Agnese Meija-Toropova talks about her experience as an Environmental Advocate in Latvia

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The complex challenge of adapting to climate change requires collaboration between many fields of expertise and the diverse approaches of different projects. IMPETUS is working closely with sister climate change adaptation projects ARSINOE, TransformAr and REGILIENCE. Together, these involve many inspiring people whose skills and experience contribute in various ways to creating resilience and adaptation tools, solutions and initiatives.

To mark International Women’s Day – 8 March – we have been interviewing some of the impactful women in our projects. For IMPETUS, we spoke with Agnese Meija – Toropova from Baltic Environmental Forum Latvia working in the Boreal demosite (below) and Mountains demo site leader – Valentina D’Alonzo, a senior researcher at Eurac Research’s Institute for Renewable Energy (next article)

Agense, how does your expertise in Environmental Science inform and translate into your work as part of the IMPETUS project?

I studied environmental protection and climate change has always been a topic of interest for me. At the beginning of environmental science studies, we watched the film “The Day After Tomorrow” together with our fellow students, which made us think a lot about future scenarios regarding climate.  At the time, this presented vision of future seemed impossible and terrifying, but as the years go by, you realize that we are little by little moving in this direction.

I am an environmental expert in the Impetus project, and my knowledge is very useful when discussing adaptation options and future directions in agriculture, forestry, public and private sectors with experts from different fields. BEF coordinates the involvement of different experts in project activities, and we act as mediators and facilitators between local authorities, experts, and project partners.

What made you want to get involved in this field?

I am very concerned about these issues, both professionally and personally – I want to see stable and resilient winters, a climate that does not change so rapidly, and less extreme weather events that are very damaging to people. Climate problems are becoming more acute as the years go by-, and sooner or later we will have to adapt and find solutions in different areas. It is therefore necessary to work together with local authorities and international experts to find the best possible solutions. Climate issues need to be kept up to date both within local communities and internationally, as they are often not the first priority in many areas.

Did you have enough support during your career? Which obstacles did you have to overcome?

There has been enough support from colleagues in my organization, as well as from my family and other organizations and institutions involved in the field. What is lacking in terms of overcoming obstacles is the active participation of the public and also the interest in the business community – e.g. farmers – in environmental issues, which could be higher.

How have your studies contributed to the research on climate change and how does your field of expertise complement other disciplines in the projects you are now working in?

My work mostly involves solving pollution issues, but climate change and pollution go hand in hand, they are very related fields. When developing a climate adaptation plan for a region, different aspects are relevant, including pollution, hazardous substances in the environment, pesticide use, because climate change also affects these aspects.

What do you like most about your job? What is one of your most memorable experiences?

Our organization is working with various environmental projects, and the topics range from climate issues, plastic and chemical pollution to public information campaigns. I like the different challenges in the projects because the projects are so different and each one has its own nature, challenges as well as certain goals to achieve. It is always very interesting to listen to discussions of experts in different fields, the clash of opinions and trying to find a common denominator so that everyone’s interests are satisfied.

Is there an imbalance between women and men in your professional field? If so, why do you think that is?

It depends very much on the field you work in. When working with different target groups, it is evident that there are more women or men in one or the other. In our country, however, environmental organizations are more female-dominated (for example, our organization), probably because women are more concerned about these issues. In municipalities, however, there is a greater balance. In technical areas, of course, male employees are prevalent.

Taking into account your field of expertise, what would you say is Europe’s biggest challenge now regarding our ability to adapt to climate change?

The challenges are manifold, such as balancing production intensity with emissions and particularly CO2 emissions, finding common ground with the countries that emit the most and therefore “warm” the climate the most. The biggest challenge is probably the balance between comfort we are used to in our everyday lives and environmental protection.

What makes you most hopeful for the future?

It is indeed difficult to find a ray of hope at this time, both in the military conflicts nearby that are contributing to environmental degradation and in the increasing climate change, but nations must work together and be tougher on those who do not live up to their commitments. Only the ability of countries, communities to work together collectively and with a common vision will give hope of avoiding irreversible change. The global pandemic has also shown that it is possible to overcome difficulties by different parties working together for a common goal and the greater good.

What advice would you give young women who want to work in climate adaptation?

Be active, assertive, strong and persistent in standing up for your goals and values and do not give in to pressure or influence from others. Women have great power, and they need to be aware of this; we have a great potential to promote positive change, to reconcile conflicting sides with a smile.

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High temperatures

Record-breaking summertime temperatures have been recorded in the Netherlands in recent years. With global temperatures rising, such extreme weather events will occur more often, and for longer periods. Prolonged high temperatures, with warm nights as well as hot days, can cause heat stress* and related health issues, particularly among city populations.

*Heat stress occurs when the human body cannot get rid of excess heat and can impact wellbeing through conditions such as heat stroke, exhaustion, cramps and rashes.

"We want to enable municipality decision makers who are working on spatial developments to identify heat stress 'hot spots' and cool areas, analyse the future effects of climate change, and model the effect of different heat stress-reducing measures. The tool must provide them with an easy starting point to integrate heat stress risks in their projects."

Issue

Despite the cooling effect of the sea in the region of Zeeland, the growing risk of heat stress has become a concern.

Elderly and other vulnerable people are more impacted by the effects of prolonged heat, which can cause headaches, dizziness, insomnia and other health issues – even death. Excess temperatures also affect general comfort and liveability of cities. Water quality can be reduced, both for drinking and swimming, and infrastructure can be affected. Buildings and concrete surfaces trap heat, potentially leading to damage, and release it during the night, keeping temperatures warm.

During heat waves, it is important that everyone has access to a cool and comfortable place. Appropriate spatial planning can help to decrease and deal with heat stress. Environmental factors like water bodies, trees, and shade have a major impact on stress caused by high temperatures. Therefore, planting trees, removing concrete surfaces, creating green roofs and cool spaces can improve our comfort and health. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is developing a digital tool to support regional decision making for city planning to address these needs.

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Flood risk

By 2050, sea-level within this region is predicted to rise by 15-40 cm, with more frequent extreme weather and more (severe) storms triggered by climate change. These changes will exacerbate the natural risk of flooding in the IMPETUS ‘Atlantic’ region, because it is surrounded by rivers and the sea, and is below sea level.

*Risk takes into account two aspects; the chance that an event will occur and the negative impact of such an event once it occurs. When there is a low chance that an event will occur, but its impacts are huge, the risk is still significant.

“In the Netherlands, an extensive system of dikes protects us against sea and river flooding. We have always put our faith in this defence and focused almost solely on flood prevention. However, pressure on our system will increase with climate change and rising sea levels. To adapt and maintain a safe living environment, we should develop other safety measures, like more robust spatial planning and contingency plans."

Issue

Rotterdam city, is located in Rijnmond – ‘mouth of the Rhine’. The Rhine river flows through this densely populated area and characterises the region. Protections such as sea dikes and storm surge barriers have been constructed to protect the region, but flooding still occurs.

People living in the city are accustomed to seeing smaller floods. The changing climate affects the interplay between rainfall, river levels and sea storms, increasing the flooding risk. Water levels could rise by a few metres, even in populated areas, with potentially massive impacts. 

Mitigation measures such as storm surge barriers reduce the chance that high water reaches the city, but to minimise the impact of floods when they do occur, adaptation strategies are also needed. A city that can adapt to be safe from floods must be carefully designed. How best to design such an adaptive city?

Critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and evacuation routes, must be accessible at all times. Planning how to best protect them, homes and lives is complex. Flood water behaves in a complex way and flood risks show strong spatial variations. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is developing a digital tool to support regional decision making for adaptive city planning. 

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Energy and waste water

To become climate-neutral by 2050, climate mitigation* efforts are crucial in our strategy for how to deal with climate change. Reducing our energy consumption is a significant mitigation step. In the Netherlands, 15% of energy is consumed in the Rijnmond area around the port of Rotterdam, in large part by a major petrochemical industry cluster.

*Climate mitigation encompasses measures such as technologies, processes, or practices that reduce carbon emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.

Issue

The Rotterdam port petrochemical industry cluster is Europe’s largest. It consumes 70% of the Rijnmond region’s energy. A large part of this energy is wasted (64%, 203 petajoules). More than half of that energy is lost with wastewater. In addition, most energy processes within these industries rely on fossil fuels, which has a significant impact on the climate.

Energy use must be minimised and fossil fuels should be replaced by renewable sources if climate change is to be mitigated. Electrification of processes opens up the possibility to use more renewable energy and can greatly impact decarbonisation. Recovering wasted heat would significantly reduce energy consumption and is a first step towards a more circular industry. 

Supporting industries in a transition towards climate-neutrality depends on identifying how best to reduce their carbon footprint without sacrificing production or performance. The IMPETUS Atlantic team is creating a digital tool that supports decision making about pathways towards an effective energy transition for EU industry.