Valentina D’Alonzo discusses climate research, gender balance, and hopes for the future

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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 Mountains demo site leader – Valentina D’Alonzo, a senior researcher at Eurac Research’s Institute for Renewable Energy (below) and Agnese Meija – Toropova from Baltic Environmental Forum Latvia working in the Boreal demosite (next article).

Valentina, can you tell us about your role at Eurac and what motivated you to work in the renewable energy sector?

Certainly. I’m a senior researcher at Eurac’s Institute for Renewable Energy. My interest in energy and climate topics began during my master’s degree and master’s thesis, where I focused on integrating mitigation and adaptation actions into spatial planning processes. This interest led me to pursue opportunities at Eurac, where I primarily work on sustainable energy transition projects.

How do you apply your expertise in spatial planning to projects like IMPETUS?

Spatial planning involves managing territories and incorporating various disciplines to address environmental and economic impacts. In Impetus, I have a management role, overseeing people and activities for our demo site in Italy. While I’m not directly involved in specific topics, I leverage my ability to connect different perspectives and keep activities aligned.

Have you faced any challenges in your career, particularly regarding gender balance in your field?

Gender balance is still an issue, especially in management positions. While the research field is relatively balanced, management roles often skew toward men. Personally, I’ve encountered challenges working with older men on certain projects, but I’ve found support from family, colleagues, and mentors.

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to work in climate adaptation or energy research?

Persevere and seek support. It’s crucial to be passionate about the topic you’re working on and to surround yourself with people who believe in you. Don’t let gender stereotypes hold you back, and remember that your voice matters in shaping the future of our planet.

What do you see as the biggest challenge Europe faces in adapting to climate change?

The biggest challenge is integrating adaptation measures across all sectors of society and the economy. We need to move beyond working in silos and foster communication and collaboration among different disciplines and sectors.

Is there anything that makes you hopeful for the future, particularly in addressing climate change?

Absolutely. I’m encouraged by the engagement of younger generations in climate action. There’s a growing movement of young people who are passionate about creating a sustainable future. By involving them in decision-making processes and giving them a voice, we can make significant progress in combating climate change.

Any final thoughts on gender balance in science and the future of climate research?

I hope for a future where celebrating women in science isn’t necessary because gender balance is the norm. We have work to do to achieve this, but with continued effort and collaboration, we can create a more inclusive and impactful scientific community.

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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.