Climate Risks and Projections for Gibraltar - Report

By Ryan Robba

As the World’s nations optimistically gather at COP26 to renew their pledges to tackle global climate change, there remains an underlying pessimism about whether their promises will be kept. Perhaps less encouraging still are the slew of recent studies concluding that, even if all countries hit their emissions reduction targets, the planet will still warm by almost double the goal of 1.5°C warming or less. In light of this, it is crucial for individuals, businesses and governments to consider that certain negative impacts from climate change are highly likely to materialise regardless of the outcome of this week’s UN climate summit. That is not to say that reducing our emissions does not matter - because the extent to which we continue to emit will determine the extent to which the threats intensify. However, it does mean that it is inevitable that some climate risks will emerge - and that we must prepare for these to minimise their damage. Climate change’s impacts are not just environmental; they affect every aspect of society and the economy. This article highlights some of the key risks Gibraltar faces from climate change, as identified in a new summary report on Climate Projections and Risks for Gibraltar, linked below:

The most obvious climate risks are the direct physical threats from extreme weather events. The 2003 European heat waves killed 70,000 people from heat stress and dehydration, and heat waves in Gibraltar are expected to become at least four times more frequent by the year 2100. Sea level rise and increasingly frequent severe storms will cause substantial damage to private property and public infrastructure - at great cost to both families and government. However, the most pernicious effects of climate change are perhaps those that are less direct, rarely discussed - and as a consequence, less well prepared for. Just three of the key risks identified in the report are outlined below.

The first of these is the negative impact climate change will have on our standard of living. Floods and hurricanes - which are becoming more powerful worldwide - disrupt supply chains. This means goods take longer to arrive at their destination and become more expensive to ship internationally. These costs will likely be pushed on to consumers, resulting in price inflation on everyday goods that will increase the cost of living. Droughts are reducing crop yields across the globe, which will drive up the price of many food items further. Particularly vulnerable are grain-based foods like bread, tea and coffee, beer and wine, chocolate, and many varieties of seafood and fruit. Gibraltar is especially vulnerable to these dramatic price fluctuations, because the territory has no agricultural sector and imports all of its food. It relies on the UK and Spain for 90% of all imports combined - meaning that simultaneous climate shocks in one or both of those countries could cripple supplies of essential items locally.

The second is the idea that without huge investments in infrastructure, Gibraltar will inevitably become an island in the long term. As sea levels rise, the beaches will be the first areas lost to the ocean. Then come the urban areas - and among the lowest lying of these is the runway and isthmus connecting Gibraltar to Spain. If Gibraltar were allowed to become an island, it would have tremendous implications for the economy. It means there would likely be labour shortages as access for cross-frontier workers is hampered. It means the price of virtually all goods would increase due to higher importation costs. It means tourism would decline significantly due to the loss of the airport runway and the fluid land border with continental Europe. The only alternative to this eventuality would be the construction of levees, or artificially raising the land in the entire northern region of Gibraltar - either of which would require very large capital expenses for government, and, by extension, taxpayers.

The third is the detrimental effects climate change will have on social justice issues and economic equality in Gibraltar, as well as internationally. It is disproportionately those who already have the least that will suffer the most at the hands of climate change. Price inflation hits low-income families the hardest. Physical climate hazards like heat waves threaten the health of vulnerable demographics the most - including children and the elderly. The homeless - who by definition lack protection from shelter - face the greatest exposure to extreme storms. Individuals with physical disabilities often live on the ground level of properties for accessibility reasons, which are the most prone to flash floods and sea level rise. Lastly, the youngest generations - who have contributed the least to this problem - will have to live with its consequences for the longest.

Above are just three of the many challenges Gibraltar’s people and economy must prepare to face as a consequence of global climate change. The full list of climate risks is accessible in the report linked above. What it demonstrates is that whether or not one cares about “the environment” in the abstract, climate change is an issue that should motivate everyone to act. If one cares about public health, about housing, about jobs, about local businesses, about the cost of living, or about social justice, then the threat of our warming planet should not - cannot - be ignored.

Ryan is an environmental consultant with an academic background in climate change science and law from Durham University and a postgraduate in corporate sustainability from Harvard University.