Climate change at the tipping point

A report on the the latest iteration of the Familia Torres climate change conference by Felicity Carter.

Miguel A. Torres
Miguel A. Torres

“People still don’t see the urgency of the change we need,” said Miguel Torres, speaking at the opening of the Familia Torres Climate Change Course, held in Sitges, Spain in early April. Now a regular event, it brings scientists, politicians, winemakers and writers together to hear about breakthroughs in combating climate change.

Torres is frustrated at the slow pace of change, particularly when it comes to legislation. So he’s taken matters into his own hands, and he ticked off some of the initiatives that Familia Torres is investing in, from viticultural experiments to technology trials. “All our focus goes to Patagonia,” he said, where the company has bought 6,000ha of land. “This is going to allow us to plant trees.” A decade ago, Torres also invested in land at higher altitudes, because “every 100m you go is one degree less”.

Torres believes that viticulture must fundamentally change to delay maturation. “In the 1980s the idea was to advance maturation. Now it’s the contrary, or we might have to harvest in August.” Planting vines further apart is one answer, as is avoiding de-leafing. In the face of more hail events, hail nets have become important, while goblet planting – where the plant grows into a goblet shape under a canopy that protects it from the sun – may have to return.

Controversially, Torres doesn’t believe that organic viticulture is the answer. “I know many people believe it is. Consumers think that by drinking organic, it’s very healthy and they are saving the planet,” he said. “Actually, it is the contrary. Emissions are higher and there is the problem with copper: it is toxic for soils; it is toxic for vegetables.”
He acknowledges that making wine is not a carbon-neutral activity. “But if we can capture the carbon, it’s a much better situation.” 

The scale of the problem

Dr Miquel Rosell, an oceanographer who is also the climate change and energy transition adviser at Bodegas Torres, described the challenges ahead. “The four hottest years in history were between 2015 and 2018,” he said. “We are approaching a one degree temperature anomaly,” which means “increased floods, stronger hurricanes, wilder wild fires and accelerating sea level rises.” He noted that Spain had recently experienced its first tropical storm, which he said was evidence that we are heading for “runaway” climate change. “Will stopping emissions change things? Carbon is not the only problem. If the Arctic warms, there is nothing we can do to stop methane being emitted. Nothing.”

Dr Rosell admitted he’s not very optimistic, but noted there are opportunities ahead, including openings for new technologies and new ways to use land. “We can’t tackle climate change without renewables,” he said.

And on that front, there seems to be good news, as economist Chris Goodall explained. He is the author of The Switch, a 2016 book about the transition to solar power. “The collection of solar, principally by PV [photovoltaic] technologies, is now significantly cheaper – enough to become the lowest-cost way to produce our energy. That’s one step.” One issue that has hobbled the development of solar energy is the need to store the energy and make it available 24 hours a day. Goodall says that problem is on the brink of being solved through using hydrogen as a storage medium. “Using cheap solar energy, while combining it with hydrogen, means complete decarbonisation is available to us.” 

What make solar so attractive is that the sun sends so much of it our way – every day, the world is hit with 173,000 terawatts (trillions of watts) of free energy. “The world needs about 18TW [per day],” he said. “We need to devote something like 2% of the world’s surface to the collection of solar energy.” He added that global consulting firm McKinsey has predicted that solar will be the world’s biggest supplier of energy by 2050.

Not only could solar decarbonise the world, he said, but it can be produced where it’s needed. Instead of relying on massive grids, people can put PV panels on top of their apartment buildings and generate their own energy. This is already a game changer for some of the world’s most deprived communities, giving them a cheap alternative to dangerous and polluting charcoal and kerosene. 

Solar panels aren’t the only way of capturing energy: new materials are appearing such as Heliatek, a light, unobtrusive material that captures solar energy and which can be attached to windows or external walls.

The barriers to widespread solar adoption are, however, formidable. “There is huge political resistance,” said Goodall. “There are transition costs. You cannot make changes of this scale without disrupting some industry or other.”

Nevertheless, some people are clearly enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by solar. “We’re going to put PVs in the vineyard!” said Miguel Torres.
Sheep farmers are another group embracing the technology. “One of the main benefits of solar in rural areas has been to improve sheep farming,” said Goodall. Apparently sheep like hanging out under the panels where it’s shady. Their greater comfort improves their wool. 

Other technologies

Klaus Schirmer of Exytron, a German company, gave an intriguing presentation on the potential benefits of carbon recycling. A prototype of the company’s offering stands out the back of Torres’s Bodega Waltraud. While it looks like a fairly unimpressive steel cabinet, it has the potential to transform the way buildings are supplied with energy.
Electricity created from solar or wind power is sent to a catalyser which is fed with carbon dioxide, and the gas is converted to methane. This methane can then be used to heat buildings – and the excess heat is fed back into the system, starting the cycle all over again. Already, an old apartment block in the German city of Augsburg is being supplied with all its energy needs thanks to this system.

But for truly innovative thinking, nothing beat the presentation given by Mireia Torres Maczassek, the manager of Familia Torres’s innovation and knowledge department. She mentioned a trial Torres is doing with Ynsect, a fertiliser made from crushed insects, which may have a better carbon footprint than organic fertiliser.

As inspiring as the presentations were, however, the talk kept circling back to the problem of inertia. Unless the general public demands swift, international action on climate change from politicians and elected officials, crushed insects and solar panels are just Band-Aids on the problem.

Then Dr Jamie Goode, who is an occasional contributor to this magazine, stepped up to talk about how to galvanise people into demanding change.

The climate change narrative

“The depressing truth is that facts do not change people’s minds,” he said. “We assume that if we amass enough facts, the weight of facts will cause non-believers to change their minds.” It is stories and emotionally charged narratives that work to change beliefs, he went on. Unfortunately “we live in the age of the filter bubble, which is hindering the attempts to communicate things like climate change”.

Even the most passionate of advocates can fail to sway opinion because “for those who disagree, it’s quite easy to filter out the activists. The message can just become noise. We are very good at denial and confirmation bias.”

Dr Goode says that as a scientist he is fascinated by different theories of evolution, and he wonders if some of them don’t apply to communications. “One theory of evolution was the idea that things change gradually,” he said, “but then came a revolutionary theory, that evolution took place by punctuated equilibria.”
According to this idea, first proposed in the 1970s by biologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, most species are stable and don’t change very much – until something pushes them to transform rapidly. Dr Goode suggests that ideas and social systems can also change abruptly in response to key events. “One example is plastics,” he said, pointing to the success of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2.

Attenborough’s documentary showed how the ocean and its inhabitants are being devastated by plastic. The public responded immediately: hotels and chains banned plastic straws; consumers stopped buying single use plastics; manufacturers pulled plastic components from their products, and even the Queen banned plastic plates and cutlery from her residences.

“Sometimes these big splashy spectacles have more effect,” said Dr Goode. The question is how to tell the story of climate change in a way that will evoke a visceral response from the general public. “Not being carbon-neutral has to become unacceptable.”

The wine trade, he went on, is in an ideal place to show leadership. “Wine is the rock star of agricultural produce. People like me visit vineyards, but I don’t visit potato fields. People love wine. They love drinking it. It’s a tremendous social power for good. It has to be big producers who make the change.”

At which point Miguel Torres interjected and said his company had spent about €12m ($13.5m) so far, but had seen no reaction from consumers whatsoever.
That would have ended the conference on a downbeat note, except that Marta Subirà, Secretary for Environment and Sustainability of the government of Catalonia, rose to speak. “We are not doing enough, but we are aware of this challenge and so is Parliament,” she said. And went on to announce the creation of a climate fund, to be fed by three new environmental taxes, including a CO2 tax. 

It will be interesting to see if the initiative works – proposed carbon taxes elsewhere have ignited social unrest.

But, as Dr Goode said, climate change is a moral issue. The wine trade is beginning the task of decarbonisation. The faster it does, the sooner that tipping point can happen.

Felicity Carter

Felicity Carter travelled to the conference as a guest of Familia Torres.

This article is from Issue 3, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International, available by subscription.

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