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In Catalonia, as elsewhere, the climate is rapidly changing. So too, is the type of energy that increasing ...
2020-02-29 09:00:00
Mind the climate

A Catalonian Approach to Energy

Barcelona. Photo by Alfons Taekema

A scientist, two worried mothers and several hundred people who have found their own way to generate energy. What connects them? Concern about Catalonia and its rapidly-changing climate.

Read in 12 minutes

It is now the middle of November in Barcelona. Outside it is still warm.

Nights in the tropics

Javier Martin Vide, a climatologist, pores over a sheet of paper. One after the other he makes notes on it: four millimetres, 1.4ºC, 90 days. These numbers represent changes – some we can already feel on our skin and others will only be felt by our children or grandchildren. Vide starts reciting from the second category.

“The sea level is rising here each year by four millimetres,” he explains. “This is relatively little and, for now, no-one will notice it. But in 100 years’ time, the situation may be completely different. In the future, as I see it, tall walls will barricade the beaches and protect the land from the voracious sea.”

If these walls are not built, then Barcelona will be swamped by water. We can see this new landscape in an internet ‘simulation’; one click takes us straight to the year 2200. Suddenly El Prat Airport and its surrounding districts disappear under the waves. But not today; not yet, anyway. For now, the average resident of Barcelona feels the heat above all.

“Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the temperature of the Mediterranean region has jumped by 1.4 degrees,” says Vide. “The summers are longer; it is mid-November, and just a few days ago we were still walking around in short sleeves. In addition, the nights are hot: the night time temperature in Barcelona only falls below 20 degrees for 90 days in the year.”

He asks me if I was in the city last summer. When I nod, he smiles knowingly. He doesn’t have to spell out to me how it feels to toss and turn all night from the suffocating hot, sticky air.

Noches tropicales (‘tropical nights’) is a phenomenon that fascinated scientists decades ago: why is it that in the centre of large cities, the temperature can be several degrees higher than in the suburbs?

“There are many reasons,” admits Vide. “In the city we use many different sources of energy; petrol, natural gas, electricity. All this generates heat. We used to think that this temperature difference was just a scientific curiosity. We used to compare how Passeig de Gracia (a major shopping street in central Barcelona) is just fifteen kilometres from the airport and yet here we note several degrees difference…”

What was only a curiosity before, is now disturbing. Hot nights and consistently rising temperatures are threatening the health of the inhabitants – in particular, the old and ill, living on the uppermost floors of buildings, in the very heart of the city.

This is Barcelona today. In several years’ time, apart from the creeping inundation of the city by the sea, we will need to deal with other challenges. But once again: not today, not yet. For now, the city is trying to turn the future to its advantage.

Where should we start? Vide seems happy with the question.

“Perhaps we should start with the greenery.”

A skateboarder in the square

“Did you notice, just by the entrance?” asks Teresa, adding, “I know, I know, it’s hard to tell what it is yet,” just in case.

I nod my head, because I had of course seen it. And in truth, it is difficult to guess what it is. The metal construction, which climbs up the school fence, doesn’t yet look like anything. But it is just a question of time, because within several months, the students, parents and teachers will combine forces to help the wall bloom.

Teresa and Alexandra – two mothers, architects, and people who simply don’t give up on deficiencies – were the brains behind the idea of the vertical garden, i.e. a vertical structure full of hanging plants.

“The first time I saw it, I felt that this patio was very bleak,” begins Alexandra. Teresa nods, adding: “And there’s a really busy street right next to it. Full of smog and pollution.”

After many hours of work by a dozen or so engaged parents (exactly how many they prefer not to count), the project is close to completion. Everyone contributed something: one of the mothers, a fashion designer, prepared a poster; a father, who works in finance, prepared a detailed budget. And this was not so modest: it quickly became apparent that they would need a fair amount of additional funding in order to build their dream garden, including a wide variety of plants, an irrigation system and insect hotels. The parents were lucky: when they needed a small plot of land for their children, the city was also starting to look for such plots of greenery.

In 2016, the first estimates appeared in the daily La Vanguardia newspaper. If you don’t include the enormous Collserola Park on the outskirts of Barcelona, the city itself has barely seven square metres of greenery per inhabitant. This is a poor result, particularly if one compares it to the 24 square metres per capita in neighbouring Girona. (For a more dramatic comparison, Warsaw has more than 100 square metres.) Barcelona is heavily built-up, and free space hasn’t necessarily been turned into parkland thus far.

“In the 1980s, these large, paved areas were fashionable,” Vide spreads his hands helplessly. “Take the example of the one round the railway station. On hot days you won’t see any old people relaxing there, nor any families out for a walk. At best, you might get tangled up with some lost skateboarder. A surface like this acts like a frying pan, heating up the already hot streets even more.”

Vide dreams of a city covered in a soft, living tissue, and of trees that provide shade and absorb the carbon dioxide. And it seems that, at least since the introduction in 2011 of the Greenery and Biodiversity Plan, Barcelona is slowly heading in that direction. There are many ways to look for a little piece of nature here – only in the last few months, 300 children planted flowers along one of the boulevards in the city centre, more city gardens have popped up, looked after by their local residents, and empty spaces on the outskirts of the city are gradually being covered with greenery. It is hardest in the very centre of the city, where there is usually no space for more parks.

This space requires unconventional action, namely, climbing upwards.

In 2017, Ada Colau, the Mayor of Barcelona, announced a competition for the ‘green development’ of the roofs of residential blocks; the city would cover 75% of the installation costs of the 10 winning projects, simultaneously encouraging the remaining residents to introduce similar solutions. Claim, manage and enjoy your common green spaces! Making a planted roof is a modest action but, if done on a large scale, is quite a significant response to climate change: it cools the building, improves air quality and supports biodiversity. In addition, it can be a great way to integrate the community; as long as the top floor is not a problem.

“These are excellent initiatives, but they need all the residents of a block to agree,” explains Vide. “And it is often the case that everyone is full of enthusiasm except the people who are meant to have the garden roof directly above them. They fear it will make their lives a misery. They are frightened, for example, by all the insects that might wander into their apartments.”

Despite all this, since 2016 Barcelona has increased its green area by 40 hectares, of which one hectare is made up entirely of gardens high above the streets.

Alexandra and Teresa are also thinking about developing the school roof. But for now, they have enough on their plates. One has to rush off now for her stint guarding a tree on a housing estate that is under threat of being cut down. The other works regularly at a food cooperative.

“Our children are always asking us why we are doing this,” laughs Teresa. And they tell them simply that it is good to make the world around us a little bit better; to make our own small contribution. They are not alone in their convictions; one by one the housing estates are changing with new community initiatives and local cooperatives.

They believe that, thanks to tending the garden, their children will also stop asking why they should bother.

“If you once get involved in something, it becomes part of your experience, part of you,” explains Teresa.

And then it is not so easy to forget and not so hard to care.

Pass the green cable, please

It all began with a Dutchman and his house move.

“Gijsbert Huijink moved permanently to Catalonia in 2010,” reveals Francesc. He has been showing me round his office, which I can, without hesitation, describe as the dream of every millennial: drowning in pot plants, spacious, and full of happy, smiling employees on flexible working hours. When we sit down in the conference room, Francesc continues: “Once here he began to look for a cheap source of energy that he could use in his house outside the city. He installed a solar battery but, at that time, independent energy production was not regulated in Spain. Therefore, Huijink began to read about energy cooperatives. Several of these were already operating in Holland, but here it was completely new.”

Huijink persuaded his friends and students (he was working then at the University in Girona) to get involved in his new project, by creating a cooperative that would produce and sell energy from renewable sources. He rapidly drew together 350 willing participants but only after a difficult year, in which he had to break into the tightly-sealed energy market, did he officially sign the first contract to supply energy; by then as the company Som Energia (‘We are Energy’), the first energy cooperative in Spain.

“That day, we all jumped into the sea as a way of remembering that moment,” laughs Francesc. “Several months ago, we did it again, this time to celebrate 100,000 contracts.”

But Som Energia is still growing at an impressive pace. Each week in Spain around 200 people abandon their standard solution and join a cooperative. This is a scale that none of the people who have worked here from the outset even dared to dream of.

“We thought that it would stay at a local level; that we’d cover Girona, Barcelona, maybe some rural place,” admits Francesc.

But how does ‘it’ work? You just have to sign a contract and pay €100 to join the shareholder group. There are lots of opportunities to invest within the cooperative, and it is the members who decide what Som Energia does with the money.

“Soon we will be opening our next solar power station, which was made possible only thanks to the thousands of members who decided to invest in it,” explains Francesc. Energy self-sufficiency is one of the main goals of the cooperative, which still draws most of its renewable energy from small, external producers.

What suprised Francesc about Som Energia? That everything is back to front. He came here straight from the world of advertising, but quickly had to forget about it. No publicidad (‘publicity’), neither in the press, nor on television. People find out about the services on offer from other satisfied customers. On top of this, there are no normal offices, and customer service is based on internet contact or telephone calls; to be precise, on conversations, because Som Energia doesn’t hold with automated systems. No ‘Press 4’ or ‘please wait in the queue’. The most important thing is direct contact with another human being.

Francesc would like to find a way to explain to Spaniards that they can only benefit from renewable energy.

“Filling out the form takes ten minutes and there’s nothing more to do,” he insists. “Some people think that you need special infrastructure, that perhaps they have to have some special, green cabling for clean energy in the house – none of that! In addition, today we are cheaper than the competition, which is struggling under the burden of (non-renewable) fossil fuels.”

Although it only has a 1% market share, Som Energia has shaken up the energy market a bit and has proven that the demand for clean energy is becoming ever larger; even if the policy of the Spanish government over many years has effectively blocked its development.

“New members write to us saying they have never been so happy with their bills,” chuckles Francesc. People are happy that they can live more ecologically.”

Barcelona residents can already choose between two renewable options. Since 2017, Som Energia has competition here in the form of its sister (albeit public) institution. Owned by the city, Barcelona Energy supplies electricity to 20,000 homes.

The cruise liner

“The battle with climate change is a challenge that means a great transformation for our city,” writes Ada Colau in the introduction to the new Climate Plan for Barcelona. Ecological solutions are nothing new here, but the ambitious goal is: the capital of Catalonia wants to be able to announce that it is climate neutral in 2050.

The Climate Plan, which will be introduced in January, is a declaration of care for the future of the planet. Cities today have a great responsibility as 70% of greenhouse gases are produced within them. Vide doesn’t hide the fact that he is already tired of waiting: “In Spain, not one law has yet been passed about climate change, while the Catalan parliament…”, and here the climatologist heaves a deep sigh, “…currently has other priorities. I hope that Barcelona will now take some really drastic steps.”

The Plan undertakes to increase the amount of green areas by 1.6 square kilometres, limit water consumption (to less than 100 litres per day per person), and put aside €1.2 million for grass-roots projects by the city’s inhabitants, such as (and not to look too far afield) building vertical gardens or establishing transport cooperatives. So, in the end, this should lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, not just through switching to renewable energy, but above all, through limiting traffic movement and rebuilding 20% of the apartment blocks that are energy inefficient.

“So-called supermanzana city blocks are already being introduced here, thanks to which many streets will be closed to traffic. This protects us from inhaling damaging particles, produced not only by diesel engines, but even from the friction of car tyres on the road surface.”

However, the residential block renovations present an opportunity for people in difficult circumstances who are often not in a position to pay high energy bills or to adapt their apartments to the changing conditions. They are the ones who will be the most affected by the changing climate.

“If the worst-case forecasts play out and we don’t reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, this will lead to enormous changes in the landscape,” explains Vide. “Fewer forests, it will be dry, access to water will become a problem. Summer in the city will be   unbearable. It is precisely that jump in temperature, and not some exotic disease or epidemic, that I consider to be the greatest challenge for the city. The authorities must take care of people affected by so-called energy poverty; people who will become ill, because they cannot afford air conditioning.”

But maybe there is a chance to stop it coming to this? The Climate Plan assumes that, among other things, through the adaptation of residential buildings, Barcelona will be able to deal with the problem of energy poverty by 2030. Vide, in spite of appearances, remains an optimist.

“The situation is very serious, but we have to encourage people to fight for the climate. Even if very little is down to us. I, you, we all have to do something; it is a question of ethics,” he explains.

Teresa, one of the ladies behind the vertical garden, agrees with this approach: “Let’s do as much as we are able to do,” she confirms. “Even a small change in our surroundings generates further changes.”

“But one should remember that on our own we will not change reality,” Francesc from Som Energia reminds us. And he starts to laugh: “Once I was certain that I would change the world by myself, but this is not possible. However, one can find a group of people and slowly work on one small, tiny piece of it.”

However, it is certainly already too late for small changes. Vide compares our climate system to a ship that is sailing too fast.

“Unfortunately, we are talking about inertia. Even if we all stopped polluting the climate today, the temperature will still rise for the next decade. Like a cruise liner, where the process of braking started too late. It is going to hit the shore.”

Vide reminds us: for this issue, national borders have no meaning. Progress made in Barcelona, or any other city, is just a drop in the ocean. We will all suffer the consequences of the catastrophe, and in order to avoid it effectively, we would all need to hit the brakes as fast as possible.

I look out through the window of the university. It is mid-November. Still warm.

“We even have our own name for these extended holidays,” jokes the Professor. “Veroño, a mash-up up of the words ‘summer’ and ‘autumn’. I just don’t know how that would work in English?”


Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska

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