Research and innovation projects are turning green challenges into opportunities to spur Europe’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis.
Wildfire preparedness and resilience, large-scale restoration of freshwater ecosystems, the world’s biggest electrolyser for producing green hydrogen, community-based sustainable airports and healthy food for schools – this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we can expect from the 73 projects funded by the last big call under Horizon 2020: the European Green Deal Call.
Over the next four to five years, these projects, selected from among an unusually strong field of applications, will bring concrete solutions to the climate and biodiversity challenges the European Green Deal aims to address.
At the kick-off event last October 2021, five projects funded under the European Green Deal Call presented their goals and the impact they will have on the everyday life of European citizens.
Take the MERLIN project, for example, which will take restoration of rivers, lakes, wetlands and streams across Europe to the next level.
'By restoring ecosystems, we can enhance biodiversity as well as the attractiveness and recreational use of our natural environments; but we can also enhance natural water retention and flood storage capacity.' Professor Daniel Hering, MERLIN project coordinator
"By restoring ecosystems, we can enhance biodiversity as well as the attractiveness and recreational use of our natural environments; but we can also boost natural water retention and flood storage capacity," says MERLIN project coordinator Professor Daniel Hering. "In that way, restoration can directly contribute to reduced flood risks, something that is high on people’s minds after the dramatic floods we witnessed this summer."
The project will involve relevant economic sectors as well as local citizens and stakeholders in the whole process.
"For each of our 17 case studies, we will create a board of citizens and stakeholders who will help co-design the measures we will implement," says Prof Hering. "We think citizens can greatly contribute to these measures, because nobody wants to live close to a polluted stream."
Bringing local citizens and communities in as part of the solution will make them aware of the benefits they stand to gain from restoration and ensure that the activities are continued beyond the four-year scope of the MERLIN project.
The same approach can be applied to airports. In its ambition to make airports more sustainable – from the ground operations to aviation fuel, noise and air emissions, as well as getting to and from the airport – the STARGATE project will involve local communities surrounding Brussels airport in several ways. The project will, for example, develop a solar panel farm in cooperation with a local community, enabling them to co-invest and benefit from the electricity that is produced.
'We think that these kinds of projects are the way forward. They allow the airport to be much better integrated with the surrounding communities so they don’t only have the impact of the airport but also the benefits of having a large economic activity next door.' Arnaud Feist, coordinator of the STARGATE project and CEO of Brussels airport
"We think that these kinds of projects are the way forward," says Arnaud Feist, coordinator of the STARGATE project and CEO of Brussels airport. "They allow the airport to be much better integrated with the surrounding communities, so they don’t only have the impact of the airport but also the benefits of having a large economic activity next door."
Food and fires
Ensuring food security, nutrition and public health is a cornerstone of the European Green Deal’s Farm to Fork Strategy. "But research shows that for a societal shift to sustainable healthy diets to happen, it’s not going to be enough to simply increase the availability and accessibility of healthy food," says Amalia Ochoa. She’s coordinating the SchoolFood4Change project that looks at how changing food habits in schools can lead to healthier diets in society at large.
"We will for example look at the places children eat in, the canteens and classrooms: are these helping them to eat better food?’ Ochoa elaborated. "We are also looking at how children see and understand food, so food education: do they know where it comes from, how it’s been grown, who the farmers are, what the nutritional value is?"
The project will involve parents, teachers, school chefs, producers, farmers and caterers – basically all the actors in the food value chain. "This is the only way to ensure lasting change in people’s diets," says Ochoa.
Society is at the core of all initiatives. Moving on from school canteens to the vulnerable forests of Europe, the FIRE-RES project is focusing on increasing Europe’s resilience to extreme fire events.
The fires that raged across Europe this summer were unprecedented in size, speed, behaviour and impact, leaving even the most modern fire suppression systems all but helpless in response.
"This situation is not only jeopardising communities in southern Europe – it’s a common threat all across Europe," says deputy project coordinator Andrea Duane. "All regions now need new portfolios, policies and guidelines to help them control extreme wildfires."
As a first step, FIRE-RES will bring together forest owners, fire fighters, and community representatives from across Europe to share their experiences from extreme fire events. This will create the foundation for building new solutions – from better training of fire fighters to awareness raising campaigns, new technology and land-management approaches – that can decrease the impacts of fires and enhance forest restoration and adaptation.
Producing green hydrogen at scale
A climate-neutral Europe by 2050 is at the heart of the European Green Deal. Becoming ‘climate neutral’ means reaching a net-zero emissions balance. This can be achieved by reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, as well as compensating for any remaining emissions.
While we are familiar with renewable energies such as wind and solar power, there are many new solutions for decarbonising and diversifying the EU’s energy system in the making – one of them is hydrogen, green hydrogen in particular.
The REFHYNE II project will build the world’s largest polymer electrolyte membrane, or PEM, electrolyser to produce green hydrogen at scale.
"An electrolyser is a device that you use to split water using renewable power," explains Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM and coordinator of the REFHYNE II project. "The product that you make with an electrolyser is green hydrogen. And green hydrogen is nature’s net-zero fuel."
At its base near Cologne, Germany, the project will develop a green hydrogen-based sustainable aviation fuel and scale up its production to increase volume manufacturing and drive down costs.
'Green hydrogen is an incredibly important element in the energy transition. It’s been noted around the world that you can’t get to net zero unless you can decarbonise the industries that use natural gas. And this is a net-zero replacement for natural gas.' Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM and coordinator of REFHYNE II
"Green hydrogen is an incredibly important element in the energy transition," says Cooley. "It’s been noted around the world that you can’t get to net zero unless you can decarbonise the industries that use natural gas. And this is a net-zero replacement for natural gas."
Taken together, the 73 projects funded under the European Green Deal Call will set Europe on a path to taking responsibility for how our activities affect the planet. They will also provide the impetus, for young and old, to restore our relationship with the natural world.
Turning an urgent challenge into a unique opportunity
Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities have contributed significantly to warming over the past century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It emphasised that we must act urgently to reverse the trend and start adapting to a changing climate, with all the consequences that entails for our economies, societies and ecosystems.
The European Commission’s Green Deal will turn the tide and set Europe on course to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. One of the first dedicated contributions of research and innovation is the European Green Deal Call, committing €1 billion for projects that respond to the climate crisis and help protect Europe’s unique ecosystems and biodiversity.