At OTWO, we deeply appreciate the multifaceted responsibilities shouldered by Minister Cortes overseeing Environment, Education, and Transport. This strategic combination reflects a comprehensive commitment to advancing the preservation of our natural environment and ensuring the sustainability of our species on this planet. In this month’s interview, we engaged with the Minister to delve into the core issues concerning each portfolio. Our inquiries spanned the diverse realms of environment, education, and transportation, all with a singular focus on bolstering Gibraltar’s environmental resilience and community well-being.
Regarding incentives for companies, what measures are in place to encourage a shift to more sustainable vehicle options?
Not enough. This is possibly the most exciting thing about the transport portfolio, how we can transition the way people move around.
The question of businesses I think is an important one. For too long Gibraltar has looked at the government to lead and I think there’s a huge responsibility in the private sector to take leadership. An example is the Aspire conference held earlier this year, it was organized with the Department of Environment, but it was private industry led. Locally there is now the Sustainable Buildings Group, that’s the sort of thing that I like to see, private sector leading, with government support of course.
Businesses are increasingly engaged so we need to do more to show support for their initiatives and of course, we’ve got to lead by example. When it comes to transitioning the kind of vehicle from petrol, diesel to electric, I always say that I’d like people to have cars in a garage used as little as possible, and that cars should be electric.
I want to reduce the use of cars to improve health, both of the user and those around. Promote walk and cycle, and fully understand some people cannot, and there are things you cannot do cycling, heavy shopping, buying a fridge, etc. But I think it’s good to encourage it as it improves air quality.
Government Departments have changed the post office fleet to electric, the Department of the Environment vehicles are all electric, and different departments and authorities are now replacing their current vehicles over a period of time to electric. We have to encourage businesses to do that, a lot are interested. It is very easy to find an excuse to say but I can’t find an electric vehicle that will do what I want. That is increasingly false, however I think that heavy goods vehicles will still struggle.
Buses are now improving and we’re looking at that, but people must change. They have to change towards electric, towards electrification. Businesses usually have their own depot so they can provide charging points, which is a question that many private owners say, where do I charge my vehicle? Businesses normally can provide a charging point, so I think that’s an opportunity and it’s something that I will support. There is an incentive of £2,500 rebate for every electric vehicle bought.
Eventually, I think we should increase for a short term. But this would be for a limited period of time as after that it will become mainstream. A lot of motor vehicle manufacturers are going to stop manufacturing nonelectric vehicles anyway.
I think we’ve not encouraged hybrids as much as I think they should be. Hybrids are a very good intermediary step between petrol, diesel and electric for several reasons. Hybrid also introduces people to an electric vehicle, without the psychological fear that you’re going to run out of electric power. I have a self charging hybrid which I love and I’ve learned to drive it mostly on electric mode. The incentive for hybrids should go up again, that’s my personal view to encourage a transition. There is a government policy that there will be no new petrol/diesel private vehicles registered as from 2035, that’s published in our Climate Change Strategy.
Additionally are there plans to implement stricter MOT regulations for polluting vehicles for both companies and the community in general?
Well, for private vehicles, it would be irrelevant because they would not be able to register a new vehicle that wouldn’t be electric or hybrid after 2035.
About what is done at the test center, that I’m still learning so I cannot tell you whether I am satisfied with what we do, it would be unwise and irresponsible of me to give an opinion on something that I’m not fully briefed on. It could be something that leading into 2035, I think that we need to become stricter and I want to put some pressure on that.
Heavy goods vehicles are likely to take longer in electrification, I’ve done a bit of research on this and it’s more likely that they’ll go into being fueled by alternative fuels like hydrogen rather than go electric. With current technology, they would require a very heavy battery which might not be efficient.
Are you committed to the active travel strategy, and if so, when do you anticipate its full implementation? What’s the next stage and realistically, do you believe this can be achieved within your four-year term?
Knowing how quickly time passes and frankly, I am an honest guy, I’m going to tell you that I’m not sure that we can do it in four years. I can tell you that I will try very hard and why do I say that…
There’s a huge resistance to change, everywhere, it’s human nature. It’s not my nature, I love and thrive on change. Not change for the sake of change, but I like questioning everything and if I question everything it means I want to try something that’s better. So I will try very hard to implement it and to its fullest degree I need to get deeper into it and look more closely at what’s right or wrong and the implications and I don’t like taking rash decisions.
I like doing my research, I’m a scientist after all, reaching my conclusions following research, so it’s still early days for me. I have spoken to the team and we are going to see movement on expanding the cycle lanes, certainly along the Watergarden stretch, but likely on the opposite side, the area we call Los Patitos. It’s a wider area, we would keep the trees, obviously, and we would keep the chestnut guy because that is part of Gibraltar’s heritage, the castañas is something we want to keep forever.
Another element that I want to emphasize more is walking. Walking is certainly something that we can encourage in different ways. One of them is providing shade, summer can be very hot and walking in the middle of the day is really not very nice or even healthy. So, I want to increase the number of trees. It’s not easy, I am struggling to find places. Whenever I want trees in a particular place, we get the service clearance, and find that there’s either a sewer, an electricity main, water pipe, or whatever bang under the pavement. I don’t know why everybody in decades past would put everything under a pavement rather than under the road, probably because it’s less disruptive to traffic. It’s a mistake. These should go on the roads, and the pavement should be places for trees.
So certainly, going to try and increase the amount of shade, if it can’t be by trees, maybe find other alternatives, although nothing provides shade as well as a tree, a tree actively absorbs heat, it doesn’t just stop the sun’s rays, it absorbs, so it’s always cooler under a tree than under a canopy. If you walk down from Line wall Road into Commonwealth Park in the summer, you drop several degrees.
I also want to make people realize that walking is an option and doesn’t really cause any delay. For example, if ever I’m walking from my office here at Leanse place to Casemates, I won’t go down Main Street. I will walk across, go by the back of the convent. And then I will go down along Linewall Promenade, which is covered in trees, down through Commonwealth Park, then I’ve got Campion Park, and it’s all green there. And then I make my way already to the middle of town, in a scenic walk, I don’t need to drive, I don’t have to cycle.
Anyone can do what they want, but there are alternatives, so I want to encourage these walks, promote them, maybe a map and way finders so that people will find alternative solutions and distances.
I’m looking at a lot of things, school times, encouraging children of an age where they can walk on their own or with parents to and from school. There’s an issue with buses, obviously is a good alternative to cars. And I know buses at the beginning of the school day are full to overflowing. Some people get annoyed to see a bus full of school children when they want to use it. So I need to look at how we can improve that. But as I said the other day, the buses being full is a good problem to have. I’d hate to have a problem where the buses are empty and sometimes the buses are empty.
Anybody who knows me knows I tend to get things done. I remember 30 years ago when I was looking at taking over the Alameda Gardens. It was a disaster zone, and I don’t know how I undertook it and got it done. That has been one of my biggest ever challenges. So, I work hard, I try to work well with people, and I expect that at the end of the four years I’ll be able to look back with some satisfaction, but I’m never fully satisfied because I always want to do better.
Identifying potential challenges, what do you perceive as the most significant obstacle in formulating the active travel strategy?
The biggest challenge is the motor car and the relationship with the driver. A car has huge priority wherever we go. You build a new development, the first thing you get asked, ‘do I have parking?’ In London you get many developments where no parking is provided, they use the fact that it’s got a good public transport system. When I was a student in London, I didn’t have a car, I couldn’t even drive, and yet I got everywhere when I wanted. It is something you accept when you’re a student.
Then you come back to Gibraltar, you get your bike and car, and go everywhere like that. Okay, we don’t have the underground, we don’t need an underground. We have a bus service, and places are close by, even now, when I go to London for work, I don’t hesitate in walking, a couple of kilometers yet here, when I came back after being a student, I didn’t want to walk to the end of Line Wall Road.
So I think it’s a question of perspective. Gibraltar is hugely walkable until you start getting on the hills in the summer, I get that. I don’t mind walking down from my house in the South district in the summer in the morning, but walking back in the afternoon is just not good for me or for anybody.
I think people have got to realize that a car is a tool that they use, but that they’re not owned by the car, it’s the other way around and that’s a challenge. People will want to park near their home. I can understand that, but they’re not willing sometimes to question the way they move around. And I repeat what I said before I’m not against cars, I think most people will have a good use of a car if you have a busy life, you have a family, go into Spain, you know, that’s absolutely justifiable.
But let’s only use it when we have to use it, and let’s try not to use it when we don’t have to use it, I think that’s the biggest challenge.
I totally respect people’s point of view, so I’m not saying that people who give priority to the car are horrible people or anything like that. They have the way they look at things, but I think they need to question themselves.
It is like now a lot of people recycle, a while back, nobody bothered because it’s just rubbish. They’ve shifted, and transport is a similar shift. And to a large extent, I mean, one way into the home is through children. I think we need to educate children to use the alternative. A lot of families started recycling because their kids came home from school and they would not throw a plastic bottle in the general rubbish.
The way to achieve change is to bring people with you. So I respect people whose view is that the motorcar takes priority. I respect that view. I think I’d like to try and change it, massage it, and bring them along but I’m not going to prejudice them in any way. So, if I can create a bicycle lane without removing parking, I will do it. I certainly would not remove trees to create a bicycle lane, but I think there is a way to reach a compromise. There always is a compromise to be met and I think that is the best way to go around it.
In the realm of transportation in Gibraltar, what do you believe is urgently missing, and why hasn’t Gibraltar transitioned into an emission-free zone, akin to other cities?
I’ll tell you what’s missing, space. Also other European cities have a lot more electric charging points, they have more cycle lanes, more green areas, I think that we could have moved further with electric charging points. There has been some lack of progress due to infrastructure. I am told that to get sufficient power to different places there is a lot of work to be done. I’m gonna work very hard ensuring that the electricity authority or whoever has to do it in private areas. So one thing that’s missing is electric vehicle infrastructure, and that’s going to happen.
People tell me, ‘you can’t go to electric vehicles because they’ll never have enough places to charge your vehicle’. I just try to push myself a century and a half back, when people were on horse drawn carriages and horseback. Somebody said, ‘Petrol vehicles won’t work, how are you going to get petrol everywhere you’re going to run out?!’ Well, now there are petrol stations everywhere, so it’s going to happen. I’m not worried about that at all, it has to happen, in Gibraltar we’ve gotta step up.
The second part of your question, why hasn’t Gibraltar transitioned into an emission free zone? I think space is a main part of the reason why we can’t move quickly without a lot of thought on cycle lanes, so space is a reason why we haven’t got emission free zones.
In London it’s worked tremendously well. Last week more data was released with 95 percent better air quality. I mean, I’d love to do that. In London, you have good public transport, and you have enough space so that you can close some roads and there’s always going to be other alternatives.
Here, remember what happened with Line Wall Road, it had to be reversed. Perhaps it wasn’t thought through, to be perfectly honest, I think we could have, rather than reverse it completely, we could have amended it. That’s my own personal view, not that I’m about to do it again. But I think that we can be a little bit more imaginative.
We are having a low emission zone in the Europort area. That’s already gone to planning. The one along St. Martin’s School, Charles Bruzon House, that road is being converted to greenery and so on, but space is our biggest enemy, if you close a road, there aren’t really that many alternatives.
There are places that one could perhaps reduce vehicles alike the center of town, but there are always reasons why you may need to take a vehicle there. So I think the biggest challenge is our limit in space and how we deal with it. I haven’t quite worked it out yet. Give me a few more weeks.
Ensuring sustainability in education, are you satisfied that new schools incorporate the most suitable sustainable energy practices? Given technological advancements, do you believe these schools possess the necessary sustainability to endure beyond their anticipated 20-year lifespan? Moreover, are these aspects being effectively communicated to students to showcase their benefits?
They’re certainly a lot more sustainable than the schools we used to have. A lot of them were 1950s and early 60s prefabs, which were totally energy inefficient. They were very cold in winter, very hot in summer, and needed all sorts of heaters and coolers, fans and so on. They all have air conditioning and double glazed, they are also designed in such a way that the temperature is more stable. So, that’s one way in which they’re more sustainable. I think they are well built in the sense that they will last a lot more than 20 years.
The most sustainable building is a building you’ve already got. We’re not looking at replacing it anytime soon. There are solar panels on most of them and those that haven’t got them will be getting them. There is a lot of greenery, Bishop and Governors Meadow have extensive green roofs, which also insulates from heat. St. Mary’s has a lot of green areas, inside on the balconies, on playgrounds etc.
So that’s from the structure, from the educational point of view, the new education act that we passed and amended in parliament last spring, means we now have a statutory requirement for the school curriculum to include climate education. That is now law, one of the first places in the world. And I can tell you that it’s already happening. There’s a lot of climate work being done in the schools. In fact, in a week or two, I’m going to be presenting some awards related to CLIMACT.
Looking ahead, what are the primary environmental goals and initiatives for Gibraltar, and how do you envision the territory’s environmental future?
Sewage plants. I am really, really upset that we haven’t got one and I get criticized for it and whenever I get criticized, I say, yeah, you’re right.
I mean we’ve tried very hard and the stars have not aligned. I’m really upset that we haven’t got one and I’m working very hard to achieve it, we are making progress. It’s hugely complex, and when you think you’re getting there, things happen which you have no control over.
I think we have to continue in increasing green areas. Green areas are good for the environment, for the planet, for individual and mental health. Apart from converting more car parks like we have planned along Queensway into parks, I would like to continue to enhance in the nature reserve biodiversity. I want to increase the wildlife community by reintroducing subspecies we’ve lost. I have already started with partridges, rabbits, and we’ve released eagles. We want to reintroduce some reptiles and birds. From the point of view of plants, areas like Europa Point, where there was a bit of ruin from the old shop, that’s now a nice green area used by birds on migration. So little things like this that are very inexpensive and are enhancing our biodiversity.
Air quality is another big one, which is related to traffic. By reducing the number of petrol and diesel cars on our roads, we can improve air quality. That would be around 23% of the greenhouse gases. And then there’s shipping, this we have little control over. One positive step in shipping is now all ships are plugging into shore power, so they are not using their engines and emitting smoke. And I know that the electricity authority is working on doing that for cruise ships. That will improve air quality in the surrounding area.
Renewable energy is another area and in Gibraltar it is mainly going to be solar. We have in our manifesto, and are about to make an additional statement, that we are on the point of agreeing with the Ministry of Defence for a sizeable area around the airfield to be converted to solar. This will increase our renewable energy to around 20%. We already have around 10%, which is huge compared to just 10 years ago. Wind energy on land, we just haven’t got the place. A Cable link to Morocco means we could possibly buy renewable energy and we could keep our own generating plant as a backup. There is a possibility of offshore wind, however we would have a visual impact, so we need to think whether we want to have this on our horizon, there are heritage implications as well. Again, the problem is all related to space.
Assessing progress towards Net Zero Gibraltar, how do you perceive our trajectory? Where can the community access these figures, and do you think there’s a need for increased public awareness to foster a sense of responsibility?
Net zero is in its early stages, there’s quite a lot, but I think the public isn’t as aware as they need to be. We have an internal government net zero delivery body, which the deputy chief minister chairs. This body reaches out to all government departments and tries to see how they can improve their energy profile and reduce the emissions they’re responsible for. That is developing several strategies, which we hope will be approved and will be published. I think we probably need to engage with the public more.
There’s not a lot of awareness of what we all could do. Although, it’s all pretty sensible, an individual can do so much. I think that one of the biggest areas where we need to work for net zero is in construction. We have legislation that all new buildings have to be near zero. In fact, one or two developments have got planning permission but are not allowed to proceed until they have convinced me that they’re near zero energy buildings. The construction industry is aware of the requirements, and we provide advice. I think Catherine Walsh is really excellent in this. Giving people the target numbers and making it visual.
I think businesses are increasingly more engaged, with many being international or based in the UK there is a lot of pressure for them to up their game. So I think businesses have a big role to play. But again, I think businesses don’t sell themselves. The same as the government doesn’t sell what it’s doing enough. We all should be promoting the change. Everyone has a role to play here, private as well as government.
Considering Gibraltar’s status as a small territory, what specific strategies and actions has the government adopted to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
I think we’ve pretty much covered a lot of it. There’s a lot of progress you can look at online, we’ve got the climate change strategy, risk assessment, the greenhouse gas profiles, and if you look at those documents you will see clear progress, clear reduction in our profile.
We obviously reduced tremendously in 2020 because of COVID. It is coming back but not to pre 2019 levels, we’re making a lot of progress. Our shift from diesel to LNG emits a lot less carbon and certainly emits practically no particulate matter and very little sulfur dioxide. So if you look at the online charts you can see clear progress, but you’re right, perhaps we should highlight those more so that people realize the steps we’re taking are actually having an effect and making a difference.