going to the congress. I go up to the fifth floor of no. 7, Bahnstadt, a passive energy building, where the BEACON meetings are going to be held. It’s here that solutions will be worked out for Europe to confront climate change in the coming years, a euphemism that we should classify as climate catastrophes.

How can a journalist find out if the boat is already sinking while he’s watching a string orchestra playing? During the introduction to the conference, the municipalities highlight the energy shortage with a lot of words and questions. Fifty million Europeans are currently unable to heat or cool their homes adequately. How can we help low-income households to lower their energy costs, increase the level of comfort in their homes and, at the same time, be more climate-friendly? It’s a good question. And what do the rest of the world think, faced with hunger, war, drought, floods and forest fires? Decision-makers at BEACON are asking how official bodies can generate measures for mitigating and adapting to climate change, whilst, at the same time, making energy more sustainable and cheaper. How can municipalities – despite being heavily in debt – find the necessary funding for investments? How can EU funding be used for municipalities to finance protection measures? How can awareness of climate change and the need for climate protection measures be strengthened at the local level? How can the link between the causes and effects of climate change be made – based on municipal climate targets and measures? How can scientific measures and local actions be linked to one another?

And, I ask, why are the fires in Greece and Portugal not being addressed by BEACON? In Germany, the signs of a climate crisis are also multiplying. During 2018, the level of the Rhine was so low that it created many obstacles for navigation. What was the reason? The lack of rain. And the first big forest fires began to occur in Germany, Sweden and Norway.

Pedro Martins Barata
Pedro Martins Barata

During the lunch break, ECO123 spoke to Pedro Martins Barata (aged 50), a consultant for get2c and the Portuguese government’s coordinator of the Roadmap project for carbon neutrality by 2050.

How can we achieve carbon neutrality?
Carbon neutrality has come into existence because we have the global issue of climate change, and the scientific community has come to the conclusion that, in order to have a realistic hypothesis of avoiding the major impacts of climate change, we have to reduce our emissions much faster than we’ve been doing. And to do this, we aim to reduce our emissions to zero by the second half of the century.

For Portugal, this means that we have an increased responsibility. We are a developed country. We have to reduce our emissions to zero by 2050. We have 32 years left to do this.

António Costa spoke about that in Marrakesh…
António Costa committed himself to that aim, on behalf of Portugal, yes.

How can we get there?
After these declarations in Marrakesh, the government decided to make a roadmap for carbon neutrality that serves several purposes. The most important thing is to offer a vision of how carbon neutrality can be achieved. Then we need to share this vision, so that it’s not only an official, political document, but one that can be used, in coming years, to develop strategies in the different sectors.

To achieve carbon neutrality, we need to take three steps in the case of Portugal. The first is to increase the share of renewable energy in electricity production, and to reach a 100% level. It has already been established that Sines will be shut down before 2030. On the roadmap, this power station will be shut down between 2025 and 2029; I have reason to believe that it may even be shut down sooner.

Obviously, the intention is to stop using energy produced from coal as soon as possible. This is a very interesting part of our roadmap – there are many countries where there is talk of an energy transition from coal to natural gas, and then afterwards to renewable energy. Portugal has an excess capacity in terms of natural gas and this excess is being used to stop the burning of coal and to organise the way we use natural gas. The solution is not to produce any more natural gas at all, and move on to renewable forms of energy: solar, wind and water.

This is the first milestone. 100 percent renewable energy as soon as possible!
Once all electricity is renewable, the second milestone is to electrify all resources. Electricity is already used for lighting, and more and more for heating our homes, but we still have a lot of difficulties in using electricity for mobility. Thus, Portugal is one of the countries in Europe where electric mobility is appearing fastest. Portugal is between third and fifth place among the countries where the use of electric mobility is increasing!

In individual mobility, but not in collective mobility.
There we have an issue that we must bear in mind. We can move from individual, conditional mobility, from diesel/petrol to electricity, and we will undoubtedly make gains in this transition in climate terms. We would make even greater gains if we could simultaneously move from individual mobility to collective or shared mobility. There, also, we have some advantages.
At this point, it’s already possible for our public transport to switch to electricity. We see this with the fleets that have been acquired in Portugal in recent years.
This is a process that’s happening, above all, in Lisbon. In Porto, less so. A lot of this electric mobility – as the roadmap itself indicates – will be coupled with shared mobility. Shared mobility is increasingly electric – and Uber will increasingly replace the conventional taxi.

Taxi drivers won’t like to hear that.
No, they won’t like it, but this is the reality that is knocking at the door. Uber drivers may also not be very satisfied because one of the options mentioned in the roadmap is that autonomous mobility, which is now totally experimental, will grow a lot. But, as far as we know, autonomous mobility may suddenly take off in some niches of the market. Today, for example, it’s quite possible, with the technology that we have, to design lorries that are self-driven and can carry freight on long-distance routes.

And the train …?
The train has the problem of a lack of flexibility for transporting this type of cargo.

More railway lines?
But they’re more expensive…

Lisbon-Madrid, Paris-Brussels-Berlin-Heidelberg …

Pedro Martins Barata

The train, just like all major forms of transport – the Metro, for example – is absolutely crucial and important for this change in mobility. The point is that, with this change, we have to ensure that we have the political will for a large-scale investment in public transport for large numbers of people, because, without it, we will have a system that turns out to be more inefficient, although it’s clean because it’s electric and renewable. It will be more inefficient because we’re investing in electric cars, when we could be doing this collectively by investing in public transport.

Going back to the milestones. Electrification, consumption and the instalment of 100% renewable energy production. The third milestone is to increase carbon sequestration, which in Portugal can only be done (and, at the moment, relatively poorly) through the forest. It can be done well, and, in a more lasting way, through forest conservation and by restoring areas of pastureland.

Recovering the areas that burned?
Recovering the areas that burned. And we also need to restore native forests that are resilient to fire, and to the predicted climate change, as well as recovering soil productivity through different projects. There have already been some projects in Portugal, for example, for developing pastureland that has greater biodiversity.

What native species are you referring to? To the eucalyptus?
(laughs) Essentially, we’re talking about oaks. As far as grazing is concerned, this mainly means restoring the montados that we already have [groves of cork-oak and holm-oak trees, combined with pastureland], sowing grasses that are highly productive, selected grasses that have high levels of carbon sequestration in the soil. The idea is to have a long-term perspective, not a 10 or 15-year plan, but a 40 to 50-year plan for soil restoration, so that, by 2050, or even by 2060, the soil can be more productive. We have, in fact, lost that productivity over the past centuries. And, in doing all this, we are sequestering carbon. It’s this equation between what we emit less and sequester more that leads to carbon neutrality.

With the construction of a new airport in Montijo will we achieve carbon neutrality by 2050?
What if we were to put in place more flexible high-speed trains from Lisbon to Madrid, Paris and Brussels, while promoting greater regional use of the train as a form of transport within the country itself?
We have population mobility. When it was first created, the Portuguese railway system was intended to be used (in inland regions) for carrying freight, not for transporting people, so the stations are sometimes miles away from the centres of population. Some of these railway lines are being reinstated for tourist and other purposes, but this is difficult to do, as the line was designed to perform the function that it already has.
In order to achieve carbon neutrality, we will have to stop or repeat the process of concentrating the population in metropolitan areas. This is not an idyllic idea of ​​a return to nature and “let’s all live among the birds …”. It means having quality of life, access to public services – and being able to have this, in the same way, in an urban centre like Lisbon, Évora or Beja. For this, we will need to have good-quality means of transport. I’m not sure that this will be guaranteed by rail travel. It would be convenient if we could have a means of mass public transport, however, because of the crowds we have in our cities …

We can do this by converting the railway lines, as well as through other types of road services, but ones that are electrified, and in some cases – as, for example, in the Algarve….

… do you travel to the Algarve?

I make very few trips to the Algarve, but I do go. I go to Loulé by train, and receive a service of quite reasonable quality, which is competitive in terms of time. It remains to be seen whether, based on that infrastructure, we will be able to make trains more attractive – they’re already much more popular than they were fifteen or twenty years ago – and thus reverse the rail company’s fall in revenue.
In terms of local activity, the intention is to repopulate average-sized towns on the understanding that they will become competitive, because they will offer more that society needs in terms of quality of life. In the future, high levels of quality of life will be enjoyed just as much in Évora, Lisbon or Coimbra as in other average-sized towns and cities. This also means that, even in those big cities like Lisbon – the large metropolitan areas – we need a different lifestyle that will, for example, cause families to start thinking about how they produce their energy (they can produce a part of the energy they consume), how they use resources and how they can recycle materials.

The idea is to not have any waste in towns and cities by 2050. All our waste is material that can be reused, recycled, and put back into circulation.

Do you think Mota Engil would like to hear these statements?
I don’t know.

Are you proposing a city without any waste, with resources that can be recovered and recycled?
Oil companies such as GALP, as well as urban solid waste companies, are moving in this direction. There are trends pointing to the end of the activity of these companies as they currently define themselves. If I define myself as a waste incineration company, I’m going nowhere. If I redefine myself and propose myself as a restorer of natural circulation, my business is assured.

Does it seem like a radical idea to ban the bottling of water in plastic bottles?
I don’t see anything radical in that idea.

Would it not be a good idea to set up a bottle refill system in Portugal?
In my view, this question will soon be a reality, it’s only a matter of time … I’ve already started to remove everything made of plastic in terms of toiletries from my personal life. I try to make choices like using glass, making bulk purchases without packaging…

There’s an ever greater need to recycle. The strategies are all leading in that direction. Some municipalities in Portugal are already giving incentives for recycling single-use plastics. And it seems to me that, sooner or later, companies will have to realise that these trends are very strong, although some may not actually materialise. And the risk associated with being on the wrong side is very high.

For me, Kodak is a prime example. Kodak reached its highest value on the Stock Exchange in 1999, when digital cameras represented only 3% of all cameras sold. But that 3% suddenly became 100%. And today the digital camera market is decreasing because we’re all using this facility on our phones. The same phenomenon is even more visible with EDP, or even GALP. GALP may decide that it will be the last company to produce electrodes or that it will use its business power to install solar panels or switch to another type of renewable energy. Companies that are developing urban solid waste disposal systems, such as Mota Engil, may consider selling waste or providing solutions for the circular economy. If today the problem is waste, all the thinking in Europe is aimed at putting an end to rubbish dumps and landfills – and the idea of ​​burning waste to create energy won’t make much sense any more. People will begin to question why they should contribute to a company that produces energy when they can do this for themselves.

In Heidelberg, we discuss ideas among various European Union countries and we dream. We dream about the future. How to transform it, how to transfer an old linear system into a new circular system? We need to ask ourselves, as Portuguese people, how we intend to receive tourists ten years from now. Do you think we really need a new airport in Lisbon or a modernised train system instead?
All the forecasts point towards a continuing growth in air transport over the next few years. Lisbon airport in particular is old and the decades of growth in the capital have led to the city gradually sprawling out towards the airport. It used to be on the outskirts. There are already problems in the centre of Lisbon – such as the air quality – that are caused by the airport traffic. There are, therefore, good reasons to relocate the airport outside Lisbon. There are also counter-arguments for keeping it. The airport, where it is, is extremely convenient. The second reason – and this must always be borne in mind – is that when, and if, the airport is relocated, we’re not going to open up that area, which is a huge area, to real estate speculation.

It will cause more CO2…
And then there is another question, if we relocate the airport, we will have tSo build a whole new transport network around the new airport, and it will all have to be decarbonised.
For twenty years I’ve been constantly hearing that, the next year, Lisbon airport will reach its maximum capacity and that we will absolutely need to build a new airport. And it’s a bit like when I started my career – and it was pointed out that renewable energy could never amount to more than 30% of the network. Today it is 100% of the network, for several days, continuously in Lisbon.
My doubt is always whether there is an urgent need to build a new airport, also for operational reasons. There have been many times when I’ve arrived at Lisbon airport and haven’t felt it to be a particularly crowded airport.

We are neighbours with Spain, but we have only one railway line leaving Portugal – the night express, leaving at 9:35 p.m., from Lisbon to Paris and arriving at the French border the next day at 11:00 a.m. It’s very slow, travelling at 70km h…
The TGV, the high-speed train network, needs a very large investment…

Seven billion euros.
It’s expensive.

Will we receive some funding in part from the European Union?
It will make sense. There’s ever more trade between Lisbon and Madrid and this would make it stronger.

How did you get to BEACON? By train, car or plane?
I flew by plane to Frankfurt and then took the high-speed train to Mannheim. Then I caught the train to the station and walked here on foot.

In the future, would you be willing to travel from Lisbon to Heidelberg by train? We’d have more time for a good interview during the trip.
Right! (laughs) Last year, I went from Lisbon to Katowice to the climate conference by electric car. We compared the emissions.

Thank you very much.

About the author

Uwe Heitkamp, 53 years old, started working after university in daily newspapers and from 1984 on in public tv broadcasting companies such as WDR (Collogne), NDR (Hamburg), SDR (Stuttgart/Baden-Baden) in the ARD (first programme), wrote several books and directed the cinema movie about the anti nuclear movement in Germany in 1986 (Wackersdorf). After emigration in 1990 he founded 1995 the trilingual weekly printed newspaper “Algarve123” and later the online edition www.algarve123.com. Heitkamp lives for 25 year in Monchique, Portugal. He loves mountain hiking and swimming in streams and lakes, writes and tells stories of success from people and their sustainable relationship between ecology and economy. His actual film “Revolutionary Roads” tells the 60 minute story of a long walk crossing Portugal. 10 rural people paint a picture of their lives in the hills of the serra and the hinterland. The film captures profound impressions of natural beauty and human life. Along which path is the future of Portugal to be found? (subscribe to ECO123 und watch the documentary in the Mediatec)

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