Global transition from fossil fuels puts focus on long-term planning

The maritime industry’s move away from fossil fuels will require ports including Gibraltar to put long-term plans in place in order supply alternative fuels in line with global efforts to decarbonise shipping.

That was one of the key areas of interest to Gibraltar discussed during the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference [COP28] in Dubai, at which Gibraltar was represented by Environment Minister Dr John Cortes as part of the UK delegation.

Speaking to the Chronicle, Dr Cortes highlighted too discussions on sustainable waste management and educational initiatives of direct relevance to Gibraltar’s efforts in response to climate change.

Gibraltar is a key port for bunkering – or ship refuelling - in the western Mediterranean, and is already able to supply liquefied natural gas [LNG] to vessels that use this fuel to power their engines.

But while LNG is cleaner than the traditional fuel oils used by merchant ships, it is still regarded as a “transition” fuel and ports must look further ahead to prepare for the next shift in the coming decades.

Bunkering is one of Gibraltar’s biggest contributors to the global carbon footprint, although it is not included in the calculations for the Rock’s own carbon footprint given the maritime industry is internationally regulated and there is little Gibraltar can do alone to tackle this.

Dr Cortes said a panel discussion on the issue had underscored the International Maritime Organisation’s commitment to cleaning up shipping by promoting cleaner fuels.

“The ports are having to respond by providing the facilities for bunkering with alternative fuels,” Dr Cortes said.

“LNG is a transitional fuel and already we are doing some of that in Gibraltar, but ultimately, there is a feeling that the whole shipping industry will decarbonise by around 2050.”

To achieve this, new ships being built will probably no longer be fuelled by liquid hydrocarbons but with other products such as ammonia and hydrogen now being considered by the sector.

For refuelling ports, that requires long term planning and Dr Cortes said he had already initiated discussions with the Gibraltar Port Authority and the Minister for the Port on what this might mean for Gibraltar.

“It is increasingly obvious that ports that wish to retain bunkering facilities will have to be prepared to transition to new fuels like ammonia, for example, and possibly hydrogen,” he said.

Using these alternative fuels will be driven by technological developments as well as the capacity for owners and shipyards to deliver new vessels while maintaining supply chains using existing fuels and technologies, including LNG.

But for Gibraltar, it would represent an important step toward reducing the amount of fuel oil supplied here – and the knock-on carbon impact - and replacing it with cleaner alternatives.

“Once the ships are fuelled with ammonia, you are not going to see the smoke trails [from ships], so clearly the air quality in the port or near the port…would be cleaner,” Dr Cortes said.

The minister cited too another initiative under way to make the Strait of Gibraltar a low emission zone for ships in order to reduce air pollution from ships in a heavily-used maritime choke-point.

“They may perhaps have to limit their speed [and] be the first ones to take on new fuels,” he said.

“And this is what the International Maritime Organisation is aiming for.”

“It is still early days. I mean, let us not think that the aim of decarbonisation by 2050 is going to be achieved by 2050. but certainly it is a good aim to have.”

“And major ports are realising that they have to be prepared for that transition.”

During COP28, Gibraltar signed up to the global initiative for the decarbonisation of waste.

Dr Cortes emphasised the need for improved waste recycling and management, and said the global initiative is targeting zero emissions from waste by 2050. Some 5% of the world's carbon comes from waste.

“These countries again want to arrive at ideally zero emissions from waste by 2050,” he said.

“2050 is now the new 2020, the new 2030.”

“It keeps slipping, there we go, but there's more energy [in the debate] now, everybody's talking about it, even those who don't want to.”

In this context, a prime concern for Gibraltar is recycling.

Dr Cortes said the amount of waste recycled on the Rock had decreased in recent years, something he confessed to being “very disappointed with”.

He believes the downturn in recycling relates to “this notion that recycled waste is mixed, and it is not true.”

“I have yet to see any evidence [of that happening],” he said.

“I think psychologically, people say, ‘well, why have I got to bother?’”

“We have to reverse that.”

Among the initiatives in this context is a tender currently under way to better improve the separation of waste to encourage more recycling.

Officials are also assessing whether some types of waste can be composted, which would result in less carbon emissions.

A law passed last year means commercial entities now have to recycle, and this will also help increase the amount of recycling on the Rock.

Dr Cortes noted too that he hopes Gibraltar’s sewage treatment plant “will finally see the light of day” in the current term of office.

On transport, Dr Cortes was clear that the way forward was to encourage electric or hybrid vehicles, while underlining efforts to promote sustainable mobility by encouraging people to walk or cycle.

Dr Cortes, who took over the transport portfolio after the last general election, acknowledged he did not walk every day and used a hybrid car. He urged other drivers to opt for “at least” a hybrid model when buying a new car.

“Think as to whether you need the vehicle,” he said.

“Families will need vehicles, I accept that. But think about whether you need to use it.”

“And if you've got an old vehicle, change it and make it at least hybrid if not electric. That will make a huge difference to air quality, particularly.”

Dr Cortes shared the same view as his predecessor in the Transport Ministry, Paul Balban, and said providing more cycle lanes was “the right thing to do”.

“You've got to do them where the road can take them,” he said.

“And you have to do that with sensitivity to other road users, but it's the right thing to do.”

“And electric cars for me are the right thing if you're going to have cars. I'd rather reduce cars, but those cars that there are should be electric.”

“Yes, electric cars have a big carbon footprint on a global scale in the construction phase and there are issues with the batteries and so on, fine.”

“But if you're going to have cars in a city, an electric car means air quality is clearly going to be better. So I want electric cars.”

“We are going to have to have the [charging] infrastructure, and we will have it because this will be industry led.”

“We are not going to change what the worldwide vehicle industry is doing. But the vehicle industry is now going towards electric cars [and] there will be a time when you have to have an electric car.”

“So it's a challenge.”

He noted that there is enough generating capacity for electric vehicles because the new power station has capacity for twice the current needs.

“We have the generating capacity. But the infrastructure will have to come, there's no choice, because people will not be able to drive otherwise. Which might suit some people, but it's not realistic.”

Dr Cortes said he was still “learning and learning very fast” about his new portfolio, but that already some key issues were clear to him.

“I think the future of vehicular transport will be electric cars for smaller vehicles, and hydrogen for bigger ones,” he said.

Dr Cortes is also working on initiatives to encourage “carbon literacy”, meaning for citizens, businesses and government departments and agencies to be aware of their carbon footprints.

“There's nothing like awareness to help you improve,” he said.

“We are going to include that in our 25-year plan.”

“I'm going to ask as many people as possible and businesses and government departments to chart their carbon footprints and then to check in three months time whether they have been able to do about anything about it.”

“I have already said publicly that in the first meeting of the Select Committee on Climate Change, I am going to challenge all members of the committee to chart their carbon profile.”

“I am going to do the same to all parliamentarians and I am going to ask government departments.”

“And encourage members of the public - obviously NGOs and so on, but the public in general - to be aware of their carbon profile, and to realise that it's very easy to make changes.”

One of the ways he suggests that people can lower their carbon footprint is by opting for plant-based foods, noting that even changing to oat or almond milk can help.

And he challenged too the common view that Gibraltar’s carbon footprint is miniscule in global terms, and that this should somehow relieve this community of its duty to take steps tackle climate change.

“It's been said before that Gibraltar’s contribution is infinitesimal,” Dr Cortes said.
“But our contribution in everything is going to be small, and yet we want Gibraltar to be the best.”

“We always say we punch above our weight.”

“Let's not stop doing our best to improve our performance when it comes to climate.”

Regarding youth involvement, Dr Cortes noted substantial engagement at COP28, with a dedicated education day and active participation from young delegates.

He highlighted ongoing efforts in Gibraltar, including involving schools in environmental initiatives and the integration of climate literacy into long-term planning.

COP 28
Dr Cortes highlighted the important commitment reached during the COP28 summit to “transition away” from fossil fuels.

The UN said the agreement signals the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era by laying the ground for a swift, just and equitable transition, underpinned by deep emissions cuts and scaled-up finance.

Many attendants at the conference had hoped for firmer language requiring the “phasing out” of fossil fuels in that timeline, but Dr Cortes said it was still a significant international milestone.

“It's the first time that this has been done,” said Dr Cortes.

“There was a majority of nations, and certainly all the NGOs in the periphery, wanting the wording to say ‘phasing out of’.”

“But I think that clearly the host nation and the OPEC countries stopped short and it wasn't possible to actually say ‘phase out’ instead of ‘transition away’.”

“Ultimately it probably means the same, phasing out and transitioning, but it is the ‘out’ word, I think, that they didn't want.”

Dr Cortes also regretted that there was no definitive date set for peak oil production despite efforts to set it at 2025, after which the hope was production would commence to decrease.

He noted too that the COP28 text also included references to transition fuels such as LNG, despite calls from environmentalists wanted LNG – one of the cleaner fossil fuels - included among the products to be transitioned away from.

Despite those concerns, Dr Cortes said the inclusion of that clause was positive for Gibraltar in the medium term at least.

“For us in a way it's comfortable because we use LNG and that's recognised as a step away from the highly contaminated ones,” he said.

Dr Cortes also highlighted the fact that the COP28 agreement linked biodiversity to climate change, highlighting the importance of nature-based solutions and green initiatives such as planting more trees and rewilding, both now formally recognised as a means to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

The COP28 discussions, however, underlined too that around the globe, earlier targets were being missed.

“There was a global stocktake that considered where we are following the 2015 Paris agreement, and the consensus was that we haven't done enough to ensure that we don't go over 1.5 degrees centigrade increase,” said Dr Cortes.

“So clearly, more has to be done.”

“And the other less positive was in relation to Article Six of the Paris Agreement, which relates to the trading of carbon credits, and how you can buy carbon credits in another country to compensate.”

“And the purists again don't think this is a right way of doing it, but it is a way of doing it.”

“There wasn't absolute agreement on how that should be taken forward.”

On the whole though, he said the COP28 agreement was “certainly quite positive, [though] I qualify that positive with ‘quite’.”

This was Dr Cortes’ third visit to COP, having also attended earlier summits in Madrid and in Glasgow.

The Dubai event, however, was the first time Gibraltar attended as a member of a formal delegation, the UK’s, meaning Dr Cortes had access to all areas on a par with ministers from other countries.

“Apart from recognition that Gibraltar is part of a global entity I was there with some other representatives from other Overseas Territories and collectively we met with the [UK] Minister for Climate, and I think we were able to reinforce the UK Government's commitment to ensuring the maximum progress possible during the conference as a whole,” he said.

“So I think using our influence on the UK Government as a state party, in pushing the environmental agenda, was important, and I think I think it worked.”

During the event Dr Cortes also met the UK Minister for Transport, Mark Harper, who invited him to London to talk to his team.