Average Increase in Alpine Temperatures Already Surpassed 2 Centigrade
Marco Onida is the Secretary General of the Alpine Convention and worked for years at the European Commission’s Environment Directorate General. Each year the Convention that he is leading expresses a straightforward contempt for cars or mass tourism and attacks the alpine peaks and ridges with a bunch of fellow journalist buddies. The overt purpose for a sustainable crossing of the Alps is to observe and report on climate change. However, there is more to it. SuperAlp! – that is the name of the program – is linking different territories, issues and cultures aiming at improving the knowledge of the Alpine Convention, that recognizes the Alps as a whole and unique territory.
A handful of journalists belonging to world’s top publications crossed the Alpine arc for 10 days using sustainable means of transport and trying out the various links that make up the chain of alternative mobility to private cars. The group traveled from France to Italy across Switzerland and Austria by train, bicycle and on foot.
This last edition let us discover the conditions of alpine glaciers, one of the most evident indicators of the effects of climate change. It also intends to make this crossing an occasion to communicate the Alpine Convention and its Protocols as tools for the sustainable development of the Alpine regions, easily transferable to other mountain regions of the world. Hear Onida speak.
What is SuperAlp and why did you organize it?
SuperAlp is a project of the Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention that has two main aims. The first aim is to bring the Alpine Convention to the territory. The Alpine Convention is a treaty, which entangles alpine territory, but the territory not always knows this. The second aim is through this long journey of journalists we talk about the Alps, we determine journalists to write about the Alps and we raise awareness on critical topics such as sustainability in the Alps. SuperAlp is made with public and sustainable means of transport and fueled with local food, as to show that it is possible to travel like that.
We are particularly interested in climate change. It has extreme effects on the Alps; the average increase in temperature in the Alps is higher than the average increase in other areas of the Northern Hemisphere, we had 2 centigrade increase in the Alps (within the last two decades, n.n.), the effects are very visible and, most of all, very expensive. One of the most visible effects is the retreat of glaciers. We chose 5 glaciers in the Alps and we crossed them all in order to see with our eyes what the situation is and to talk to knowledgeable people, glaciologists, experts that have been living here for the last 50-60 years and that are able to explain what is the situation’s evolution, what is the speed of the retreat, what are the problems associated to this retreat and so on.
Do you see any similarities between the Alpine Convention and the Carpathian Convention?
The principles are pretty much the same, which means cooperation to solve common problems and to better exploit the common opportunities. The reality, however, is quite different. The Carpathian area is much bigger than the Alps, it is much wilder than the Alps, nature is still to a certain extent unspoiled, it is not that much tourist friendly as the Alps, problems are different. The Carpathian Convention was signed in 2003 that is it is still much younger. It is difficult to compare the two, I would say, from the point of view of the philosophies they are pretty much the same although there are objective differences due to the physical differences of the countries which are associated to the Carpathian Convention. There are not always easy relations with Ukraine, which is member of the Carpathian Convention. I mean political relations are good, but cooperation on the territory requires long-standing trans-border cooperation, which is not part of every day life between Romania, Poland and Ukraine. So the idea is pretty much the same, yes.
It is pretty much the same even when considering the whole geographic area because they belong to the very same orogeny, Carpathians, Alps, Pyrenees…
Yes, exactly. They are the mountains of Europe, basically and they are pretty much neglected from the political perspective, neglected by the European policies, the interests of people in the mountains are not being always considered and this is why it is very important to have these conventions because they can also jointly do lobbying in Brussels to have better consideration of mountain dimension. We often do this with the Carpathian people.
Three years ago I had the great joy to join you in the second phase of your project. The theme of that project was mountain communities and mountain agriculture. What happened after? Any follow up?
Well, changes in the Alps take ages like everywhere in society. So I would say that we are experiencing pretty much the same situation, we see the same problems with public transport not being enough developed. What we see as a weakness is a little less awareness related to the existence of the Alpine Convention because in the last three years we were working intensively, but in the Alps the situation is quite unchanged. To a certain extent it is actually worsened. And that is on two dimensions: climate change and tourism. We are going towards a quite dangerous direction with mass tourism in the mountains and not realizing that this is not going to be sustainable.
First of all, there is too much focus on winter tourism, on skiing. Ski resorts are investing to get more slopes and ski lifts, but there is less snow and less people mainly due to a greater competition. Today people also want to have quieter holidays even off-season, so there should be a diversification of tourism offers that take place only in some resorts, alpinism villages that we visited in Austria. This is an interesting development, but there are still places where mass winter tourism is considered to be a must and this is harming the environment. But I should say that this is also harming the economy because it makes no sense to have for two months people coming from all over Europe, locals to work there and then, for he rest of the year – mere unemployment.
So do you think that initiatives such as SuperAlp can be applicable to the Carpathians – a SuperCarpatica?
Well, that would be a dream. Distances in the Carpathians are much longer, probably the development of public transport in mountain areas of the Carpathians is still at an early stage. And also, I would say, probably the political consideration of mountains in areas of the Carpathian countries is not yet the same as here. In the Alps we have a stronger environmental pressure, mass tourism, massive transport transit, loss of mountain agriculture. In the Carpathians, after the political changes in Europe and the accession of many Carpathian countries to the European Union, problems are rather… quite others. But it is very good to have this cooperation because we want to anticipate problems. So the Carpathians can find themselves in the very situation in which the Alps were 20 years ago; so we can anticipate and better deal with these problems. Soon, the Tatras can be in the very same situation in which the Alps are today. We should take care of that.
Can we go back to mountain communities? I know last year you had as theme in SuperAlp food and gastronomy. The funny thing is that in Romania most of the traditional food – or what we generally call slow food nowadays – is coming from the mountain areas. That means there is a lot of added value to food comes from the mountains. How did you tackle that?
This is very important, yes. Last year we had Slow Food as a partner of SuperAlp, we visited the headquarters of Slow Food and its university of gastronomic sciences in Polenzo (Piedmont, Italy), and across our journeys we stopped in places where we almost always had local products. It is quite clear that there is a strong demand for that. Particularly in times of globalization and health problems associated to urbanization or hysteria such the latest e-Coli, if one eats mountain food nothing happens to him or her. Now having this food in mountain areas is good, it creates new opportunities and money. But it requires also a lot of investment in order for the products to reach the cities, which is not always easy – also because of the low quantities in which food is produced. But I think this a very important development and that is why we concentrated SuperAlp on that and it should be a focus of the Carpathian countries as well.