Sunday, March 11, 2007

Europe Diary: Mark Mardell

Hello My Friends and welcome to the European diary of Mark Mardell: Going green

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 - bookmarking this page will always take you to the latest issue.

DROUGHT AND FROST

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.

COAL COUNTRY

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.

SILESIAN SLURRY

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.

WHOSE PROBLEM IS IT?

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.

Mark Mardell - helping us to Make Good Choices

From Your Friend The Energy Angel

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