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Finding the energy

Updated Tuesday, 5th October 2010

An extensive research and teaching career in energy, environment and sustainable development paved the way to Maria Da Graça Carvalho becoming a Member of the European Parliament. She talks about her work and her ambitions in her new role

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Maria:  I’m Maria Da Graca Carvalho.  I am actually a member of the European Parliament.  I’m Portuguese.  I have been working almost all my life in the energy environments since I did my PhD in Imperial College already on Energy in the Mechanical Engineering Department.  After I went back to Lisbon and I got the position in the Technical University of Lisbon.  I’m a professor there and I have a long career in research on energy and climate change.  I have worked in all areas of energy apart from nuclear, energy efficiency, industrial buildings and industry, also conversion and more recently renewals and …[unclear], so clean production of energy but also energy efficiency.

I have published many papers and a lot of …[unclear] students and after I went into politics.  I was in the Portuguese government in charge of Higher Education, Research and Innovation in the same government as the Prime Minister Barroso, and when he came to the presidency in the European Commission I came to Brussels with him and I have been the principal adviser to President Barroso until May this year, exactly in the areas of energy and climate change, so I contribute to the energy and climate change package.  And this year I decided to run for elections for the European Parliament and I was elected and here I am in the European Parliament.

So I contribute to energy, clean energy in the environment now from the Parliament side.  I have been in research, firstly, in national politics, in the European Commission and now I’m in the European Parliament.

Presenter:  That’s a lot of changes.  You know, it’s amazing.  You seem to have had a number of different changes and shifts over the course of your career.

Maria:  Yes, but always pursuing the same objective that is clean environment, clean air.  I’ve organised a series of conferences called Clean Air.  I’ve started an international journal called Clean Air.  I wrote several books in the same area clean technologies, technologies for a clean environment.  I wrote a series of books with that and added a series of books with that title.  So there is a constant line.

Presenter:  What would you say first triggered your interest in the environment at the very beginning?

Maria:  I think the quality of air, I suppose, because I’ve worked a lot on lowering the emissions, the particles, the NOx.  My research work until eight years ago were mainly dedicated to the emissions from energy productions, to lower the emissions, and when I started my research we were measuring and calculating the NOx, that’s one of the more dangerous emissions, of 2000ppm, and we end up with 1-2ppm, so things have developed a lot in research.  Research has provided clean technology in terms of clean air.  So combustion, internal combustion engines, they have become much cleaner than 20 years ago, a degree of 1,000 less.  So the C02 has been more recently, because until ten years, fifteen years ago C02 was not perceived as dangerous.  So more recently my research has also worked to lower the C02.

Presenter:  What do you see as the prime avenue or connection between research and policy?  How do you see those two talking together?

Maria:  For me it has been very important to get to understand the physics and the chemistry of the phenomena in order to decide or to advise.

Presenter:  Because it’s very unusual to have a trained scientist working in the Parliament.  That seems to be unusual, no?

Maria:  We have, I’m in the committee that is industry researching energy, and this committee we have several, I have more colleagues that are professors, university professors in the area of energy mainly.  But it helps a lot.  The committee, when you deal with energy, when you deal with complex problems of the industry, it helps a lot to understand the engineering background, because it’s a very complex phenomena that you have to decide.  Some of the directives, of the European directives, are very technical.  Reach for the chemical industry was very technical, and all the energy and climate change package is very technical. The ETS and the emissions straight is a very technical directive.  A lot of it related to climate change and really very technical, so the background helps a lot.

Presenter:  Moving from your background to what’s coming next.  What do you see happening within the next one year, five years, ten years with regard to environmental issues?

Maria:  I think that we have to - we are facing a very rapid change in terms of energy.  We have to go to a lower carbon society, and this means to have energy production with clean technology in terms of carbon, and to have also society organised in a different way using cleaner technologies, for example in the transport system.  But not only using cleaner technologies, also the way our cities are organised, the way we work, the way we have holidays or the international trade.  All these will change due to this need to save energy and to emit less.  So we will use more information technologies, we will probably be less mobile in terms of distance of work and home because we should organise ourselves not to produce so much C02.

It’s not only a question of environment, it’s also a question of the energy security to spend less energy, to be more sustainable in terms of resources, energy resources, and I foresee that the next decade will be not only saving energy but also other resources, mineral resources, water.  So because of developing countries are getting less poor, you know, they have to ...[unclear] and the world is finite, we have to save our resources and to have efficiency in the way we spend our resources.  That is the main, and if you need to save the resources and keep a good standard of living, this has to be based on innovative research and technology; otherwise you have to change dramatically the way you live or you have better technologies or a combination of both.  I suppose it would be a combination of both, cleaner technologies but also some changes in the way we live.

Presenter:  Are you an optimist or a pessimist when you look ahead?

Maria:  I’m an optimist.  I believe in science and science has given proof with quality of air.  You are probably too young to remember London like it was.  So you can imagine if a combustion engine or the boilers hadn’t become cleaner how would be London today.  And London is a city now with good quality of air.  It was not like that in the Sixties and it could be with so many more cars and many people that it has today if we didn’t have a lot cleaner technologies.  So what happened with the quality of air will happen in this year too if we put in the resources.  We have to put the resources in technology and new research, and we are not doing that at the moment.  We are putting this very high on the agenda but not in financing.  We still need more financing both in the industrialised countries for more research and technology development and also to help the developing countries, especially the least developed countries.

Presenter:  If there’s one message you have for the next generation of researchers, activists and policymakers, the upcoming generation, what would that be?

Maria:  To invest in research and to be aware of the consequence of the style of life.  We have to be conscious of the way we transport, the way we’re mobile, what we eat or the way we live, the individual responsibility, some kind of ethics, personal ethics also in terms of the way we live because we have our share of the planet and we should not use more than our share of the planet.






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