Special Interview Feature

“Our mission is to fight for a clean and green Gibraltar”

Al Gore’s visit in 2012 got the world talking about the Rock’s green agenda. Actually, says Janet Howitt of the Environmental Safety Group, activists on the Rock have been looking out for the environment for a long time.

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New Statesman: What’s the history of the Environmental Safety Group (ESG) as an NGO in Gibraltar?

Janet Howitt: We formed in 2000 from a group of citizens who were concerned about the repairs in Gibraltar to a British nuclear submarine, HMS Tireless. The group contained teachers, scientists, engineers and activists. Most of the original group is still with the ESG today. Our mission is to fight for a clean and healthy environment, and to promote environmental issues. We run responsible, effective campaigns to help bring about positive green changes in our community. We have always maintained an apolitical stance: our independent voice is one of our strongest assets.

NS: Would you describe Gibraltar as a “green” place?

JH: Our community is certainly changing. When we first formed, the “environment” was handled as one of 15 separate portfolios under one minister. It was therefore not resourced enough to move forward. One of the biggest efforts we made has been to give a voice to the value of a healthy environment, as well as the need to adhere to environmental legislation and best practice. We organised protests and took to the streets, the schools, industry, wherever we could be heard, and gained considerable membership and public support.

These days, environmental awareness is becoming easier because the internet and social media let people learn about problems and hear about possible solutions. Change is moving faster locally because of action in Europe too. Gibraltar is becoming greener, but we are quite way off to becoming a “green place”.

NS: What are the most pressing environmental issues at the moment?

JH: Gibraltar’s key environmental issues include local and regional factors. Impeding Gibraltar’s easy passage to a greener world is the ongoing political conflict with our neighbour Spain. This means that access to resources and facilities, and developing effective, cross-border management of the Gibraltar Bay environment, is simply not possible.

Traffic issues are a serious problem. There are more cars than people registered in Gibraltar, and our cheap fuel attracts further thousands into Gibraltar each day simply to fill their tanks. This causes roadside pollution and exacerbates an already difficult situation at the border.

We have struggled to meet growing energy demands, which have resulted in dependence on three ageing, fossil-fuelled power stations, well past their sell-by date. Gibraltar also runs a significant bunkering business that has seen year on year growth. It is operated with strict standards, but it’s still an area that we have focused many of our campaigns on, mainly because of noise and air pollution.

We have also lobbied to the European Commission (EC), with the help of international law firm Hassan’s, to draw attention to harmful pollutants produced by the oil refinery and petrochemical plant across the bay in San Roque, and concerns about the health impact this was having. Together with Spanish groups, Hassan’s and, from 2006, the first MEPs to represent Gibraltar in Brussels, we are slowly starting to get the EC to listen. We continue to lodge complaints as and when necessary with the EC.

NS: Do you believe Gibraltar’s political mood is shifting towards greener thinking?

JH: With an ex-activist as Minister for the Environment, there is a lot more discussion and demonstration of intent on a number of environmental measures and initiatives. We are starting to see change filter through the system. It’s early days, but we are more optimistic today than ever before that Gibraltar can “green up”. The Commonwealth Park, opened in the centre of the city this year, is a great achievement. So too are the beginnings of schemes for people to access and install renewable energy systems. More needs to be done to increase ordinary citizens’ access to clean energy, full-stop. But we have started.

NS: Al Gore made a newsworthy visit to Gibraltar’s Thinking Green Conference in 2012, where he applauded the Rock’s environmental commitments. Did his visit have a big impact?

JH: I’m not sure that Al Gore’s visit accomplished what wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t come. It was obviously interesting to have him visit – at quite a cost. The fact is that our government had already embarked on a policy of intent on various environmental issues. The important thing now is implementation, and this is where we continue to monitor.

NS: Is Gibraltar’s size a hindrance or a help?

JH: Size is definitely a double-edged sword. A small community means you can pull together and literally involve almost everyone in campaigns. You can also access government in a way that is practically impossible in larger countries. However, the fact that it is a small community means that solutions to some problems require things like enforcement and fines, which can be very hard to carry out.

NS: What sort of benefits could “going green” have for a place like Gibraltar? Could there be benefits for nearby Spanish communities?

JH: Going green is already creating economic possibilities. More and more small businesses are gaining confidence to start up in Gibraltar because of the knowledge that new laws and measures are encouraging investment in green solutions. Even recycling, a practice that was never deemed profitable in the past, is now being run at a more substantial level, meaning more opportunities to those wishing to make a living in the trade. This growth will equate to more green jobs, and that means positive spin offs to suppliers and providers in Spain.

NS: Where does Gibraltar see itself in the international agenda to preserve the planet?

JH: The ESG maintains close links with NGOs on both sides of the border, including Greenpeace Spain. We’ve created cross-border groups like the Bay Bucket Brigade, which operated for a number of years collecting air samples to back up our complaints again the CEPSA Oil Refinery in San Roque to the EC. As a long-term member of Clean up the World, the ESG forms part of a global campaign supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

We are more confident today of positive green change than we were five years ago. However, many things have to shift in the way our community behaves – from the main economic pillars that support us, to the decisions we take on development issues and planning. We need a holistic plan for a Gibraltar that embraces best available technology and we need to do this as quickly as possible.