The Vatican's Crusade on Climate Change

Pope Benedict XVI today launched a crusade against climate change in his own tiny country by holding his first "ecologically friendly" public gathering at a Vatican audience hall newly powered by solar panels.

The 2,400 solar panels placed on more than an acre of undulating roof of the Vatican's hall were officially activated today, providing the energy required by the the hall itself and the adjacent large buildings.

The audience hall is a striking modernist construction amid centuries-old historical buildings. Built in 1969 and designed by the renowned Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi, it is used for concerts and indoor papal audiences that are held there when the weather is poor.

The solar panels will produce about 300,000 kilowatt hours of clean energy a year, offsetting the Vatican's annual Co2 production estimated at 10,000 tons. The system is part of the Vatican's commitment to using renewable energy for 20 percent of its needs by 2020, a goal most European Union countries are striving toward. In so doing, the Vatican will become more self-sustainable and less dependant on Italy for its energy supply.

Throughout the summer, the solar panels, which were donated to the pope by the German company Solar World, were painstakingly slotted on the roof by the engineers. The complete system, including the solar panels and inverters that feed the electricity directly into the Vatican's grid, is worth nearly $1.5 million.

In a statement issued in January, the company's director, Frank Asbeck said, "with our gift we are paying tribute to the German pope. We support the commitment of the Catholic Church to a responsible use of the resources of creation."

He added, amusingly, "If the three Wise Men from the East came to Bethlehem today, they would in all probability bring solar cell in addition to gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is the symbol for the creation and the energy supply of the future."

Italian Carlo Rubbia, the Nobel prize-winner physicist, will lecture later today on alternative energy that respects historical and artistic building in the Pontifical Academy of the sciences in front of a distinguished gathering of architects, engineers and energy managers. Great care has been taken by the project designers to ensure that the solar panels are not detectable from St. Peter's Square and will not disrupt the Vatican's skyline.

The pope has shown concern for the issue of climate change linked to global warming for some time. The Vatican hosted a scientific conference last year on climate change and global warming and issued a set of suggestions this summer to travellers and tourist to minimize and offset environmental damage. This included taking less luggage on planes and car journeys, planting trees to offset tourists' carbon footprints and choosing vacation spots in clear harmony with nature.

The Vatican has also been involved this year in a reforestation project in Hungary designed to offset its carbon emissions. The first saplings of oak, white willow, black poplar and wild fruit trees in the Vatican Climate Forest were planted this month in more than 600 acres of forests along the Tisza River.

Pope John Paul II, this pope's predecessor, who was often depicted as a lover of nature and the outdoors, made strong calls to protect the environment during his long papacy.

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