Sunday, January 29, 2023

This weird weather is getting worse!

The weather in Portugal and everywhere else in the world has been bizarre this January and past year. Climate experts warn it is likely to get worse the rest of this year and much worse in 2024.

Despite bright sunshine and blue skies in keeping with our reputation for mild winters, the Algarve, along with all 17 other districts in Portugal, has been under an extended yellow cold weather alert lately.

In contrast, this year started with at least eight European countries recording their warmest early January ever. Bilbao in northern Spain saw temperatures jump by 10C from the normal average to 21.9C. In Belarus, which would now normally average -4.5C, temperatures have hit 16.4C. Southern France basked in beach weather of nearly 30C. In the United States, New York and other eastern cities have had the least snow in five decades. But deadly cold is now gripping Japan and other East Asian countries.

Last year was the second warmest ever recorded in Europe. It was just marginally cooler than 2019-20. Portugal, north to south, suffered severe or extreme droughts throughout much of 2022 because of heat waves. July temperatures peaked at 44C in places. Pouring rain later flooded cities, including Lisbon and Faro. Devastating floods in Germany took the lives of 184 people and will cost an estimated €30 billion in damage recovery. Wildfires raged in Turkey, Greece and Italy. In the United Kingdom, temperatures topped 40C for the first time ever and the British Met Office for the first time ever issued a red heat warning.

Fierce hurricanes tore across the US causing massive damage and fuelling chilling floods in some regions, droughts in others. From wildfires in Algeria to extensive flooding in South Africa, every country in the African continent was affected by severe weather conditions.

Pakistan was the worst hit in Asia with floods over an estimated 10%-12% of the country that killed 1,739 people. More than 200 days of heat waves in India started well before the normal monsoon season and brought the country to a virtual standstill. Scorching heat in drought-stricken parts of China crippled hydroelectric power and agricultural production, while other parts of the country shivered in the abnormal cold. Down south wasn’t spared either. Australia had a lot of flooding and New Zealand issued 182 severe weather warnings. The Antarctic ice sheet, which contains 90% of the planet’s surface freshwater, is rapidly melting. This is raising sea levels that could permanently flood or submerge many cities around the world.

The increasing devastation to societies, economies and biodiversity is due largely to the continued use of fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gasses. The level of emissions is not yet decreasing.

Another important factor in the expectations that extreme weather will worsen is a return of El Niño. This natural climate phenomenon is much more dangerous than its opposite number, La Niña, which has been in force for the past three years. El Niño is predicted to take its turn this summer, perhaps as early as June, and create much hotter temperatures.

El Niño and La Niña work by using the east to west trade winds that blow over the waters of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. When the winds are relatively strong, La Niña pushes warm surface current in a way that allows cold water to come up from the depths. When the winds become much lighter, El Niño resumes, allowing surface currents to further warm while smothering the cold water below. Both La Niña and El Niño shift the normal position of the mid-latitude jet stream. The combined effect is a huge surge of weather changes across the world.

According to scientific predictions, later this year or next year El Niño could join with existing global warming patterns to produce temperatures as high as the critical 1.5C to 2C limit that would unleash global catastrophe.


Sunday, January 22, 2023

Number one green fuel for the future

Portugal and Spain are predicted to become the powerhouse of Europe by producing and exporting large quantities of green hydrogen.

As the need to limit global warming intensifies, we are now at a critical turning point to replace all fossil fuels with renewables. While Portugal is pressing ahead with hydro, solar and wind power, green hydrogen is seen as an outstanding additional source of energy for future needs. It comes at a time when coal is most unfortunately making a comeback in a number of European countries because of the war in Ukraine that is soon to enter its second year.

After the sun sets, and if there is not a breath of wind, Portugal’s hydro power is always there as the biggest supplier of energy. Solar and wind may be back to help out in the morning. Now we can look forward to an extra highly flexible and cost effective input.

“The energy crisis has reminded everybody that energy is everywhere and in everything. If energy costs more, everything costs more. This is focusing minds on a number of once-in-a-generation opportunities. An example can be found in the Iberian Peninsula, which has everything it needs to become the powerhouse of Europe,” explains the World Economic Forum.

Hydro facilities, solar panels and wind turbines produce plenty of electricity for Portugal, but the European Union need to convert much more of its energy needs to electricity as at present it provides less than a fifth of the energy it uses.  Even if everything possible is electrified, about half of the EU’s energy will eventually have to be derived in another form.

Green hydrogen is being promoted as “the fuel of the future” and it may be the answer to power needs for decades to come. With its significantly lower carbon emissions, it can be used to fuel planes, ships, trucks and cars, create fertilisers or burned like natural gas to heat everything from heavy industrial processes to ordinary homes. While it’s thought most homes could be heated with green hydrogen by 2050, a pilot project has been launched for 100 homes in France.

This innovative hydrogen fuel is expected to be first used in aircraft by 2035. Airbus says it may not be widely used until 2050, but it’s on its way with Rolls Royce already starting testing on a hydrogen fuelled jet engine.

Green hydrogen is generated by an electrolysis process that separates hydrogen from oxygen in water. That may sound simple enough, but so far demand has been low making production costs high. Now that the market is growing, costs are coming down. Lower costs increase competitiveness, but companies have formed alliances to share costs and increase production fifty-fold in the next six years.

The European Union has already devised a three-phase strategy for upgrading green hydrogen between now and 2050. Compressed or liquefied, this form of hydrogen can come to the fore by being distributed from the Iberian Peninsula across long distances via ports and dedicated pipelines for delivery throughout the EU and everywhere else. The United Nations believes green hydrogen could adequately supply 20% of total global energy demands by 2030. What must now go ahead is the building of the necessary production facilities.

Portugal ended its use of coal for electricity generation by shutting down its only remaining coal plant last November. It became the fourth EU country to do away with greenhouse emitting coal. In contrast, a number of other EU countries have done a U-turn and postponed the retirement of coal until 2030 because of the energy crisis due to the disruption of affordable natural gas supplies from Russia.

Coal severely pollutes the climate, the environment and people’s health, yet it has long been the main source of electric power. Not only are many existing coal mines now remaining open, but some new coal mining activities are being introduced. Coal plants have been recommissioned in Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungry, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Greece, as well as the UK. Portugal has been able to avoid this chronic situation because of its world-leading focus on renewables.  


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Effort's increasing to protect the Algarve's Alagoas Brancas wildlife


The bitter dispute over whether the Alagoas Brancas wetland in the Algarve should be protected or destroyed has entered its sixth year with environmental campaigners ever hopeful they will win in the end. 

At a time when United Nations summit conferences, the World Wildlife Fund and many other international, national and regional organisations are pressing ahead with action plans to protect biodiversity, here we have an example of a local authority doing just the opposite. 

Alagoas Brancas is a relatively small freshwater wetland (11 hectares – 12 acres) on the verge of the small city of Lagoa (population about 24,000). It has become an example of how a development company and a local administration can set their sights on devastating wildlife when more than ever it needs protection. In this case the main culprit is seen by environmentalists as the Mayor of Lagoa, Luís Encarnação, who fully supports the urbanisation of this natural habitat by the development company, Edificios Atlântico, SA.

It seems to have been a shoddy project right from the start in 2009 with refusals to even carry out an environmental impact study. There has been a growing sense of outrage about lame excuses and a remarkable lack of proper answers from the mayor, says Anabela Blofeld, who has been in the forefront of a protest campaign since January 2017.  She says the mayor and his council “use every means at their disposal to facilitate the destruction of such an important site and make opposition of the developers’ plans difficult.” However, she and her fellow campaigners remain absolutely determined. 

The area in question has always been a wetland. Alagoas Brancas, meaning ‘White Lagoon’, gave the town then city its name long ago. The plan to build on the wetland has always been opposed for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, it is a rich habitat with more than 300 species of flora and fauna. It is a hotspot on the eBird website. Some birdwatchers have recently seen more than 40 different species at a time there.  

Secondly, during heavy rains, it acts as a retention basin into which water can drain and thus reduce the risk of serious flooding in the urban area. There may even be a large aquifer below the wetland, according to reports from both GEOTA, a national group dedicated to protecting the environment and promotion biodiversity, and also by the Almargem environmental organisation in the Algarve. Both say that anything built there will sink. 

The mayor and the city council see developing Alagoas Brancas as a good way to expand the municipality’s economic activities and employment opportunities. The suggested additional commercial businesses include yet another supermarket almost next to those nearby. Opponents argue that similar retail or service outlets may hinder not help existing businesses and workers. Instead, they say as a natural heritage site it could be easily cared for by ensuring water is present throughout the year, making it a hub for nature tourism.   

The development has long been officially approved and the mayor says that to stop it now would cost millions in compensation to the developer. This is another point of contention as the Lagoa Council had the opportunity in 2019 to end the agreement without any penalty. It still could do so as buildings constructed there would be unsafe, according to the Left Bloc (BE) politician José Gusmão.   

Meanwhile, initial construction earthworks have been stopped at least until a clear legal decision is made about the wetland’s future. The People-Animals-Nature party (PAN) has put in another injunction and a complaint to the Ministério Público. So at the rest of winter and probably the months of spring will provide an excellent opportunity to watch spectacular resident and migratory birds, such as glossy ibises, spoonbills, egrets and purple gallinules                            

Anabela Blofeld and the other local activists have had increasing backing from several leading Portuguese environmental protection organisations and the seriousness of it all has prompted BE and PAN politicians to become involved and refer the matter to the Assembly of the Republic in Lisbon. There are hopes the main centrist parties will take up the challenge. Questions have been addressed to the European Commission about the legality of the development plan.                                                         

In 2020 the Portuguese government joined in the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 adopted by the European Commission. The strategy has since been approved by the European Parliament and European Council. It emphasises the need to increase protected European land and marine areas. It has been boosted by the United Nations Global Biodiversity Conference chaired by China and hosted by Canada last month in Montreal. 

While saving Alagoas Brancas is essentially a local matter, it is being referred right to the top and, if successful, may be an inspiration to environmentalists elsewhere with similar neighbourhood concerns.

Alagoas Brancas campaigners now have a new petition in place to support the continuous fight. All Portuguese and foreign residents are asked to sign and share with friends and family: Salvar a zona húmida das Alagoas Brancas : (htpps://petica

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Catholicism has its ups and downs

 Nossa Senhora de Fatima

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVl has been buried. Pope Francis has mobility impairment. The Catholic religion is in decline. But the Sanctuary of Fatima in Portugal is surging ahead and this will again welcome millions of pilgrims and tourists.

Benedict, the first pontiff to resign in six centuries, did so in February 2013; ostensibly because of ill health, while being criticised for insufficient action against child sexual abusers within the Church, particularly when he was still the Archbishop of Munich. A one-page account of Benedict’s otherwise much-praised papacy was put in a metal cylinder and placed in his coffin.

The liberal Pope Francis spoke very highly of his conservative predecessor during last Thursday’s funeral, even though they differed on certain aspects of their leadership. One thing they did share was concern about Catholicism’s steep decline during both their papacies.

Revelations about child sexual abuse by a great many priests over many years has been one of the main reasons for the decline. The hundreds of thousands of victims of often repeated abuse were mainly boys, but also girls, mostly young teenagers, but some aged six or less. The criminal abuse went on and on across Europe, including Portugal, North and South America, Australia and elsewhere. The Church often showed cruel indifference towards victims’ complaints. Regrets and apologies have been expressed, but few of the culprits have been prosecuted and few of the victims have been compensated.

Other non-religious networks have been just as guilty and some are undoubtedly still getting away with it, but the paedophilia within the Catholic Church has received maximum media coverage. Disgust and lack of trust in the Catholic hierarchy have caused many members of the laity to leave the Church altogether. There have been many other reasons for the walkout.

Portugal is a predominately Catholic country. It always has been since Roman times. It is renowned as one of the most devout in Europe. An estimated  84% of the population have been baptised and are at least nominally Catholic, but only 18% - and perhaps less - are thought to regularly attend Mass.

As in other countries, elderly traditionalists have rejected the modernisation brought about by the Second Vatican Council. The young are bored with the dogma, priestly arrogance and hypocrisy. They are tired of the controversy over such issues as birth control, abortion and the notion that gay togetherness is a sin. Divorced or civilly remarried couples have been made to feel unwelcome. Across the Catholic world pews are emptying, chapel doors are closing.

Pope Francis has tried to reverse the trend, but bishops are divided and so are the laity about the wisdom of his efforts. A summit meeting on these issues is to be held in the Holy See this October.

Aside from the challenges facing him, Francis wrote his own resignation letter well in advance in case ill-health should impair him from continuing in office. He did so in 2013, well before he had to have bowel surgery. Now aged 86, Francis has a knee problem that forces him to use a wheelchair. He quips, however, that he depends much more on his brain than his knee.

Francis remains remarkably active. At the end of this month he will be travelling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan for an ecumenical peace pilgrimage. He is scheduled to be in Portugal from 1st to 6th August for World Youth Day in Lisbon. No doubt he will also visit Portugal’s most holy site, the Sanctuary of Fatima. He last visited Fatima in 2017 for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions reported by three shepherd children.`

Three other popes have visited Fatima: Paul Vl (1967), John Paul ll (1982,1992 and 2000), Benedict XVl  (2010). Another visit by Francis will most certainly add enthusiasm to the enormous number of pilgrims and tourists from around the world planning to visit the shrine this year. 

April 13, the anniversary of the first Marian apparition, and October 13, the anniversary of the so-called Miracle of the Sun, are the most popular visiting dates. Many pilgrims wall long distances to get there. By car, Lisbon is about 1 hr 20 min (128km via the A1) from Fatima.  Faro is about 3 hr 10 min away (363 km via the A2).

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Big biodiversity breakthroughs


There is reason to be fairly optimistic about major advances in international attitudes towards ending the devastation humans have been causing to other forms of life on the planet.

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference held near the end of the year in Montreal, Canada, received scant publicity compared with the CoP27 summit in Egypt in November. The biodiversity conference was to have been held two years ago in China, but had to be postponed because of the COVID pandemic. This time it was presided over by China and hosted instead by Canada with delegates from 196 nations, including Portugal and the rest of the European Unio 

At the same time as backing up all other international efforts to limit global warming by 2030, the latest biodiversity deal features important agreements about conserving wildlife and habitats. The first of the key points agreed was a sweeping project to protect 30% of the world’s lands and 30% of the oceans by 2030. So far, only about 17% of the land and 8% of the sea is protected from such activities as excessive amounts of mining, farming and fishing. The second key point was that developed countries agreed to contribute $30 billion by 2030 to help with biodiversity in developing countries.

Dozens of other more technical matters were settled, including monitoring mechanisms and areas for future work to stop crises that, if left unchecked, could jeopardise the world’s food and fresh water supplies.

The United States and the Holy See were the only places in the world not party to this landmark meeting. The US did not engage as Republican politicians blocked entry because they are typically opposed to joining treaties, according to the New York Times.

The European Union contributed a lot to the Montreal conference. It had published its own report on biodiversity some weeks earlier. As described by the European Commission, the EU’s new strategy is a comprehensive, ambitious and long-term plan to protect nature and reverse the degradation of ecosystems. The strategy contains specific actions and commitments to putting Europe’s biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030 for the benefit of people, the climate and the planet.

While the strategy aims to establish a much larger network of protected areas on land and at sea by 2030, it also wants to build confidence in the resilience of EU societies to the impacts of climate change, food insecurity and protecting wildlife from illegal trade and disease outbreaks.

In Portugal, 401 areas comprising more than 22% of the land and 2.5% of marine waters are officially protected areas. The European Natura 2000 sites in Portugal, covering national and natural parks and other special landscapes, give protection to 439 of the most endangered species and 102 of the most vulnerable habitats in the EU.

Independent organisations are pressing hard to stop deforestation and other shocking human activities such as hunting increasingly rare animals, including elephants, rhinos, leopards and tigers, for profit or pleasure.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the largest independent organisation of its kind, is working closely with many countries, including those in the EU. It is committed to protecting all of Europe’s unique wildlife and biodiversity, especially the Mediterranean region and the Black Sea basin. Now that the EU strategy to 2030 has been released, the WWF says it will work to ensure the European Parliament and the European Council support the implementation of the objectives.

Scientists say that unless humans radically mend their ways and curb global warming along with biodiversity destruction, the world could be facing the calamitous loss of a million species, the greatest mass extinction since the one that wiped out the dinosaurs and three-quarters of all other lifeforms 66 million years ago. In its 2022 Living Planet Report, the WWF states that there has been an average 65% decline in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish since 1970.

The report has a clear note of optimism however: “Together, we can take action to create lasting solutions and protect the future of nature.