Portugal’s Minister of Sea declared that the country is at the “frontline of climate action” and wants to “lead the world in the right direction” at the opening ceremony of a key meeting which is taking place at the University of the Algarve in Faro until Saturday (February 1) and has brought together over 250 international climate change specialists.
The goal of the meeting is to work on a major report about the impact of climate change on ecosystems and humans. It is organised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.
Speaking to reporters, Ricardo Serrão Santos said the government’s programme includes “climate action and contributing towards a better planet”. The plan is to carry out “reforms in energy policies, cities, agriculture and forests”, he said, adding that Portugal should be an example even if it isn’t among the planet’s main powerhouses.
“This is an issue that demands commitment from both large and small countries. Portugal has excellent software and intelligence to intervene in global changes, negotiate with other countries and lead the world in the right direction,” the minister explained.
He said he was “particularly worried about the issues affecting the oceans”.
“It is not just about plastic. Ocean water is becoming more acid, it has less oxygen and it suffers from warm currents. We have to be able to predict these situations in order to manage them,” Serrão Santos said.
“We also have a programme for a network of marine protected areas and policies for ocean afforestation because, at this moment, we need to take preventive measures when it comes to protecting these habitats. We have to make sure that what we are doing in the ocean has no serious impact,” he added.
But Portugal cannot tackle the climate crisis alone. As the minister points out, every country has to commit to “policies of circular economy, decarbonisation and energy reform”.
This is why these meetings are so important, the minister said. Scientists from 60 countries are working together in Faro to contribute to the creation of the panel’s sixth major report about climate change.
However, Serrão Santos doesn’t want international cooperation to be restricted to scientists.
“In fact, the policies we need are not accomplished only by scientists and politicians, they require action from society, industries and NGOs,” he highlighted.
Complicating matters has been the intention of some countries to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which in 2015 committed 188 countries to keeping rising global temperatures below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue limiting them even more, to a 1.5ºC rise.
“It is an agreement that includes very important compromises and opportunities to revert, or stop, the planet’s temperature from rising more than 1.5ºC. Some countries are pulling out. Portugal and the European Union are strongly committed, and I believe we are at the forefront,” he said.
When asked about President Donald Trump’s announcement in November that the USA would withdraw from the deal, the sea minister stressed that “American science is strong and is not complacent with some attitudes” and added that there are states within the country that have adopted other climate change policies.
“It is important that we do not fall into a global pessimism. We have to believe we will win this challenge.”
Algarve needs action to stop drought
Miguel Miranda, President of the Portuguese Sea and Atmosphere Institute (IPMA), also attended the opening of the meeting and expressed his concern about the Algarve’s ongoing drought.
“We are halfway through the winter, which was reasonably rainy in the North and Centre of Portugal, and the Algarve is still facing a drought,” he said, adding that the ‘alarm bells are ringing’.
Said Miranda, “we are starting to face situations for which we are not totally prepared. Solutions are needed which are not created instantly”.
But is the drought partly caused by climate change?
The IPMA boss said it is “very hard to say”, adding that climate change “is a statistic and that the variations are noted over time”.
“But the truth is that everything is pointing towards an increase in droughts in Portugal, particularly in the southernmost regions,” he said.
It is crucial that measures start being taken as soon as possible, including the construction of new dams.
“The later they are implemented, the more dramatic the consequences will be,” he said.
“Every measure will be needed to provide water to populations and the human activities that need it. And there will probably be a more rigorous management in regions with fewer water resources.”
While the Algarve “won’t turn into a desert”, as it has enough “climate variation” to prevent this from happening, he said the region’s climate is likely to become drier, unlike most other parts of the planet where climate change will likely lead to more rain.
Painting a more serious picture of the effect of climate change in the Algarve was Faro Mayor Rogério Bacalhau, who said that “if there is a region that is already changing due to the effects of climate change, it is the Algarve”.
“Coastal erosion and the rise of the sea level are so evident that our territory and way of life are being threatened. Authorities are already experiencing difficulties trying to provide water to the whole population,” the mayor told reporters at the start of the week-long meeting.
If the Algarve continues to experience dry winters, Bacalhau predicts the region could face scenarios of “poverty, desertification and desolation”.
The mayor is also skeptical about the efficiency of the solutions that have been suggested so far to tackle the drought, such as the construction of the Foupana dam or a desalination plant.
“They are either expensive or environmentally incorrect,” he said, adding that the government should create a multidisciplinary technical group to study this issue and come up with a solution in a maximum of “six months”.