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We are facing a double challenge

Ecoproductive regions in the Alps are well known for being important for agriculture, biodiversity and raw materials such as wood, but they also play a crucial role in carbon sequestration. Urban development and climate change are now wreaking havoc on these regions, causing them to become carbon emitters instead of carbon absorbers, explains Carmen de Jong, Professor of Geography at the University of Savoy, France.

Ecoproductive regions in the Alps are well known for being important for agriculture, biodiversity and raw materials such as wood, but they also play a crucial role in carbon sequestration. Urban development and climate change are now wreaking havoc on these regions, causing them to become carbon emitters instead of carbon absorbers, explains Carmen de Jong, Professor of Geography at the University of Savoy, France. 

Interview: Elana Caro, St. Gallen

You spoke about ecoproductive regions in the Alps at the LISDAR Congress. How do you define an ecoproductive region?
An ecoproductive region can be defined in one of two ways, although there is a certain overlap of the two. In the traditional sense, an ecoproductive region is one that is productive in terms of soil, water and air so that it can serve people, animals and the environment. But it is also good for carbon sequestration, which encompasses a wide range of ecosystems from forests – where the trees capture CO2 – to soil, lakes and wetlands.

Most people know that forests are important carbon sinks, but how do soils, lakes or wetlands sequester carbon?
Wetlands are the most effective CO2 stores worldwide because unlike forests, they can permanently store CO2. This is why it is so important to protect wetlands. But their destruction is less visible than with a forest, and therefore less simple to understand. There are many small, vulnerable wetlands that are hidden in remote areas in the Alps. Until now, there has been no real comprehensive database or mapping of wetlands in the Alps. As a result, it’s more difficult to argue that they are there or that they are now gone.
Soils take thousands of years to develop so once they are removed, the damage is more or less irreversible, unlike forests which can regrow in a few decades.

How are wetlands and soils being destroyed?
We are facing a kind of double challenge. Climate change endangers rivers, soils, streams and wetlands because the rapid sequence of droughts and high temperatures is causing a shift in the system, so that even high altitude wetlands and small lakes are drying up in the summertime. This releases carbon and also prohibits future carbon sequestration.
The second challenge is human encroachment such as urbanisation, road building, parking lot construction and the like. Wetlands, for instance, are often seen as a nuisance or a non-productive region, so they are more likely to be drained and set aside in favour of urban development such as holiday homes or ski resorts. And the ski industry requires artificial snow because there is not enough natural snowfall as a result of climate change. This requires a lot of water and so more water reservoirs are being built to store water, unfortunately most in wetlands. As a result, around 70 per cent of wetlands have been lost around large ski resorts in the Alps due to human development.
With regard to soils, the most important enemies are soil erosion and soil removal. Soil erosion is something that is easy to see to the naked eye. But soil removal for urban construction – for example, ski resort development, roads or parking lots – is more of an invisible enemy because if you don’t know what the landscape looked like before, you cannot tell how much is gone.

How do we convince people that ecoproductive regions such as wetlands matter?
It is the job of scientists to become more proactive because they know best of all what is happening in the wetlands and can monitor the impact of climate change. At the same time, policy makers must become more aware of these issues, which requires education, awareness raising and so on.
This year, I have done a lot of public awareness on wetlands in France, supported by environmental groups such as FRAPNA (Fédération Rhône-Alpes de protection de la nature, an environmental protection group for the region Rhône-Alpes in France, ec). I noticed from the questions that I get from the public that they are sometimes appalled that there are no stricter regulations and directives to prevent the rapid drainage and destruction of wetlands.

Are policy makers finally starting to listen?
Environmental groups invite policy makers to these events, but not always enough attend. And those who do take pains to come are already interested in the topic, a ‘positive kind of cycle’, so to speak. But the feedback that I get from my colleagues – the ecologists and botanists who work on wetlands – is that until very recently, policy makers and ski resort operators were not in the least bit aware of the importance of wetlands. One reason is that it’s difficult to put a monetary value on these kinds of ecosystems because they cannot be used for agricultural purposes, such as cattle grazing.

With respect to the monetary question: Most urban development in the Alps is for tourism, and the local population tends to fear that if you slow this development down, then they will be out of jobs. How do you go about balancing human needs with environmental ones?
That’s a very classical argument put forward by the ski industry, which claims that the population in the mountain areas is being lost to the big pre-Alpine cities such as Munich, Milan or Lyon and that the only magic formula is ski resort development, which will bring jobs back and the people will stay.
The reality is of course quite different. The ski industry is a very seasonal industry – concentrated over just two or three months – so as a scientist, I would not call it a sustainable industry at all. And the personnel who work in the service sector during the ski season are usually seasonal workers from abroad because these jobs are paid on a daily basis. So I think it is very much of a myth to say that this industry creates jobs.
The real way forward would be to develop services around the other seasons, and there are many examples where this works well.

Such as…
In quite a few regions in Austria and northern Italy, for instance in the Tyrol and South Tyrol, they have festivals that go with the seasons, such as flower festivals in the spring and summer, and autumn apple festivals. The ski industry, in contrast, actually goes against the seasons because it has not adapted to climate change and all the resulting problems with snowfall and temperatures.
If you simply look at the tourism industry in the summer, when people go hiking or participate in ecological or geological tourism trips, they need tour guides and usually tend to stay in smaller, locally owned hotels. This could be developed even further. The winter industry, however, is very risky because a lot of money is invested no matter how many tourists come. Summer tourism doesn’t invest even a tenth of that amount. This means that even if fewer tourists come in the summer, the turnover can still be the same.

Even if we decide to change our behaviour and better protect these ecoproductive regions, is there anything that can we do against the threat of climate change?
The German-speaking region of the Alps came up with the clever idea of CO2-neutral Alps by 2050 under the leadership of Renate Müssner, Liechtenstein Minister for Spatial Development. About 16 million tons of CO2 are emitted each year in the Alps in the agricultural and land use sector (excluding traffic), which is about a third of the total emissions. Most of this can be trapped in forests, soils and wetlands. So it is very important to stop destroying wetlands and instead rehabilitate them, which Switzerland, Austria and Germany are now starting to do. We saw some superb examples of this during the LISDAR Congress 2010 when we went on a fieldtrip to the Gamperfin wetland in Switzerland.

Is the idea of CO2-neutral Alps realistic?
Absolutely. But it means doing everything possible to reduce CO2 emissions. We need to better manage woods and forests and use them more efficiently for fuel or to protect against soil erosion. We also have to reinforce and put into place new laws, especially at the EU level with regard to alpine traffic and tourism development. This will be difficult because villages and tourist destinations in mountain regions are so remote that cars are usually the only transport method. So this will also involve changing people’s behaviour.
Then there is the challenge of water, which I think is very much underestimated because there is really no water management at the moment in the Alps. Tourism development doesn’t just cause water scarcity and local water conflicts, but also contaminates the ecosystems when improperly treated water is pumped up and down the slopes via artificial snowmaking. This must be solved through stricter regulations for water treatment and reuse of grey water, and new rules and regulations around saving water.

Carmen de Jong is Professor of Geography at the University of Savoy, France and former Scientific Director of the Mountain Institute. Prof. de Jong is a Steering Committee Member of the European Dialogue Platform on Climate Change and Adaptation and coordinated the EU project Water Management Strategies against Water Scarcity in the Alps, among others. Prof. de Jong received her PhD in Physical Geography from the Free University of Berlin (1993) and her habilitation in Geography from the University of Bonn (2005).