How Renewable Energy and Organic Farming Helped Revitalize a Small Italian Town
By Laurie Guevara-Stone
A trip to Varese Ligure, Italy, will bring you face to face with a charming town of pastel-colored houses and a plethora of restaurants serving dishes with organic porcini mushrooms and chestnuts. Stop at the bustling markets and you will see Italians who have traveled from far and wide to purchase the locally produced organic meats, cheeses, and honey. It’s a far cry from just 20 years ago, when this town in the Liguria region of northwest Italy was fading away due to a lack of jobs, no industry, decaying properties, and a lack of essential services.
At the end of the '80s, Varese Ligure, a small town (pop: 2,400) located in the Vara valley in the province of La Spezia, had gone from a population of 6,000 to 2,250. However, the mayor at the time, Maurizio Caranza, refused to give up hope for his dying town. He decided to take what others thought of as Varese Ligure’s weaknesses—geographical isolation, lack of modern industry, antiquated farming practices—and turn them into strengths. He realized the valley’s clean air and unspoiled land were assets and opportunities. What better way to capitalize on those attributes than by becoming a sustainable tourist destination through renewable energy and organic farming?
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“We realized the only thing to do to prevent the village from dying was to protect the environment and rehabilitate the agriculture sector," Caranza told Italian news agency Adnkronos International.
The forward-thinking mayor hit on a gold mine. This was in the early 1990s, before climate change and mad cow disease became household words. Little did he know that in the following decades the organic and environmental movements would mushroom (pun intended).
Now, 20 years later, four wind turbines produce 8 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year, generating three times more electricity than the town uses. The town hall and secondary school are covered with solar photovoltaic panels, producing on site 98 percent and 62 percent of their electricity needs, respectively. The wastewater treatment plant has a 4 kW PV system and the town swimming pool is heated with solar panels. There is also a small 8 kW hydroelectric system.
The electricity from the renewable energy systems is fed into the local grid managed by ACAM, the electric utility company in La Spezia. While ACAM manages and maintains the wind turbines, the ACAM utility and the municipality jointly own them. ACAM pays Varese Ligure about $30,000 each year for the excess electricity and also provides the town with various services as part of its payment for the electricity, such as sorted waste and landfill site management.
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To rebuild the town, Caranza asked the residents if they would be willing to repair and renovate their ancient stone houses—an image of which sits juxtaposed against a modern wind turbine on the municipality’s website—if the public administration got funding to redo the roads, sewers, aqueducts, and street lighting. Though some people were resistant at first, Caranza finally won them over, and home renovations began. While some of the funding for renovations came from the European Union, the majority of it came from the citizens themselves. A psychological factor was at work, Caranza told travel journalist Giovanna Dunmall. “If you go to someone’s house and it’s much nicer and cleaner than yours, then when you go back to your home you realize that you want to improve it, too.”
There was also a lot of education about organic farming practices, and a push for farmers to stop using chemical fertilizers. Most farmers actually couldn’t afford chemical fertilizers, so were farming organically out of necessity already, but weren’t officially certified. To get these conservative farmers to become organic certified, Caranza explained that organic products could be sold at higher prices and helped farmers get EU grants for organic farms. Now 108 organic farms supply 98 percent of town’s produce, meat, and dairy products. The Vara valley, now known as the “Organic Valley,” became Europe’s first valley to be certified ISO 14001, the international benchmark for environmental management.
One important program they started in the town in 1996 was the Environmental Education Center (CEA), which educates children of the region about organic agriculture, renewable energy, and sustainability. The CEA takes schoolchildren on tours of organic farms, dairy cooperatives, and bee keeping operations; it offers educational courses on small wind turbines, solar panels, and solar cookers; and it educates youth about energy consumption and climate change.
Varese Ligure is currently rated one of the best small towns in Italy by the Touring Club Italiano, even receiving the organization’s orange flag, awarded to small towns for excellency in tourism, hospitality, and the environment. There has been a 500-percent increase in tourists since the late 1990s, an additional $514,000 in annual tax revenues, 140 new jobs, and a stable population.
Caranza is proud of what has become of his town. “Tourism is an important sector for six months a year, local farmers produce an abundance of organic fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy products, and the village now recycles 25 percent of its refuse,” he reported to Adnkronos International. “Because the political will existed, we succeeded in arresting Varese Ligure's decline.” And more than arresting decline, with a mixture of clean energy and sustainable agriculture, they have truly transformed the community.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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