ITALY: Environmental Factors

One recent skirmish between the church and the government highlighted the state of environmental affairs in Italy. The Vatican transmitter towers that broadcast the church’s Radio Maria channel were thought to be linked with higher-than-average rates of leukemia in the region of Lazio. For months, Italians were jittery about so-called electrosmog. In the end, the claims were neither proven nor disproven scientifically. Accusations were thrown around, and then the whole affair just disappeared, as do most impulsive urges to make Italy a greener place”sort of like New Year’s resolutions, except on a parliamentary level.

One resolution that has finally stuck is Italy’s resolve to quit smoking. The baby-boom generation has witnessed at least three attempts to ban smoking in public places, and this last time, it has worked. No restaurant allows smoking indoors. At outside tables, however, it is pervasive. This area of a restaurant is seen as the de facto smoking section. Moreover, don’t expect the same level of courtesy smokers may show in the United States toward nonsmokers. Cigarettes aren’t seen as the demonic vice that they are in North America. Italians may casually light up in your home, even if it has been made clear that you are a nonsmoker, but don’t take that to be an extremely rude gesture, just a simple misunderstanding of cultures. Italy has also vowed to make a better effort at recycling, and it has an impressive program”in theory, at least. Every apartment building is equipped with separate bins for paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum, although there is some question as to where that recycling ultimately ends up.

Critics of U.S. environmental policy will make the claim that, although Italy may be slightly behind the rest of Europe in terms of conservation and protection, at least their hearts are in the right place. They will point to the Kyoto accords, which Italy happily signed along with its European neighbors to curb greenhouse gases, while the United States huffed and puffed. However, total carbon dioxide emissions in Italy are down about 2 percent between 1990 and 2012, well short of the 6.5 percent target set in Kyoto.

Most of Italy’s greatest environmental villains are found in the industrial North. Biochemical plants just outside Venice are perennially plagued by dumping scandals or caught with illegal emissions. Residents of towns near the lagoon have been asked in the past to tape their windows shut, after one such refinery went up in flames. Milan and Turin have the worst air-pollution problems. The grandmother of a friend of mine recently went to the doctor with a worrying cough, and after looking at her chest X-ray, the doctor said she would do well to stop smoking two packs a day. The grandmother said she had never touched a cigarette”but had spent her entire life in Milan.

Not so long ago, on select Sundays, the city limited traffic to those cars with either odd- or evennumbered plates when pollution levels reached a critical level. Sometimes it banned traffic altogether. Lawmakers recognized that this is a short-term solution, and lately it seems the practice has disappeared. But they made their point. Italy is one of several European countries developing effective hydrogen-powered cars, and several hydrogen buses are already in circulation in northern cities. Smaller, battery-powered buses are common all over the country.

When pollution levels reach a critical level, Rome limits traffic to cars with either odd- or even-numbered plates. Like everything else in Italy, environmentalism is an area of sharp contrasts. Leaded gasoline has been definitively banned, catalytic converters are obligatory, more and more land is protected every year, and so on. Yet change has been slow. Until 2005, Milan was the only major European city without a sewage treatment plant, for example. Its waste ran directly into the Lambro River, cut across the width of northern Italy, and came to a swirling stop on the Adriatic coast among the eels and rice paddies of the Po River delta.

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