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Europe diary: Going green

8 March 2007

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell looks at the challenge facing Europe as the pressure to tackle global warming confronts the needs of heavy energy users - and the difficulties of sorting climate truth from climate myth.

The diary is published every Thursday.


The fields around Toledo in Spain are such a vibrant green that they almost seem to vibrate. It won't last long, of course - by early summer they will be dry and brown.

Angel Oliveros Zafra works on his farm near Toledo, Spain
Angel Oliveros Zafra finds the unpredictability of the weather hard

But farmer Angel Oliveros Zafra says something is happening beyond the normal seasonal changes and it's costing him money and his peace of mind. He bends to show me a little purple flower with a thick stem. It's a weed and they never used to be here. The seeds blow everywhere and it takes ages to get them out. He shows me a dry gully, edged with grass but filled with plastic bags and other rubbish, not water.

Angel says the stream always dried up in the heat of summer but never at this time of year. When he was a boy he and his brother Jose Louis used to play at catching frogs while his father worked the fields. Nowadays, the frogs have gone. So has his brother. Jose Louis still lives on the farm but is away most days, working as a commercial traveller. It's less stressful and absolutely necessary to make ends meet.

There have been years of drought but Angel says the unpredictability is worse: frosts at strange times of year, howling winds when they're not expected. The figures he gives are staggering. The yield of vegetables has dropped by a tenth in a couple of decades. And the production of olives has dropped by the same ratio in just three years. He is in no doubt man-made climate change is to blame.

Angel Oliveros Zafra works on his farm near Toledo, Spain
Unseasonal weather has caused drops in yields, Angel says

I feel a little cautious. While the evidence that climate change is man-made is just about beyond doubt, it is more difficult to find evidence of its pernicious effects in Europe. When I am pressing for examples to illustrate TV pieces about the summit, I keep being told about roses blooming early in Britain or the warmest winter ever in the Netherlands. Fine, but this won't worry most people, except as a sign.

When pushed, many other potential stories don't quite stand up. Angel's story is a moving one, but later I read the exact same area suffered mass emigration in the 17th Century because of ... wait for it ... unseasonal frosts and long droughts that destroyed agriculture. Perhaps Europe's leaders are on the brink of doing something truly altruistic for the rest of the world, not for Europe.

Angel says the world belongs to everyone, but that could spell trouble at the summit. It also belongs to the Poles, the Finns and the Hungarians who have heavy energy needs.


It's late at night and we have just arrived in southern Poland. Although the car windows are shut tight against the cold, there is an all-pervading smell. Slightly acrid and medicinal, its inherent unpleasantness is at odds with the memories it evokes of childhood and cosy warmth. It is the smell of coal.

A Polish miner
A tenth of the world's coal lies under the ground in Poland

Here Poland's attitude to coal is in your face, or at least down your throat. Tony Blair and other EU leaders are full of enthusiasm to set what they regard as ambitious Europe-wide targets for cutting greenhouse gases at their summit this week but the Poles are none too enthusiastic.

Many diplomats regard the twins who run the Polish government as mavericks with a strange and unpredictable negotiating style, but their attitude to CO2 emissions is understandable. Here are a couple of statistics: a tenth of the world's coal is under the ground here, and more than 95% of Poland's electricity is generated by burning it.

It's little wonder that the Brothers Kaczynski are making the argument that if Europe should cut back on its CO2 emissions, Poland shouldn't have to meet as tough a target.


Silesia has far fewer mines than it used to but it's still a very big industry. Boleslaw Smialy is one of the smaller mines but still this is production on a grand scale. Everywhere there are small mountains of coal and tall buildings that seem to go up for ever.

Mark Mardell at a mine in southern Poland
Poland's mining industry has some catching up to do

Three hours even on the surface of the mine is, in a way, like a day at the beach. The stuff gets everywhere: up your nose, under your nails, caked thick around your trousers. Doing my "piece to camera" I feel like a cartoon character on the edge of the cliff. My producer and cameraman urge me to take a step back and then another step to the right. My feet sink further into what looks like firm asphalt but turns out to be sticky, coal dust-impregnated mud. Then there's the boots. And after days and days of un-Mardell-like brushing and scrubbing I can report that Italian leather and Silesian coal slurry don't make for a happy partnership.

At the mine the large green gates are topped with crossed hammers in a circle, reminiscent of communist times, but in the large works hall the same symbol stands either side of a large statue of the Virgin. There are few miners visible, and just about all of the work above ground is done by computer, which makes the managers very proud. But looking at the equipment, you realise that the argument that Poland's industry has 40 years of catching up to do is not just an excuse.


There is the same atmosphere of the mingled Marian and the Marxist at the Kompania Weglowa headquarters. A metallic statue of St Barbara, the patron saint of miners, stands in a hall of dirty brown marble and big brass doors. Surely this building cannot have changed much since the communist era. Our guide says: "On St Barbara's day, miners stop working and start drinking." I feel like I am in an episode of "Life on Mars".

Men in brown suits with mustard ties run this place, matching the marble. They seem slightly bewildered by questions about pollution, first answering that they are cutting back on sulphur dioxide emissions (the stuff that causes acid rain). When I say I am talking about carbon dioxide, they then say that their coal is ecologically friendly and much of it is smokeless. When I press them on greenhouse gases they say this is something for the electricity company or the government, not them.

Rather exasperated, I say that if the EU was trying to cut back on the amount of ink around it would be perfectly reasonable to expect pen manufacturers to have an opinion about it, or at least how it would affect sales. Here they are on steadier ground. Poland is increasing its consumption of coal and sales are going up, and they expect them to continue rising. Mr Blair et al have quite a circle to square if the Polish coal bosses and Angel are going to share the world.


Thank you for all your comments on the blog v diary debate, very useful and most of them very heartening for me to read. I, too, was tempted by the idea some of you suggest: do both.

The problem is that one only has a limited amount of experience to cram into every week: while I was on the travels described above I could only blog on them, which would not add much. Or at least I could certainly give my thoughts on Cameron's speech, Bayrou's rise and missile defence but I would then be bashing out something, based on intuition and previous knowledge.

For family and work, cloning myself does seem the only answer. Very interesting thoughts about the constitution too: but as this is not yet a blog, I'll wait to reply to these when I return to the subject, which I suspect will be very soon.

Please use the post form below to comment on any of the issues raised in the diary.

Like the UK, Canada contributes only 2% to global GHG. However we are a huge cold country that requires a large amount of energy. Canadians are finally realizing that the Kyoto Accord is unfeasible here, for Canadians it's nothing but a scheme to transfer billions of taxpayers' dollars to "developing" countries. Meanwhile, China will be the world's biggest carbon dioxide contributor in a few years. China builds nearly 600 new coal-fired power plants per year. No Kyoto targets for them as they poison the planet and kill 400,000 of their own people every year because of air pollution.

The solution is technology, and a serious commitment to renewables, hybrid vehicles, energy conservation, and reduced reliance on fossil fuels. Forget Kyoto and let's get serious. China, India, and the developed world need to get on board with clean energy along with the rest of us.
Bill Sproul, Kingston, Canada

While it may still take a while for absolute proof of man's complicity in global warming, I prefer to err on the side of caution because if we don't do anything until it's proven, it will be far too late; a modern form of Pascal's wager. However, the European need to adopt alternative energy sources is largely economic: we've already squandered much of our natural resources and will not be able to afford to become dependent upon importing sources of energy (or other raw materials). The emissions trading scheme does offer some interesting and useful possibilities: it may be cheaper for a UK power company to pay for a cleaner, more efficient coal power station in Poland than making its own one even more efficient and cleaner.
Charlie Clark, Duesseldorf, Germany

(Comment - Paul Reynolds) - there is absolutely no doubt that the climate is changing in parts of the world. There is also no doubt about the massive increase in CO2 emissions over the past 150 years and that this increase is the responsibility of mankind. So where is the doubt? Do you not believe in the greenhouse effect? Even if you answer yes, just because you (personally) don't have to believe it doesn't make it not true. I have read some of the 'minority evidence' against climate change - none of it ever had any substantial scientific basis. If you look at sources of funding for this 'evidence' you will usually find that interests behind the 'evidence' completely undermine its credibility. I am 27 and look forward to having children. I want to do everything within my means to ensure that the world in which they live is not the worst-case scenario depicted in some of the recent reports on the effects of climate change.
Ronan, Dublin, Ireland

The western countries need to adopt aggressive green policies and, while doing so, make it clear that trade with other nations will depend on their adopting similar policies. No point going green if China and India don't - so they will have to understand that 'green' is the cost of doing business.
John Richardson, Ottawa, Canada

Germans want to close our coal power stations, Hungarians want to close our hydropower stations, Austrians want to close our atomic power stations and everyone wants to sell to us their electricity. Is it about green politics or about economics?
slavo smakal, zohor, slovakia

Ambitious environmental targets seem to me a great opportunity for European industry. In the long term most countries will have to do something about CO2, and if we begin with it, we will have many competitive advantages for many decades (it happened to the Americans with space and computer tecnology). This includes CO2 capture technology in coal combustion. I firmly believe that thare is a way to make Spanish farmers and Polish miners happy.
Mario Eleno, Madrid, Spain

Pulverised Fly Ash (PFA) is a by-product of burning coal for electricity. Collected and used appropriately, PFA can replace up to 30% of the cement in concrete, therefore reducing the CO2 of the cement industry (the manufacture of a tonne of cement produces just under a tonne of CO2). Similarly, in the production of steel, another big polluter, results in another cementitious by-product, Ground Granulated Blast Furnace Slag (GGBS). Once refined, GGBS can be used as a replacement for up to 70% of ordinary cement and actually improves the technical performance and appearance of concrete. Because of the way the ETS is implemented by the majority of European countries, independent producers of PFA and GGBS risk going out of business, despite saving the emissions of millions of tonnes of CO2 every year. If the situation is approached intelligently, the impact of coal-burning or steel production doesn't have to be quite so important.
Conor O'Riain, Dublin, Ireland

All British people nostalgic for pre-Thatcher coalmines and factories should take a train through Silesia. Red brick mills and works, Coronation Street-style streets (though five-storey tenements not back-to-backs), chimneys belching smoke. Makes you quite nostalgic for LS Lowry-type "grim up north" street scenes. However, the UK imports some of its coal from these mines in Poland (as well as South Africa and Russia, coals to Newscastle indeed!). The largest coal-burning power station in Europe is in sunny Yorkshire (Drax), while the second is in Poland (the BOT plant). Despite the politics of carbon emissions, coal is making a comeback in the UK, prices are high and concerns about Britain's falling gas reserves and vulnerability to Russian supplies means that coal is increasing in importance. Don't knock Poland's mines, they are helping to keep the lights on in Blighty.
Rich, Edinburgh

Fact. The British Isles contributes only 2% of the world's carbon emissions said to be causing Global Warming. What IS the point of us busting a gut to economise on energy use when our TOTAL effect is so low? Economise on cost and conservation grounds by all means, but NOT from thinking our economies would make any difference whatsoever. I favour the American approach. Let technology find the way to counter and control Global Warming, and please, everybody, sweep away the misconceptions which are panicking us towards unnecessary actions damaging to our economy, well-being and peace of mind.
R D Britton, Lanner, Cornwall

It is painfully obvious that India and China are going to continue with their breakneck growth. In the USA and Europe we are merely tinkering with the details but basically we are carrying on regardless with aviation growth and economic growth generally that is inconsistent with reducing CO2. Even if we did start turning things around the lag time is so long that no benefit would be felt for fifty years. So, if the doomsayers are right, global warming is not a possibility, it is a cast iron certainty. How about some practical measures to mitigate the effects instead of all this 'green' posturing. How are we going to compensate people who live on low-lying land for example? What can we do to mitigate the effects on agriculture? Seriously, driving a Prius is not going to make any difference while China and India build coal-fired stations at the current rate or even if they halved the rate, which they won't. We're not going to bomb them, are we? So let's deal with the realities and stop fiddling while the world burns.
Andrew Kelsey, Royston, England

One way of tackling climate change is to introduce measures that are both effective and common sense, such as an EU-wide ban on incandescent light bulbs, as announced in Australia. This will substantially reduce electricity consumption, cost consumers less and perhaps establish the EU's credentials in this area. Targetting the coal industry will inflame miners, upset the Poles, and be seen as "too little - too late".
John, Brussels, Belgium

All these climate change issues are just hysteria. The world went through many cycles of extreme cold and extreme heat (ice ages) with no power plants or cars anywhere on the horizon. If they are so really concerned, the people of the rich countries should stop using cars (use only electric trains) and adopt Gandhian lifestyles of no waste and no consumerism. Poor countries that are just starting to enjoy economic growth should continue to burn all the coal and NG they can mine or drill. Nuclear energy from fusion is the only hope for clean energy devoid of CO2 pollution or other collateral pollution. Let the rich countries invest their billions to develop fusion technology instead of spending billions on defense and waging war to secure fossil fuel sources.
cyril rajan, Dubai, UAE

The problem of CO2 emissions is not just a case of coal and nuclear bad, gas and renewables good. We need to reduce several elements of what we see as the necessities of modern life. The huge number of air passenger miles flown by Europeans is fast approaching that of the Americans. The huge number of ever larger SUV-type cars to run children to school and commuters to the office.

If we are serious about climate change we need to invest in clean coal technology as well as using the natural resources of the British Isles to produce the large amount of renewable energy that our cold, wet and windy climate allows us. More hydro electricity and wind power in West Wales, the north of England and the Highlands of Scotland together with investments in river barrages should mean that the UK will be able to invest in more efficient energy production than the farcical 1980s dash for gas. This combined with policies on public transport and energy efficiency in homes should cut greenhouse gas emissions.
David Myles, Cardiff, UK

It worries me that the "man is probably responsible for global warming" mantra has become the religion of the masses. There is considerable minority evidence to the contrary and theories no less substantial than those espoused by the "pro" lobby. People, like those you have been talking to, make the ludicrous assumption that because they are experiencing changes in the weather these must be due to climate change, let alone global warming. These are quite different things and should never be confused. No doubt the mighty EU monolith is rolling and no amount of argument will change it. And the end result might be that more damage is inflicted on the development of the world, than if different policies were pursued.
paul reynolds, pas de calais, france

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