There was one precise moment, some six million years ago, when some movement or other of the earth’s crust caused a break in a natural dam that created one of the planet’s biggest ever cascades, as the Atlantic broke into the basin that was to fill up to become the Mediterranean, just a few kilometres south from where I’m writing these lines. The Strait of Gibraltar had begun.
For anyone interested in the natural environment, Gibraltar’s geographical location is ideal. At the extreme southern end of the Iberian Peninsula, mere kilometres from Africa, overlooking the Herculean Straits, themselves a passageway for migratory whales and dolphins, turtles and tuna, it is a focus for tens of thousand of migratory birds of many species.
Its cliffs and hillsides are home to unique species of plants and invertebrates, with more than 600 species of plants and 700 species of beetles so far recorded: an impressive expression of biodiversity. This is all to be found in a small area - a peninsula of just around seven square kilometres.
While in recent months international attention has been focused mainly on Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain, ironically, some allege, rekindled by the laying of an artificial reef intended precisely to improve biodiversity, what may have gone relatively unnoticed is the commitment that Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar has not only to protect and enhance the natural environment, but to take a leading role in wider environmental issues and work towards a green economy and a carbonneutral community.
This was one of the key commitments of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party/ Liberal Alliance that came to power just under two years ago after close on 16 years in opposition.
So strong is this “green” commitment, that it went beyond our shores and attracted the attention of America’s former vice-president, Al Gore. He joined together with one of Barack Obama’s environmental team and 2012 campaign managers, Juan Verde, and both became key speakers in a major environmental conference and trade fair held in Gibraltar less than a year after the current government came into office.
One of the biggest challenges, aside from the restoration of marine habitats, overexploited and damaged in the recent past, is the replacing of three aged diesel power plants with state-of-the-art alternatives including renewable energy sources. Renewable technologies are welcome in Gibraltar, and the government is currently engaging with established and new providers and facilitating the opportunity of developing these on the Rock.
Gibraltar is changing. It has taken off on a huge leap from what some would describe as a 1980s time-warp into the second decade of the 21st century. The government is putting the management of waste and sewage plants out to tender, with environmental considerations and non-polluting technology being the top criteria for selection; recycling is being increased (would you believe cardboard and plastic could not be recycled in Gibraltar until the present government introduced it in December 2012?); the government fleet of vehicles, including public transport, is being replaced with hybrid and electric technology; and there are financial incentives to import “green” products.
The government has introduced a green procurement policy, which follows EU Green Public Procurement policy, with weighting in the tender process being increased for environmental performance; The plan includes LEDs and solar-powered lights replacing other lighting devices in public areas, with financial incentives by way of soft loans to private estates to introduce these. Solar thermal installations are being placed in public buildings, including hospitals, and photovoltaic arrays to allow solar power rather than the more carbonnegative alternatives are in the planning stages – on rooftops and other built-up sites – in order to protect green areas.
Land is a commodity in short supply in Gibraltar, but amazingly, development and the environment are progressing hand in hand, not least thanks to the new, open and public planning process. This has resulted in new housing, car parking, luxury flats, sewage treatment and waste disposal works, and a power station, progressing at the same time as an expansion of protected natural areas, growth of beaches, enhanced visitor facilities in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, and a new, wooded city park with fountains and bandstand adjacent to the town centre. And Gibraltar’s social needs are being met – a new hospital ward was planned and opened within three months of the election, and new homes and a day centre for dementia and the frail elderly are under construction.
In addition, government support for conservation and research into natural history and heritage are taking Gibraltar to the forefront of many academic disciplines. The famous Barbary macaques, apart from being a major tourist attraction, form part of an ecological research project which is among the most extensive on non-human primates. Spectacular bird migration too, attracts researchers as well as tourists. Archaeology and palaeontological research are regularly presenting new discoveries on the human history and notably on the ecology of the Neanderthals.
Monitoring in caves is providing new information on the history of the earth’s climate and on ancient landscapes. And the government in Gibraltar is supporting the 2015 United Kingdom bid for designation of the Gorham’s Cave complex, carved into the sea cliffs on the secluded south-eastern coast of the Rock, as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Interest from universities, museums and other academic institutions around the world is significant, and is being encouraged.
On the legislative side, all current European directives have been transposed into Gibraltar law – another achievement of the present administration – and this of course includes all the environmental ones. In addition, the use of ISO14001 and Eco-Management and Audit Scheme standards are being encouraged, and increasingly the public sector is requiring these types of qualifications in the tender process. These all provide a number of important safeguards, by ensuring good environmental quality for residents and visitors and ensuring the highest standards from businesses, in matters environmental – as well as in matters financial.
Much of the Gibraltar government’s environmental programme is set out in a brief, but punchy and comprehensive Environmental Action and Management Plan. This sets clear targets and commits the government to engage with the private sector through the Gibraltar Federation of Small Businesses and the Chamber of Commerce. The idea is to encourage them to showcase their application of green practices and products, and provide for the establishment of a green business network, and green business certification, standards and awards.
Gibraltar is vibrant in its environmental surge, and ready to welcome investors including those who either bring green technology, green services, or have sound green credentials.
The Rock has a status and an image that far exceeds what one might expect from its physical size, though not from its imposing geology. Coupled with a hugely pleasant environment, a diversity of activity – in which solid academic standing meets con siderable commercial success – and with a unique history and a social resilience that have seen it survive sieges in four successive centuries, the jurisdiction looks to the future with confidence and with growing regional importance. As it has been since prehistory, it is the perfect setting – for so many things.
John Cortes MP