The quiet climate revolution taking place in Spain’s Balearic Islands

| 18th July 2018
View of the bay in Cala Figuera, Mallorca (Spain)

View of the bay in Cala Figuera, Mallorca, Spain.

Climate change is doom and gloom. But the Balearic Islands of Mallorca, Ibiza, Menorca and Formentera are demonstrating how much can be done. ROSALINDA MUCH investigates

Here in the Balearics, perhaps what is most exciting of all is the very inclusive nature of what is happening. Not only those living on the islands but by default, the world at large will benefit.

The future of the Paris Agreement is unclear - with President Trump’s stance uncertain. Molly Scott Cato and Jacube Dalunde MEPs proposed in The Ecologist the need for a European Climate Law - but law making is a slow and arduous process.

Meanwhile, far from the madding crowds of Washington, Brussels and other capital cities, a quiet revolution is underway.

A Spanish province - the Balearic Islands of Mallorca, Ibiza, Menorca and Formentera - operate as an autonomous community. Like other islands, they are especially vulnerable to climate change. But their government has devised a way to use the islands’ insularity to advantage.

Solar panels

Engineer Joan Groizard Payeras is Mallorquin by birth. He graduated from Cambridge University before working in renewables in the UK, where he gained knowledge and experience on the climate change act, carbon emissions and more.

Groizard was called home in 2015 to be the Balearics’ Director General for Climate Change and Energy. As he told The Ecologist: “They wanted people who could focus on the technical side and bring new points of view to the islands.”

The Balearics’ new climate law brings the global commitments of the Paris Agreement into local legislation, drawing a path towards the islands’ vision for 2050.

It commits them to zero emissions from energy or transport and 100 percent sustainable energy, using the islands’ natural resources of sun, waves and wind through specific graduated targets.

“As an island, it’s hard to find where to put renewable energy sources. The big car parks now have to incorporate solar panels as do all public buildings, enabling them to generate most of their own energy,” Groizard said.

Great destination

From 2020, car hire companies must incorporate a quota of electric cars within their acquisitions.

By 2035 every car they buy will be electric. From the same year, all new cars bought for the islands will also be electric or hydrogen and the government is working with petrol stations to incorporate charging points and repair shops to retrain their mechanics accordingly.

Mallorca’s public transport will be revamped by the close of 2018, offering 50% more including new buses and train lines with the three major tourist lines electrified and others using natural gas as the first stage of transition.

Residents in the same municipality as wind farms are entitled to buy shares, making them financially and socially invested - echoing Denmark. From 2020, large and medium companies will have to calculate their carbon footprint with an obligation to reduce it from 2025 onwards.

“Tourism is central to our economy,” Groizard tells us. “We don’t want to be a cheap destination. We want to be a great destination, which means being sustainable too.

Electric boats

"That’s good for the environment and provides a strong economic advantage. Being an island, we can do things that Madrid and Barcelona can’t. We know when tourists and cars come in and out. Hopefully we can soon put up a big banner saying come to the Balearics, it’s a nice place that’s sustainable too.”

Sometimes up to eight cruise ships dock simultaneously in Palma, each carrying the equivalent of a small town and using its own power source for lights, air con, etc.

Measurements at Palma’s Bellver Forest record the significant impact this has on the city’s air quality. In response, Palma’s tourism department is negotiating with the cruise companies to stagger arrivals. Cold Ioning will provide a massive plug in the harbour connected to the local energy grid and many cruise ships are converting to natural gas too.

Palma hosts Europe’s largest marina. To protect posidonia, the algae that grow around Mallorca, the Biodiversity and Natural Spaces departments are working on legislation to ensure that boats don’t anchor where they may pull up these plants, which support the environment by trapping carbon dioxide and returning it to the soil.

Around the island, other boats help yachts find buoys so that they can avoid using anchors completely. Beginning with ferries, the government is working to introduce electric boats.

Economists, scientists, engineers

Currently the only way into Formentera is by ferry from Ibiza, which is very polluting but the government is working with the port to make the ferry electric as soon as possible.

For decades, the islands have suffered from poor housing construction with speed taking precedence over quality and sustainability even though the climate is ideal for sustainable housing.

On Formentera, architect Carlos Oliver created a social housing scheme for fourteen houses prioritizing local materials including recycled wood and tiles created from sea plants that are manufactured by a company founded over a hundred years ago.

Only five percent more expensive than conventional building methods, these are A class, A grade energy efficient homes. As Groizard says, the scheme dignifies social housing while freeing residents from most utility bills. Unusually for a housing project, the EU funded the scheme due to its sustainable nature.

Vocational courses for sustainable practices are now so successful that it’s difficult to persuade trainees to complete their training, as companies are keen to hire them.

Global community

“Historically the Balearics have an employment problem with economists, scientists, engineers and others waiting tables as their only means of making a living,” Groizard said. 

“Once people see the advantages of these new jobs, both they and their families become invested in the environmental benefits too. Not only are the islands becoming less dependent on tourism, but those who retrain have greater opportunities for work elsewhere.”

In addition, there is a commitment to sustain, revive and encourage traditional crafts such as using local carpenters to make wooden windows rather than importing PVC ones from China. In preference to a carbon tax, the new law makes it compulsory to incorporate locally sourced materials with certification used to ensure this happens.

Important elements of this law are its focus on creating a just or fair transition with easy to understand guidelines and a graduated process of change that ensures that private citizens, businesses or other entities are not left behind.

The Govern Iles Balears wants civil society, citizens and the media to shine a light on what’s happening in the Balearics. Hopefully the islanders will recognize how they are as much a part of Europe and the global community as anywhere else and fortunate to be so well known internationally due to their many residents and visitors from around the world, which is both a privilege and a responsibility to be used intelligently.

Younger generation

It’s clear how ambitious a task the government has set itself.  Still only twenty-eight today, it was a brave move to chose Groizard to lead their commitment to the Paris Agreement.

With over a hundred companies and a great many initiatives in the sustainable sector on Mallorca and more on the other islands, there are grounds to be hopeful.

Like Catalonia, the Balearics have experienced conflict with Madrid. On occasion, it has taken considerable courage to stand against the national government over issues such as closing the coal-fired power station at Alcudia, but the message is clear. 

“We don’t want conflict. We’re Spanish islands, please use us as a window and example to the world. Madrid can now go to Europe and say look what we’re doing. It’s still controversial but hopefully that will change,” Groizard tells us.

Led largely by the younger generation, 1968 was an iconic moment in the struggle for civil rights, racial and gender equality, the anti war movement, the sexual revolution and student power but the UN International Year of Human Rights also cost the world the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy.

An inspiration

Fifty years later, the biggest and most constant threat to our planet is climate change. While the world continues to focus on economic growth not the climate, Groizard reminds us that, “Just as the Balearic Islands are finite with   finite resources, so is the planet. Hopefully the similarity is clear.”

Young, handsome and charming, it’s easy to compare Groizard to those who led the cultural changes of the 1960s but each of those movements targeted the rights of specific groups.

Here in the Balearics, perhaps what is most exciting of all is the very inclusive nature of what is happening. Not only those living on the islands but by default, the world at large will benefit.

This is no Don Quixote moment for the Balearic Islands, but a tangible opportunity to be both an inspiration and an example of how together we can move towards a better future for each and every one of us and Planet Earth herself.

This Author

Rosalinda Much's career spans film production, creative consultancy, writing, radio presenting, the charitable sector, television, publishing, festivals and advertising.  Work has taken her to every continent except Antarctica. She first visited Mallorca on a production for actor/producer Michael Douglas. She is now based in Palma, the capital of the Balearic Islands.

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