European Perspective on Environmental Issues
Air Date: Week of March 31, 2000
Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard) reports on how the Europeans are dealing with their environmental problems -- and how this is different from what we are doing here in the US.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Europeans must contend with many of the same environmental problems that we have to deal with here in the U.S.: weather-related disasters, traffic congestion, pollution and the like. But often, the European approach to tackling these chronic problems is different from our own. Our political observer, Mark Hertsgaard, is just back from a trip to Europe, and he says there may be some lessons for us over there. Hi, Mark.
HERTSGAARD: Hey, Steve.
CURWOOD: So, Mark, what really stood out to you from your trip?
HERTSGAARD: Well, I learned a lot of things. But I must say, the most striking image I will carry back with me for a very long time is all the trees that had been knocked down in Paris. I went to the biggest park in the city, the Bois du Boulogne, and this terrible wind storm that came through after Christmas knocked over 200 million trees across all of France, with these 140 mile-an-hour winds. And there, in Paris's biggest park, I would imagine probably two out of every three trees, as you walk through that park, have been blown over to the ground. And these are big, sizeable, mature trees. It was very sad to see, and it was a real symbol of the kinds of changes that we can expect with global warming. And I must say that the wind storm really got the attention of the French people and the French government.
CURWOOD: So they're not laissez-faire about the question of climate change any more.
HERTSGAARD: No. In fact, the government came out with a plan, now, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol by 10percent over 1990 levels by the year 2010 -- and even doing something that would be unheard of here in the United States, which is to tax energy consumption.
CURWOOD: What about the rest of Europe? What did you notice that was so different from what we're doing here?
HERTSGAARD: I went to a conference in Hanover, Germany, on sustainable towns and cities. And there were 2,000 very high-level officials from government, business, activist circles, from all over Europe. At least half of them, very encouragingly, came from Eastern Europe.
CURWOOD: So, what are some of the policy solutions to those urban problems that everyone seems to face: development, green space, traffic congestion, pollution?
HERTSGAARD: Well, I spent most of the time following the discussion about transportation and cars. And I was very struck there, first of all, that they are talking about taking on that problem quite directly. Here in the United States, because we're so addicted to cars, it's hard for us to talk about that. And yet the Europeans had very direct and yet, I thought, substantive conversation about what do we do. Well, it's not just the car, it's also how do we zone our cities? How do we change land use policies so that we can encourage, for example, dense development downtown, keep our city cores vibrant and alive, and avoid suburban sprawl? Let's not build the highways out there, let's strengthen our existing mass transit systems -- a real, integrated approach, and that was very encouraging to see. These are the kinds of things that are going to be bearing fruit over five, ten years from now. More immediately, what the average citizen is going to notice, I think, are these car-free days that many cities throughout Europe are beginning to have. In Italy, for example, 150 cities held a car-free Sunday in February, and that's going to be continuing throughout the summer. And all of Europe is planning a continent-wide car-free day this fall, on September 22nd, where people will have to leave their cars at home, and the only transportation around the city will be either mass transit or bicycles or on foot.
CURWOOD: But just one day? What kind of effect do you think this has on air pollution?
HERTSGAARD: Not much of an effect on air pollution. In fact, the organizers are very clear about that. I talked to the guys, for example, in Rome, who are planning that program. And they say, we're really not trying to deal with pollution right away on this. We are trying to change public consciousness about the car, to remind people of what their cities looked like before cars took them over. What do they sound like? What do they smell like? How do you as a pedestrian experience them? As a citizen, how do you experience them? And that there are real benefits to being without cars, and that you don't necessarily need a car. So that's really what they're trying to do, is to change the public consciousness about this, and therefore build support for the bigger structural changes that are going to be needed down the road.
CURWOOD: And talking about cars, the Europeans have done something else recently that has American businesses kind of uneasy, and that is a ruling from the European Environmental Commission that by the year 2006 all car manufacturers will have to take back cars at the end of their useful lives for recycling. So what do you think that means for Europe, and what could it mean for us here in the U.S.?
HERTSGAARD: It's a major development in terms of economic planning. If you've got car manufacturers knowing at the front end, we're going to have to take this heap of metal back when its useful life is done, they're going to produce it differently to start with. They're going to produce it with materials that can be recycled much more easily. You know, and one of the things it's going to mean for Europe is a lot less toxic waste. Cars are polluting vehicles, but they also cause a lot of environmental problems when they are disposed of. That is now going to change. And I must say, there's a difference here. The European manufacturers, especially the Germans, they're not crazy about this but they go along with it. They know that it's the future. The Americans, on the other hand, are still, let's face it, way back in the Dark Ages on this. It's going to be harder for them to get ready for this. They could face a competitive disadvantage starting in 2006, but you know, the train has left the station. If they want to sell into Europe now, they've got to do this.
CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.
HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.
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