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Think global. Act local.

ECO123 met Vítor Aleixo (aged 64), the Mayor of Loulé, in the corridor of the Town Hall at 8:45 am. He approaches us and takes a bunch of keys from his pocket. He finds the right key, opens the large door and invites us to go into his office. We want to know how he manages the political balance between the tourism economy and climate change.

Good morning, Mayor. What does a politician need to bring to his role, in order to strengthen trust in the democratic system?
A politician has to uphold ethical principles and values ​​of respect for people and the environment, values that are extremely important today. And you need to have a firm belief in those principles. And to be patient, but very persistent. At a time when democracy is going through a very difficult period, I would say that it’s by not reneging on its underlying values ​​and principles that we will render a better service to that same democracy.

Is the quality of CONTINUITY important to you?
Yes. Nothing starts from scratch. Civilisation is many thousands of years old. To be a good leader, you need a firm grasp of historical time. And without this notion of different periods of time (because there are several times involved in the performance of our daily tasks), if you don’t sense what is a medium amount of time, what is a very long time and what is a short time, if you’re unable to interpret the reality you’re dealing with, the reality you’re interacting with, then you’re lacking something that’s important if you want to be a good politician.
I’ve been in politics since a very young age. I’ve been interested in politics ever since I was a child. But, for me, it consisted more of a view of politics as something theoretical, as something to reflect upon, and yet, at the same time, also as something to engage in. In the end, when it comes to concrete reality, all those things were the values ​​and principles which I had been cultivating for many years and reflecting on in my academic studies. And then there’s the culture that has always existed in my family.

Do we still have time to improve the situation of global warming worldwide and in the municipality of Loulé?
When we’re talking about climate change, we can’t isolate the municipality of Loulé from the rest of the world. It’s a deep-rooted phenomenon, manifesting itself faster and faster all the time. And, according to several scientific studies – depending on the perspective, because nowadays almost no one dares deny that the climate is changing and that we humans are responsible for this – the change that is now happening is the consequence of human action.
It began with the Industrial Revolution, when the economy brought all of those technological developments and an ever more rapid consumption of resources – what we now call anthropogenic action. This is what explains the climate change that we’re witnessing today.
If you ask me if there is still time to control something that is a disaster and which is a very sad and very worrying vision of the future, I want to believe that yes, there is time. I have to believe that there is and to have trust in the future. My actions have to be channelled into believing that it is possible to save the human race, because the planet itself will continue. The planet doesn’t need the human race to continue here for many, many more years, perhaps millions of years.
Now, as to whether we’re still in time or not, I confess that I’m pessimistic. I’m quite pessimistic. When I think about all of these things, when I reflect on this question – because this is something that interests me a lot – then a concern for the climate is something that underpins the everyday action of this council. To paraphrase an Italian philosopher, I would say that I am a pessimist in thought and an optimist in action.

From the historical point of view, either we change almost everything that we’re doing now or the world risks changing beyond our control. So, what is the role of a mayor in this change, or what exactly needs to be changed?
Well, we all know that these questions are global, but not the answers, since the large international forums, which usually bring together heads of state and great scientists, prove that it’s very difficult to find consensus and goals that everyone accepts at first and then puts into practice. Once again, I remember that maxim that was made public at the Rio Summit, where it became understood that globally it’s very difficult for the different actors to reach a consensus about how to change lives in response to such an important question as what type of development we should have. And so here is the basic principle: think global, act local. It is here that the role of the mayor comes in: it is possible to change habits locally, it is possible to change the vision that we have of our lives, to do things that are really interesting and that can change the world.
I really believe in what I do. I believe that, at a local level, the municipality of Loulé can make a very important contribution with policies such as the ones we’re following. If everyone were able to make this contribution at a local level, I believe that humanity would not ignore the problem and would do whatever is possible for us to try to save the planet.

As far as local measures are concerned, the month started with good news for the planet. The project for the development of the Quarteira Campsite located in one of the region’s main wetlands, which in the past had received a favourable opinion from the council, has now been declared unviable, precisely due to climate change. What has changed, and what did the council see that was so alarming about this project?
Well, this project was, at the time, a concrete proposal to urbanise the area with a very high construction index (0.7%) and a land occupation index equal to what we have in the centre of Loulé. For an area that is a natural area with lots of pine trees – we’re talking about two hundred and thirty hectares – although the development project is for a much smaller area, we have put in preventive measures.
This is because we’re reviewing the PDM (Municipal Master Plan) and we have different proposals for that area. The law allows us to say to the investor: “We’re going to review the PDM and the project that can be allowed in this area will have to lower its construction index from 0.7% to 0.2%. We declare that in this area it is not possible to undertake a development project with this density of occupation.” That means finding a balance. According to law, investors are entitled, shall we say, to use the land in which they have invested. The municipality didn’t go from 0.7% to 0% but from 0.7% to 0.2%. This is the lowest density of occupation at which it is still possible for investors to realise a profit on their property. At the same time, we guarantee the defence of the public interest and, in this specific case, the protection of the environmentally valuable bio-diversity, as well as of a wetland, which is extremely important in a coastal area. Wetlands play a key role in the equilibrium of our system and therefore we are allowing the investors a balanced solution in which there can be an acceptable trade-off between their interests and the interests of a development that doesn’t compromise the future.

Is it easy to say “NO” or to impose that sort of restriction on property developers?
I must say that it isn’t easy. It is, in fact, very difficult.

Because the pattern of development that still rules today amongst entrepreneurs is that development is a reality without limits. We can enter ad infinitum into a logic of more and more and more and more … without any limits. And we all realised a long time ago that Nature has physical limits. And the sooner we know what these are, the sooner we can act to preserve this balance, and the greater the good we will be doing for humankind. Growth must be a sustainable growth, a growth that must have resources that can be reused or recycled.

Can we consider taking a bigger step and, for example, declaring this a local conservation area or safeguarding this ecological and public interest even more?
I’m not going to hide from you the fact that this might even be what many people want. And that I can understand their opinions. Now the fact is that we live under the rule of law and so there are rights that are enshrined in the constitution of our democratic state. And a politician must always act within a legal framework. That’s what I do. I would say that a society without laws, a society without rules, is impossible.
There is an undertaking here, which is an undertaking that comes from an interpretation of the local situation. I am trying, and I will continue to try, to ensure that it prevails.

As we know, this law has allowed the Algarve coast to become covered in concrete… Loulé’s PDM was suspended in 2007, at the time of the government led by José Sócrates, to allow for the construction of a five-star hotel at Quinta do Lago, on land that was a protected forest area. This was more than ten years ago now. Do you think awareness is changing at the political level?
There is an increasing awareness amongst many people that either we find a balance in the relationship between the human race and its natural environment, or we will be walking head first into a disaster. There are more and more people who understand this. And that makes it easier for politicians like me. Because laws, the legal framework itself, can often be interpreted in one way or another, depending on who are the protagonists, the main political actors.

You spoke of the possibility of this catastrophe. What does climate change mean for Loulé and for the Algarve? What exactly is at stake?
Local authorities, citizens, families and businesses must all be aware that we are faced with a limit problem, which is a global problem that affects us all, without exception. Either we put a brake on all four wheels of the model of economic development that we have – and which is responsible for nature’s self-destruction – or else, well … we will all see a future full of immense problems, with the increase in the average sea level threatening hundreds of cities around the world. We will see even more frequent fires that are absolutely devastating and extreme, and prolonged droughts in which water, which is so essential to life, will be scarce…
It’s a future scenario predicted several years ago, decades ago, by many scientists who have been warning us of the need to change, but hardly anyone heeded them. It’s really frightening! People must be aware that either we change or there’s no doubt that what’s going to come will be really terrifying.

Should we begin with ourselves?

Every footprint counts. In other words, every emission of every human being… Our population is growing every day – there are now about 7.7 billion humans in the world – and every day we emit more CO2 and consume more resources. It starts with us. We must know our footprint. Do you know your own, Mayor?
I don’t know my carbon footprint. But I must tell you that, for years, I’ve been taking my own small measures towards reducing my ecological footprint.

How many flights do you reckon you take a year?
I take a few. But, for example, I eat very little meat. When I go to work here in Loulé, I walk. When I go home, I walk. When there are bikes (they will be available soon), I will ride a bike myself. Previously, whenever there were visits to Lisbon, the technicians went in one car, while the mayor travelled alone in his own car. Not any more! Now one car stays behind and the technicians go with me in my car. Only I don’t have an electric car yet because, unfortunately, the available technology still doesn’t enable me to drive freely for several hours at a time without having to stop and charge the battery. Otherwise I would have already bought an electric car.
There are small decisions that I take in my day-to-day life: as you can see, the lights aren’t on in this office now.

We don’t need them either.
Exactly. I’m always giving out the message in one way or another, I would even say that, at times, I’m almost obsessive about it: the lights must be turned off when they’re not needed; the computer screens must be turned off at night. In the morning, while I’m waiting for the water to heat up at home, I have a small container where I put the excess water. I then use this to flush the toilet, or to water a flowerpot that I have on the balcony of my apartment.
I like these values that I practise, incorporating them every day into what I do. I think it’s with small gestures of this kind that we are, in fact, confronting climate change.

Reaching this level of awareness takes time.
It takes time; it doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of people still don’t understand this. Only last night, I was at a meeting with hundreds of people. A rowdy meeting, very difficult for me, and why? We’ve made a cycle path in Quarteira. For cyclists, for those people who already have an environmental awareness, who want to exchange their car for a bicycle and also to be able to move around more easily in towns. And it’s the beginning of a more general plan. I had hundreds of people against me, motivated by the Social Democratic Party, which has already issued three press releases opposing the cycle path, exploiting people’s poor environmental awareness – many citizens unfortunately don’t have this awareness. And it’s been a very difficult time, very complicated, because I know I’m working for the future, but I’m finding that a lot of people are against these policies.

Why don’t the PSD or the general public want a cycle path? Do you have any idea? Have you heard any reasons why not?
The first is that it’s a very big change in the use of public space: from one day to the next, the perception of the public space in the town has changed significantly. People aren’t used to these things. Of course, they react in this way. By creating a cycle lane, we greatly reduce the width of the road available for cars and buses. Cars rule in this town. We now want the space to be shared with other forms of mobility, because this is what should be done, for people’s safety, for their quality of life. Cars will be forced to circulate at slower speeds and there will be much less noise, less air pollution. It’s a new approach to mobility, a mobility that is sustainable and is good for citizens.

This step is the beginning of a change in regional policy. But it still doesn’t allow for a reduction in the ecological footprint.
We haven’t measured it yet.

Won’t you need to do something more?
Yes, this is just the beginning. We have a strategy for adapting to climate change, and we have acted on fifty percent of the twenty-eight options for adaptation. In such a short time, they’re already being put into place. Fifty percent! We’re rapidly restructuring all the work of the local authority in the light of this greater concern.

What is the goal in terms of emissions? Do you have a limit?
We haven’t yet arrived at the point of measuring the greenhouse gases that are produced, but we’ll get there. At the moment, we’re concerned with introducing gentler forms of mobility and preparing ourselves for the extreme and prolonged drought caused by water shortages. We’re concerned about the rise in the average sea level – we already have scientific studies – and we will have to adapt to that rise accordingly.
We’ve adapted the organisation of the council by creating two departments with separate leaderships: an organic unit for climate action and another organic unit for environmental education. We intend to act in the areas of both adaptation and mitigation. They are different and equally important approaches.
Of these twenty-eight measures, half are already in progress. Seen from this point of view, Loulé Council is a council that I can believe in and which, at this moment, is following its path along with others that share the same perspective. And I have no doubt that they will be more and more.

What initiatives stand out most
in practice?
We’re drawing up a municipal action plan for sustainable energy that will be applied to public buildings. Let’s start with the solar panels in schools. We want to make sure that public buildings that are being used during the day are self-sufficient in energy and can also produce energy to be consumed in schools. Loulé’s Municipal Market is already equipped with solar panels. The headquarters of the municipal company Inframoura is equipped with solar panels and its energy bill has been reduced by about 80%. That already results in a few less kilos of CO2 per year. And we’re now joining up with AREAL – the energy agency for the Algarve region, whom you should interview and which now has the engineer Cláudio Casimiro as its new CEO.

We’re booking that for the next issue.
AREAL is giving us a lot of support on energy questions. We’re intensely involved with questions of water efficiency. Soon we will have a plan, which a team from the University of the Algarve and the University of the Minho has been working on for months – a contingency plan for drought.
But if you want to include the interesting contribution of two people at the council, two very important technicians: Lídia Terra and Linda Madeira (from Environmental Education) could complement this interview very well. The political side that I represent and for which I am the main person responsible wouldn’t be able to do anything without this new generation of young people who have a fantastic technical know-how. They’re extremely important.

We promise to include that in the next summer edition.
There is a Monitoring Board that meets regularly and keeps an eye on the strategy, composed of many local stakeholders.

Do they also organise tree planting campaigns, educational projects?

Yes, we’ve planted more than five thousand trees in the municipality of Loulé. And we will continue this policy of expanding the green space, which is a consumer of carbon. This is extremely important!
The municipality of Loulé has been playing a very important role in matters relating to oil. Prospecting for gas didn’t get off the ground in Faro, Olhão and Loulé because I banned the use of helicopters at night. This meant that Repsol was unable to start prospecting for gas here. They needed to be assured of a helicopter back-up. As Faro Airport is closed at night, they had to ask to use Loulé’s municipal heliport. The application arrived at Loulé Town Hall and I refused permission to operate a helicopter at night in the event of a necessity. I am convinced that this was a very important decision, which forced them to give up the idea. The most important thing was the resistance, the opposition from civil society and from various environmental associations, which played an indispensable role. But it was also necessary to have the support of the political and business organisations in the region in opposing this policy of prospecting for and exploiting hydrocarbons. It would have been an absolutely wrong decision in terms of our environmental policy goals and objectives. And we succeeded.

A victory for the planet.
It was a great victory. We also kept up the pressure in Aljezur. The project was abandoned by ENI and Galp. I see this as an interesting story that shows how civil society and part of the body politic, when they are able to understand one another, can defend very powerful interests – which are the economic interests linked to the oil and gas economy.

Almost two years ago the Algarve’s largest shopping centre opened in Loulé. We talk about lighting using LEDs, charging mobile phones and electric cars. It seems we’re talking about a good example of greenwashing, which is done through green marketing…
I think that, at least with regard to commercial marketing, even the large economic groups themselves are adopting a lot of measures in their constructions that are, from an environmental point of view, correct and necessary. And they insist a lot on advertising this fact. But the problem is that, when it comes down to it, these same companies continue to be great promoters of unbridled consumption, precisely that type of consumption that is excessive with respect to the environment.
It’s very good, it’s nice, that they should adopt these policies, but in fact they also contain within them these concepts of unbridled consumption. We have already realised that what contributes most to climate change is the economic model we have. And this economic model, sooner or later, will have to be changed.
Among the various possibilities for the future, I would advocate a kind of green contract – a green deal, in which the entire energy base needed for the functioning of the economy could be transferred from a fossil base to renewable energies. Making big investments on this front and with a green deal. The economy could, should and can continue to grow, but it would become a sustainable economy. And there are, in fact, great efforts being made in this area. We’ll take control of the circular and local economy. This is our way of looking at it!

Have you heard of the concept of degrowth?
Yes of course. But there’s a problem – it isn’t easy to ask someone to consume less, because no one is in favour of a return to older patterns of development, though that might be very good for Nature. I doubt that individuals and society would accept it.
If we can succeed in having a dynamic economy, a growth economy, but one that’s based on a new economic philosophy, I believe that it will be possible to maintain good standards of development, which are acceptable to people, but which go hand in hand with an economy that meets the targets for decarbonisation and which is a green economy.

Thank you.

The interview is a work of Francisco Colaco Pedro with Uwe HeitkampUwe-Heitkamp Editor & Director  Text und Fotomontage

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