The environment is now at the top of the political agenda in the UK following the publication of the report on climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern, a highly respected economist.
In his report, Sir Nicholas concluded that the world was heading for an economic catastrophe unless it halted the pollution that leads to global warming.
It was a sobering view that mixed scientific analysis with hard business fact and resonated with governments around the world. In Gibraltar, where such debate might once have filled just a few column inches in the local press, the Stern Report hit home too.
The Gibraltar Government acknowledged that the global scope of the author’s conclusions bore direct relevance locally, and should serve as an impetus to further focus efforts on green awareness and, more importantly, action.
“Solutions to global problems start with local contributions,” said Environment Minister Jaime Netto at the time.
While no one could fault such a laudable assessment, for many in Gibraltar, the proof of the Government’s commitment – and society’s too, for that matter – is not in words, but in concrete, tangible efforts.
But with green issues figuring prominently and consistently on the agenda for public debate, there are signs that concerted steps are being taken in the right direction.
Even before the Stern Report was published toward the end of last year, the Gibraltar Government had finally moved to sign an Environmental Charter that set out, in general terms, its commitment to environmentally sustainable policies.
The document listed 10 guiding principles including:
• To recognise that all people need a healthy living environment for their well-being and livelihood and that all can help to conserve and sustain it.
• To use Gibraltar’s natural resources sensibly, with regard to the needs of present and future generations.
• To identify environmental opportunities, costs and risks in all policies and strategies.
• To seek expert advice and consult with relevant parties on decisions affecting the environment.
• To aim for solutions which benefit both the environment and development.
• To contribute towards the protection and improvement of the global environment.
• To safeguard and restore native species, habitats and landscape features, and control or eradicate invasive species.
• To encourage activities and technologies that benefit the living environment.
• To control pollution, with the polluter paying for prevention and remedies.
• To study and celebrate our environmental heritage as a treasure to share with future generations.
The charter was the first step in a broader commitment that will be followed by an Environmental Action and Management Plan, to include objectives and a roadmap of how these will be achieved.
“The objectives will need to be set at realistic, achievable levels,” the Environment Ministry said. “A wide spectrum of organisations and different measures will have to be involved in drawing up the base information, the legal framework and the practical elements in order to be successful.”
The plan will cover a number of issues such as the environment/development interface, habitat management, pollution, energy and technology, natural disasters, environmental heritage and development and planning. Establishing and implementing its various strands will follow a staggered timetable, so as to be achievable in the short, medium and long term.
Within weeks of the charter being signed, tangible developments were evident. A climate forum was set up locally, for example, to explore alternatives to traditional fossil fuel energies at a time when Gibraltar, according to the Government’s own estimates, faces an almost three-fold increase in carbon emissions over the coming years on the back of economic growth and a parasitic demand from major property developments around the Rock.
The Environmental Safety Group, a non governmental organisation that has campaigned vociferously and persistently for a cleaner Gibraltar, welcomed the move, though it laced its support with a healthy dose of scepticism. It wanted actions, not just words.
“A report such as that produced by Sir Nicholas Stern, an expert economist, has helped raise the fearful spectre of what a ‘business as usual’ attitude could ultimately cost in financial terms and economic security,” the ESG said at the time.
”The report recommends action today and we urge our own Government and ancillary expert panels and forums to also adopt this sense of urgency.”
Alongside think tanks such as the climate change forum, the Government also moved to bring the business community into the fold of its plans for the environment. At a seminar in September, it announced new regulations – stemming from EU directives – allowing greater public access to official environmental documentation, including environmental impact assessments for major development projects. The idea is to enable close public scrutiny of the decision-making process in respect of any official project with a significant impact on the environment, though whether such transparency will work in practice, remains to be tested. If it does, it will mean fewer opportunities for business – or Government, for that matter – to cut corners. For reputable operators, this should be welcome news.
The same seminar – which was attended by government officials but will be followed with briefings for the business community – also provided details of the Green Business Programme, which aims to help companies implement environmentally-friendly business practices in the workplace. The Government said it wanted to lead by example in this field but hoped to gain wide support from the private sector, to ensure that a strong and sustainable practice can be achieved.
Mr Netto promised that the Green Business Programme would not be a one-off exercise that entities could then forget about. He said the Government intended to monitor the development of the programme and would encourage the continuous improvement of sustainable practices within organisations.
All of this was happening against a background of continued concern about the impact of industry on communities around the Bay of Gibraltar. The focus was not just on the obvious targets such the Cepsa refinery, but also on activities such as bunkering in the bay. Environmental campaigners – at least, those who adopt realistic stances – acknowledge that industry in this region creates jobs and wealth and should not simply be marginalised. Groups such as the ESG and the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society, Gibraltar’s veteran green NGO, have adopted a pragmatic ‘carrot and stick’ approach to the issue, maintaining relentless pressure while at the same time trying to engage with polluting companies. Those same companies, meanwhile, insist on their green credentials and maintain that, while there is always room for improvement, their track record is far from bad. This is a long running war of words to which there is no immediate end in sight.
An interesting insight into the tensions between business and the environment was offered recently by an international heavyweight who paid a short visit to the Rock.
Professor Alexander Likhotal, president of the Green Cross International, was here to explore possible synergies between the organisation’s global operations and the logistics set-up run by Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings in support of UN relief work.
The Green Cross, which focuses its efforts on the environmental impact of war and natural disasters, hopes to build closer links with the humanitarian efforts that inevitably take precedent in conflict zones. The logic is that without regeneration, devastated environments eventually add up to greater human suffering.
Professor Likhotal stressed the need to engage with business, a message that neither Gibraltar nor neighbouring Spanish towns can afford to ignore. He was adamant that business had a pivotal role to play in protecting the environment, and unlike some environmental activists, did not blame companies for everything that goes wrong with the environment. Instead, he pointed to a bigger picture.
“In my judgement it is the problem of the modern economy, which is decoupled from social constraints and connections,” he told the B2B during an interview. “I’m not saying business is angel-like, but we should not demonise it either.”
In this respect, it is perhaps fitting that one of the most significant tangible steps taken last year came from GONHS, which has campaigned on behalf of the environment for many years.
GONHS has prepared a ground-breaking Biodiversity Action Plan for Gibraltar, a weighty and well-researched report entitled “Planning for Nature”.
The document contains information on Gibraltar’s flora and fauna and presents this within the context of the international conservation obligations. It is a solid foundation, a detailed blueprint on which to build. GONHS hopes the document will serve as a tool for planners and developers by highlighting areas and species that need to be safeguarded.
The report, prepared by Charles Perez, was launched in the presence of a large number of local developers, surveyors, architects, NGOs and representatives from government departments.
“Gibraltar is today at a crossroads with a lot of developments, ideas, and political energy, and we must not forget our responsibilities to the environment both locally and internationally,” said GONHS General Secretary John Cortes, when the plan was presented last month. “If we get it wrong, we must live with the consequences.” And beyond this, there are Gibraltar-based entrepreneurs who have embarked on exciting projects that are pushing back the boundaries of renewable energies and could open up new opportunities for the local economy.
From its base in the New Harbours business park, local company Energy Replay is working with its UK partners to develop a self-sufficient system that uses solar energy and hydrogen fuel cells to generate pollution-free electricity. The only by-product of the process is water. No fumes, no carbon emissions, no waste.
Driving Energy Replay and its sister companies in the UK, is a quiet, unassuming man called Paul Young, a Gibraltar resident with a passion for all things green.
Mr Young believes Gibraltar is well placed to become a leading light in Europe for both the development and the use of clean energy technologies.
“The thing about Gibraltar is that because it’s a small place, it’s an ideal reference site,” he told the B2B during a recent interview.
“I also look at Gibraltar Ltd,” Mr Young added, a reference to the local economy. “To have another revenue stream – particularly in terms of production [of renewable energy technology] – can’t be a bad thing.”