Tuesday, June 21, 2011

B16 Goes Hybrid: "Green" Popemobile En Route

As the most recent incarnation of the Popemobile ferried B16 around on his weekend trip to San Marino, word that its replacement was in production sparked a much bigger splash than usual.

With the pontiff slated to return again to his homeland in late September for a four-day state visit centered on Berlin, a German magazine reported that, in a first -- and responding to a wish of Benedict's expressed late last year -- Mercedes-Benz was preparing an environmentally-friendly version of the iconic papal car: a hybrid variation on its M Class SUV that'll be able to run some 16 miles (30km) emission-free thanks to a rechargable lithium-ion battery.

Set to put the current models -- two made-to-order Mercedes SUVs dating to 2002 and 2007 -- in the backseat, the Pope's "Green Machine" was initially hoped to have been all-electric, but the truck's need to reach high speed and draw on a sufficient shot of backup power in the event of an emergency necessitated the choice of a hybrid.

A lead maker of papal rides for a half-century and more, both present and future Mercedes Popemobiles feature thick bulletproof glass and a hydraulic lift to prop up the pontiff's seat for the view of crowds, all encased in a heavily-armored build that would allow the cars to withstand an attack -- and even, if necessary, run for several miles on blown-out tires. While the security-conscious models are used on papal trips and during inclement weather in Rome, in fair weather in his front yard, Benedict tools around St Peter's Square before Masses and audiences standing in the back of an open-air flatbed truck.

The unenclosed Vatican model recalls the utilitarian roots of the Popemobile's inception under Blessed John Paul II, who required a different means of getting about yet keeping visible after he retired the sedia gestatoria -- the throne borne on the shoulders of attendants -- that served the dual purpose for generations of his predecessors. (And as the papacy's inroads on modernity go, perhaps it's worth adding that -- traditional as he might seem -- Benedict appears considerably more keen on taking up the hybrid ride than the new triple-tiara presented to him some weeks back by an ecumenical delegation of Catholics and Orthodox.)

While the original report indicated that the car would be ready to go by the pontiff's September homegoing, the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ told the wires that the new car wouldn't appear before year's end. Citing confidentiality on its projects, Mercedes-Benz declined all comment.

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The move to a low-emission mode of transport only burnishes a reputation Benedict's seemed to enjoy cultivating -- that is, as the "Green Pope." Over the course of his six-year pontificate, Vatican City's made significant strides toward becoming the world's first carbon-neutral state, including 2007's planting of a 37-acre forest to offset its carbon footprint and the following year's installation of solar panels to completely de-grid one of its biggest energy-guzzlers, the Paul VI Audience Hall.

In his talks, meanwhile, after years of Holy See interventions at international forums on preserving creation and the "inescapable reality" of climate change, the Pope himself has taken to the topic in several high-profile turns, most recently telling a group of ambassadors in early June that...
A human ecology is an imperative need. One of our political and economic priorities must be to adopt in every way a manner of life that respects the environment and supports the research in and use of forms of energy that preserve the patrimony of creation and are that safe for human beings. In this regard, it is necessary to review our entire approach to nature. It is not a place solely for exploitation or for play. It is man’s native land, in a certain sense his “home”. This is fundamental for us. The shift of mentality in this domain, that is, the constraints it brings, allows us rapidly to become more proficient in the art of living together that respects the alliance between man and nature, without which the human family risks disappearing.

Serious reflection must therefore be undertaken and precise and viable solutions proposed. Every Government must be committed to protecting nature and to helping it carry out its essential role in humanity’s survival. The United Nations seem to me the natural setting for such reflection which, if it is to give priority to solidarity rather than to personal interest, must not be clouded by political and economic interests that are blind and partisan.
Earlier still, before giving the environment several key passages in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate and picking an "earthy" focus as his theme for last year's World Day of Peace, B16's first major turn on the topic came at the opening ceremonies of 2008's World Youth Day in Sydney.

And now, all of three years later, he'll soon have the wheels to show for it.

PHOTOS: Reuters(1)