24 November 2017Nature lovers visiting Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses have celebrated 25 years of LIFE-funded conservation work with a stroll through prehistoric peatlands. These peat bogs straddle today’s border between England and Wales, although they have existed for 10 000 years longer than either country. In a series of events marking LIFE’s silver jubilee this year, visitors from all over Europe were introduced to the site’s unique heritage by hosts as unlikely as creepy crawlies and reeking fungi.
“There is no point in just telling people that peat bogs are amazing,” said John Hughes from the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Few people immediately connect with the flat, rough and ancient landscapes. But small, personal experiences can help reveal their vast importance.
To introduce visitors to the hidden charms of peat bogs, Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses nature reserve relies heavily on the hospitality of its outlandish inhabitants. Over the course of each walk, Mr Hughes urges visitors to hear, feel, smell and even taste local plants and fungi.
The programme of each walk depends on which species visitors meet along the way. Last month, guests were treated to oak milkcap mushrooms (Lactarius quietus). The species is nothing special to the pallet, but it is easily identified by the oily scent of bed bugs that it emits.
“No one knows what bed bugs smell like,” said Mr Hughes. “But everyone remembers that part. You can look at something as small as the detail on a moss and take away this is entire amazing landscape.”
Peat bogs are rare and weird habitats. Formed almost exclusively in northern Europe, they keep organic matter intact for millennia, providing biological records that stretch back to prehistoric times. These natural archives notably help substantiate theories in archaeology and climate science. Peatland ecosystems are also one of the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet.
“Trees are good for locking up carbon, but a growing peat bog is much better,” said Mr Hughes.
To look after these unique habitats, and pass them on to future generations, Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses puts stock in human contact. It organised its LIFE-25 visits in groups of some 15 people to nurture dialogue between guides like Mr Hughes - who has worked on the peat bog for as long as the LIFE programme has existed - and newcomers, who are discovering it for the first time.
“We very much want people to visit the nature reserve,” said Mr Hughes. “Conserving habitats and species is a good thing but you can’t do it without public support.”
He says that social interactions and strong sensations, like flavours and smells, help lock facts and details into nice memories. It gets people looking closer at nature and coming to grips with its depth. That’s when they start falling in love with the site and coming back to it.
Many of the volunteers now restoring the bogs at Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses discovered their passion on such tours. Now they cut down trees, put up fences and dig ditches in attempts to protect some of the last peat bogs on the planet.
“Most lowland peatlands have been drained over the centuries to build or plant crops on the land,” said Mr Hughes. “We lost a lot of them but this one for all sorts of chance reasons has survived.”
With funds from the Marches Mosses BogLIFE project, Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses is extending and improving its conservation work to the very edges of the nature reserve, and beyond.
“The LIFE project is solving many of the problems that we thought would never got solved,” said Mr Hughes. “Its funds have helped divert mineral-rich water coming into the site, reclaim concrete-covered land, and preserve key habitats outside the nature reserve that are vital to local wildlife.”
23 November 2017The 9th edition of the European Week for Waste Reduction (EWWR) is sweeping across Europe. The past few days have seen over 13 000 events pull in crowds of volunteers to reduce waste, reuse products and recycle materials.
Launched as a LIFE project in 2009, the EWWR has been raising awareness about waste prevention for almost a decade. Its objective is to change public consumption patterns and waste habits, so as to bring about a thriftier, more sustainable society.
At present, the average European throws out half a tonne of waste each year. In addition to the cost of producing and disposing of these resources, their lifecycle from factories to landfills imposes unsustainable strains on the environment.
The theme of EWWR this year is “Reuse & Repair: Give it a new life!” – a topic that resonates fondly with a growing community of Fab Lab enthusiasts and patrons of repair cafés. By taking apart broken consumer products and giving them a new lease of life, these tinkerers are helping to stimulate a wiser, circular economy.
This shift from the throw-away attitude of modern markets involves a deeper appreciation for the resources used to manufacture consumer products. At present, the long-term value of raw materials and the cost of their externalities are not factored into shop prices. It will take a change in public mind-set to fill in the gap until regulations catch up.
The change need not be a difficult one. For nine years now, the EWWR has helped organise events that have brought people together to have fun whilst learning to act in an environmentally responsible way. Events this week ranged from scrap dinners in Cyprus and school visits in Poland. An action in Portugal set out to reduce waste by repairing old furniture and donating it to families in need.
The interactive nature of activities lends them a strong community spirit. EWWR itself has deep European roots. Attracting millions of followers in previous year, it is the largest gathering of its kind in the EU. The event offers an international stage for good ideas, bridging local enthusiasm with global aspirations.
This year, EWWR is encouraging participants to join efforts across national borders. Initiatives have notably gotten school children exchanging tips on reducing waste and protecting the environment across Spain, the UK and other EU countries.
Another highlight of EWWR is its accessibility. The EWWR secretariat stresses that companies, local government and individuals are all welcome to take part. As waste is of public concern, it makes sense to invite everyone to bring their ideas on how they can contribute to reducing it.
The EWWR coordinates this movement and helps where it can. The project’s website notably shares ideas on using and repairing products that might otherwise be thrown away. It also provides tips on how to avoid habits that lead to waste in the first place. Getting people involved helps them think more clearly about the issue, and ultimately favours sound policy and sustainable behaviour in the future.
22 November 2017Climate change is making floods in the north of Italy more frequent and less predictable. As part of the LIFE-funded PRIMES project, communities are learning to read early warning systems and respond together to future emergencies.
This month, dozens of citizens and volunteers in the region of Emilia-Romagna, around Bologna, in Italy, took part in a crisis simulation. Beneficiaries of the LIFE PRIMES project evacuated participants from their homes, and students from a school leaving them to rehearse what they had learnt about surviving floods. The role-playing exercise constituted the final step in a citizen outreach campaign this year to prepare the region for its next deluge.
Local authorities know all too well that floods cannot be avoided, they can only be prepared for. Emilia-Romagna catches rushing rivers from the Apennines, its alluvial plains are prone to overflowing and its outer rim is land reclaimed from the sea. Intense rain and overflowing rivers costs lives and livelihoods there on a regular basis. With over 50 flood alerts each year, the region ranks as one of the highest hydrological hazard areas in Italy.
Now, as climate change reinforces the odds of extreme rainfall, the question is not if a new flood will strike, but when – and what can be done to minimise its impact.
Fortunately, technology is making it easier to monitor the elements. Cheaper sensors and internet communication can now collect real-time measurements on water levels in rivers and rapidly shifting rain patterns. Over the last decades measurements campaigns came together in a region-wide database that today tracks weather events in time-steps as low as 30 minutes.
“Now, in Italy, we have a good flood warning system,” said Valeria Pancioli, from the region of Emilia-Romagna. “The real gap is in communications.”
Although meteorologists and emergency services now know when floods will strike, the people they are trying to save do not. Flood alerts are broadcasted publicly, but few people know how where to look for them, nor how to react in an emergency.
Ms Pancioli says that many accidents could be avoided with some basic ground rules. In the event of a flood alert, she advises local residents not to use their car, to avoid streets near rivers and to stay upstairs. A water-tight bag with a light, identity documents copies, some water, warm clothes and medicine can also come in handy in case of an evacuation. As additional advice, households are encouraged to follow information on the event from institutional channels.
To inform citizens of the risks in their territory, the PRIMES project works with local pillars of society, including farmers, shop keepers, teachers, and members of sport clubs and neighbourhood associations. During the workshop, these representatives implement a civic action plan and then disseminate what they learnt to their friends and neighbours, spreading survival skills through the community, and inviting them to implement the civic adapt action plan themselves.
“A lot of citizens involved have suffered flooding events in the past,” said Ms Pancioli. “They care because their lives are at risk. They know what the consequences are.”
The PRIMES project is also bringing public administrations. Flood relief relies on sound communication between many levels of government. “Being involved in a LIFE project was helpful for us to solve institutional challenges,” said Ms Pancioli. Overhauling old practices and bringing in new ideas can present bureaucratic challenges on a scale that no single municipality can meet.
With its citizen participation process reaching completion in Emilia-Romagna at the beginning of 2018, PRIMES will continue its work in the neighbouring regions of Marche and Abruzzo. Lessons learnt could ultimately spread further so that Italy’s top-notch flood warning system soon has a citizen communication network to match.
16 November 2017Last week, London foodies gathered in Hackney to experience fine dining on typical household scraps. As part of the LIFE-funded TRiFOCAL project, a neighbourhood hangout feasted guests on ingredients other restaurants might have thrown away.
Recycling pieces of bread, meat and vegetables, its chefs put together three courses, including a carrot, rosemary and almond milk soup with croutons, and a first-class chicken curry. The meal constitutes a first step in a LIFE-funded campaign to teach Londoners how to eat healthy and live sustainably.
Last month, the European Commission adopted guidelines to facilitate food donation in the EU, a key deliverable of the Circular Economy Action Plan. “Around 550 000 tons of food are redistributed to 6.1 million people by food banks in the EU,” said European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis. “But that's only a fraction of the estimated volume of food which could be redistributed to prevent food waste and help fight food poverty.”
WRAP, a non-profit working on resource sustainability, calculates that households in London alone throw away almost 900 000 tonnes of food each year. This waste weighs heavily on the environment and domestic finances. Families could allegedly save up to £60 a month by changing the way they shop, store, cook and eat their food.
Under the banner of the TRiFOCAL project, WRAP has partnered with the London Waste and Recycling Board and Groundwork London to launch an outreach campaign called Small Change, Big Difference. Their work encourages Londoners to rethink wasteful behaviour, recycle what they must and savour the rest.
According to Charlotte Henderson, coordinator of the TRiFOCAL project, the trick is to start small. Modest gestures stand a better chance of being assimilated in daily routines, and can inspire further action by demonstrating immediate benefits to the people making them.
Ms Henderson says that households which adopt smart gestures like adding vegetables to stretch a pack of beef mince across two meals, or recycling used teabags can already “make a big difference to their health, pockets and the planet.”
“We’re all busy people,” said Ms Henderson. “That’s why we’re concentrating on small changes.” Hackney’s dinner event, that went by the name of Second Helpings, provided a warm up for how the project intends to communicate sustainable food tips in a fun, interactive way.
Small steps can lead far. As TRiFOCAL scales up its activities, project organisers will have to ensure that their food donations remain safe and legal. Different countries have different positions on issues ranging from hygiene and VAT, to allergy information for consumers. New EU guidelines are helping to clarify legislation and lift some of the barriers to food donations.
Another pillar for support is the public itself. Rather than simply fork out free food, the team at Small Change, Big Difference is building a bond with members of local communities. Over the coming two years, the project will work with residents from nine boroughs across London to host workshops, pop-up dining events, food-related art shows and cooking classes. This exchange allows for a more comprehensive dialogue on the practicalities of thriftier eating.
Hackney is one of the first boroughs to have gotten started. In addition to hosting Second Helpings, it has exhibited photographs of raw fruit and vegetables taken by local artists in Hackney Central Station. Residents stand to win prizes by submitting their own pictures to the council – recent entries notably won tickets to their latest dinner party.
As Small Change, Big Difference gains momentum, it will roll out more activities across more neighbourhoods. Europe’s largest city offers a challenging test bed for its ideas. If the campaign can teach thriftiness to wasteful Londoners, its tips will be ready for other European cities.
15 November 2017Climate talks get personal this week as Fiji’s presidency of the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) calls for participation from citizens and civil society.
On cue, the LIFE Programme held a side-event in which NGOs, academics and private companies swapped tips on protecting the environment and financing climate action in the Talanoa spirit of open dialogue that climate negotiators are aspiring to in this year’s international climate talks.
During the opening session of COP23, Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, stressed the importance of work from non-state actors in tackling climate change. “We must make this effort more relevant to people’s lives,” said Mr Bainimarama. As a step in this direction, Fiji is “giving much more emphasis to the climate action zone” this year.
The climate action zone is where members of civil society gather at COP time to voice their concern and showcase international efforts to protect the environment. It is also where the EU has set up a pavilion to facilitate exchanges among participants.
In a workshop on 8 November, the LIFE Programme hosted veterans from its environmental and climate action projects, and newcomers from the global NGO scene to discuss work being done in different countries. While representatives from the climate action zone share the same overall objective as government negotiators in the United Nations building nearby, their perspectives differ on one key point. They are taking on global challenges from the bottom-up.
"LIFE is a catalyst for moving the European Union towards decarbonisation of our society," said Dimitrios Zevgolis from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Climate Action. Welcoming COP23 delegates to the workshop, Mr Zevgolis explained that the funding programme also supports grassroots initiatives, reinforces local government institutions and nurtures green jobs. Its more personal focus helps protect the environment and combat climate change by addressing the needs of European citizens.
Representatives from six LIFE-funded projects took the stage to share experience of this bottom-up funding approach. In doing so, they touched on frontline issues in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change common to many peers across the globe.
Jean-Baptiste Dollé from the French Livestock Institute in Paris said that LIFE funds are helping his organisation trim greenhouse gas emissions from farming beef. “Producing livestock currently emits 12% of Europe’s greenhouse gases,” he said.
Based on research conducted by the LIFE BEEF CARBON project, Mr Dollé expects green farming practices to reduce the environmental footprint of beef, for instance by managing the number of heifers in herds and cutting back on fertilisers to grow cattle feed.
At present, these green practices are rarely used, but BEEF CARBON is boosting their uptake through a growing network of farms in four European countries. “We are training 2000 farmers and 170 technicians to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mr Dollé.
Good ideas spread fast. Maria Luisa Parmigiani, head of sustainability at the financial services company Unipol, explained how progress from the LIFE project DERRIS that she coordinated caught on in ways that might inspire even the most viral NGOs in the audience.
“We have been working with municipalities, getting smaller businesses to assess the risk they face from climate change,” she said. In doing so, DERRIS has helped private companies in Turin contribute to the city’s climate change adaptation plan.
Unipol reached out to the Italian association for municipalities for them to apply together for LIFE funds. Ms Parmigiani says that this partner is now helping spread the success of the project to other parts of the country, notably to cities that have signed up to the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.
“With public partners, it has been easy to secure commitments from 10 more municipalities,” said Ms Parmigiani. Other towns, that cannot join the project officially, are also asking DERRIS to share its tools and results. “It has been of great value to be in a LIFE project,” she said.
Laura Giappichelli from the EU’s Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME) described the LIFE Programme as more than a funding scheme. “It is a platform, a family,” she said to potential applicants at the COP23 event. “All our projects are networked together to share their experience.”
Answering questions from the audience on how to obtain LIFE funds, Professor Peter Heck from the Trier University of Applied Science, said that if he were applying all over again, he would ask other LIFE projects for help. Their advice has since proven invaluable.
As part of LIFE’s Integrated Project ZENAPA, Prof. Heck is helping nature reserves generate clean energy to preserve biodiversity while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The project answers strong reluctance in parts of Germany to energy technologies like wind turbines on grounds that they upset local wildlife.
ZENAPA is introducing 100 villages to the benefits that clean energy technologies can have on biodiversity when installed responsibly. By bringing carbon mitigation measures closer to home, the project is helping people on the street reconcile the multiple facets of environmental protection
Ms Giappichelli told potential applicants that the LIFE Programme comes from their ideas, their needs, their analysis of the situation on the ground. This makes it possible for beneficiaries to tailor projects to concrete needs, and return feedback to policy makers.
“LIFE is one of the few EU funding scheme launched by the European Parliament,” said Ms Giappichelli. “We work to help projects that are useful to policy makers, that help implement what is discussed here at the negotiations.”
Imke Luebbeke from WWF explained how the LIFE project MaxiMiseR is helping EU governments chart their way towards lower carbon economies. Her colleague, Agnieszka Patoka-Janowska, showed the trailer of a LIFE-funded documentary on the need for climate action in Poland. After winning awards in national festivals, the film is being screened in full length at the COP. According to Ms Patoka-Janowska, the message of the movie is valid everywhere, but it carries additional weight in a country which still relies heavily on coal for its energy production.
Bottom-up participation is not only handy for flagging up problems, it is also necessary for rolling out solutions. Tomasz Pietrusiak, Deputy Director of the Environmental Department of Małopolska in Poland, said that LIFE funding was helping authorities replace outdated boilers in Central Europe. In the process, the Integrated Project Małopolska is improving health conditions for millions of EU citizens living with substandard air quality, and reducing their carbon footprint.
“LIFE is a good example of how the EU is a front runner,” said Mr Zevgolis. “We are walking the talk towards implementation of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.”
If previous climate negotiations are anything to go by, more talk may prove necessary to mobilise the waves of green ideas that are building up across borders into a common useful direction. Ms Giappichelli encouraged innovators from across the climate action zone to work together, pointing out that, provided applicants can support EU policy and team up with a European partner, the LIFE Programme is open to everyone.
Mr Bainimarama says that he will leave his key negotiator to lead formal events, so that he can meet non-state actors among over 25 000 representatives in the climate action zone this year. “We are all in the same canoe,” he said. “We need to sail with collective determination to complete our mission.”
09 November 2017Grant recipients from across Europe converged on Brussels at the end of October to mark the launch of 139 new LIFE-funded projects. Having invested €222 million in these environmental initiatives, the LIFE programme invited its beneficiaries for a word of advice on how to run activities smoothly over the duration of their grant. The event also offered an emerging community of eco-peers the opportunity to swap ideas before getting to work.
Zsuzsanna Hercig, from the Ministry of Interior of Hungary, says that it was her first experience in Brussels. She has run other EU-funded projects back home and helped prepare a grant-winning proposal for the LIFE project MICACC. She says that she was heartened to meet representatives from EU institutions in person.
“This is the first LIFE project that our ministry has ever coordinated, and the first LIFE climate project in our country,” she said. “After the kick off meeting, I feel that the EU is trying to be as supportive as they can.”
During a day of lectures, Zsuzsanna and her fellow funding recipients learnt about the inner workings of LIFE project management. Presentations from the European Commission’s Executive Agency for SMEs (EASME) clarified how to navigate the financial aspects of grant agreements. Representatives from the LIFE programme also explained how to report progress to project monitors and communicate results with the general public.
“It is good information and it is necessary to know,” said Sanne Hieltjes who coordinates the LIFE@Urban Roofs project on behalf of the City of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Her colleagues ran a LIFE programme in the past, so she was already familiar with some of the content of the administrative presentations. Still, she says that she was reassured as it confirmed her expectations.
“Our partners initially had zero experience in running projects,” said Ms Hieltjes. They were eventually brought up to speed by the consortium, but not all projects have access to the same pool of administrative experience. The LIFE kick-off meetings makes sure that no projects are left behind.
For Ms Hieltjes, what really brought the event to life was the company. “It was really good to talk with the people working at EASME, with the project monitors, with the LIFE team...,” she said. “I used to find the administrative structures running the LIFE programme a bit confusing. But you could talk to them and ask questions during coffee breaks.” She said that this first exchange helped build a professional relationship with people vital to her work over the coming four years.
Quentin Dilasser from the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in southern France coordinates the NATURE 4 CITY LIFE project. He says that one of the most valuable benefits of the event was meeting other projects. Previous LIFE kick-off meetings have hosted participants in groups defined by their country of origin or their overarching area of activity. This year, organisers broke the crowd down into small groups that discussed environmental challenges common to their projects.
“The overview presentations were interesting,” said Mr Dilasser. “But the discussion was much more proactive. We spoke about action and how we could work together.”
Over the course his networking, Mr Dilasser made contact with Ms Hieltjes and peers in the Basque Country in Spain. The three projects plan to counter the impacts of climate change in cities by using green infrastructure. According to Mr Dilasser, they have a lot to learn from each other.
“Each context is specific,” he said, referring to differences in how rising temperatures affect Rotterdam, the Basque country and his home region near the Mediterranean. “But the approach could be inspiring elsewhere.” He says that sharing experience with colleagues abroad is important as projects risk running into similar problems, and could benefit each other’s solutions.
“We can do it alone, I guess. After all, our consortium of partners does cover a broad range of areas of expertise,” said Ms Hercig. “However it can be more interesting to see how other projects do it differently.”
At the kick-off meeting, she swapped e-mail addresses with representatives from the LIFE-funded project LIFE Veneto ADAPT. Like MICACC in Hungary, the project aims to strengthen the role of municipalities and build up the capacity of regions to respond to climate change.
Ms Hieltjes says that keeping in touch could reap benefits beyond exchanging technical information. The wisdom of peers comes in handy when addressing administrative challenges too. Younger organisations may benefit from the experience of seniors when dealing with paperwork, reporting progress and managing partners.
“We plan to update each other on our progress and meet at project events,” said Ms Hieltjes, who hopes that such bonds may eventually mature into future collaborations. “Hopefully, someday we may even demonstrate pilot solutions in each other’s regions.”
08 November 2017Some of the EU’s most ancient plants are being wiped out by concrete and pollution. A recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says that a fifth of all fern and lycopod species in the Europe are declining or threatened with extinction.
This is the first report to examine the extinction risk of all ferns and lycopods in Europe. More than 20 experts participated in its two-year study, which was partially funded by the European Commission as part of the LIFE European Red Lists project.
“It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these ancient plants,” said Dr Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director at the IUCN in Gland, Switzerland. “Protected areas, such as the Natura 2000 sites, must ensure better protection for these species, and their habitats must be restored.”
Ferns and lycophytes are unusual plants by modern standards. Instead of growing seeds, they still reproduce by releasing spores – tiny asexual replicates of themselves. This has historically made ferns and lycophytes excellent colonists. Spores are light enough to disperse in the wind, carrying the plants far into mountainous areas and isolated islands. Now human tampering with potential destinations is bringing their travels to an end.
According to the report, urbanisation and expanding infrastructure are fragmenting and destroying habitats within which ferns and lycopods can grow. Another danger is pollution. Dr Vié says that aquatic areas and wetlands are especially affected by drain water and sewage. Of the 194 ferns species surviving in Europe today, a full fifth show a decline in population, and a similar proportion face extinction.
This is bad news for nature and people alike. Many fern and lycopod species help remove pollutants from the environment and take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Losing them will hinder global efforts to tackle threats such as soil erosion and climate change. “We cannot act sustainably if we keep destroying nature,” said Humberto Delgado, Director for Natural Capital at the European Commission. He says that preserving biodiversity is important both for its contribution to human well-being, economic prosperity, and to protect nature for its own sake.
Ferns and lycopods notably provide shelter for small animals, such as insects or rodents. They tend to do well in disturbed habitats like burnt forests. By repopulating such barren scenes, they make it easier for other species to return. They also present in their own right. The report lists 53 species of ferns and lycopods that exist in Europe alone. Many have thrived on these lands for over 400 million years.
“These species are a living link to the time before even dinosaurs,” said Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. “EU Member States should use the tools we have developed to ensure such species' protection.”
The IUCN is working with LIFE programme funds to inspect the survival prospects of species across the EU. In addition to its report on lycopod and ferns, it is also compiling European Red Lists on beetles, molluscs and other potentially threatened plants.