Tenerife swims against the current in the fight against the climate emergency. Assuming the limits of the planet is one of the pillars that supports the Agenda 2030, which intends that the members of the United Nations finally advance in the adaptation of their territories to climate change. In less than eight years, the States will have to have reconsidered their productive model, transformed the ways in which their population moves and reduced the impact of their energy production on the environment. On the contrary, in this island of 2,034 square kilometers, two macro-ports, at least seven luxury tourist complexes, new highways, a train, the expansion of one of its two airports and a motor circuit have been proposed in the last decade.
All these projects are “completely out of alignment” with the Sustainable Development Goals and with the “imperative need” to achieve the complete decarbonization of tourism activity, points out the professor of Applied Economics at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Matías González. “Now that we fill our mouths talking about sustainability, Tenerife is the clearest example of unsustainability”, he values the graduate in Marine Sciences and documentalist Felipe Ravina.
For urban planner María Tomé, the entire island has become a city. “We have designed a territory that is totally oversized in infrastructure,” she describes. “Castilla La Mancha has 79,000 square kilometers of land and no airport. The Canary Islands have just over 7,000 square kilometers and eight airports. Five of them are big enough to be the airport of a big city”, exemplifies the expert.
Analyzing climate change in Tenerife is complex. In a small piece of land, the orography of the land presents enormous variations from one point to another, so only highly regionalized projections can measure the impact of the continuous emission of polluting gases. A study published in 2011 delves precisely into this idea. Temperatures on the island are not rising as much as other continental regions. But if we focus on mountainous areas, yes. Hence the vegetation of the National Park of the Cañadas del Teide is undergoing major changes in its structure, according to a research of the Spanish Association of Terrestrial Ecology.
The Cabildo de Tenerife declared a climate emergency on the island in 2019. However, in the opinion of Ruth Acosta, former director of Sí Podemos Canarias in the island corporation, “that has been practically the only gesture in the fight.” As a paradigmatic case, what happened in October of last year: the purple formation withdrew a motion on climate change when the rest of the parties (PSOE, Canarian Coalition and PP) proposed a regasification plant, a desire of the living forces of Tenerife who raise their voices every time the island’s developmentalism is questioned.
happened with him Granadilla Port. Also with fonsalía. And it’s happening now with the Engine Circuit and the Port of Adeje. “These projects are real nonsense. They would mean going backwards and it is not necessary to be very intelligent to deduce that they are an environmental attack”, summarizes Pedro Dorta, doctor in Geography from the University of La Laguna (ULL) and director of the Disaster Risk Reduction Chair. “Investment in these infrastructures prevents you from really investing in projects that benefit the insular environment,” adds Acosta.
On other occasions, moreover, the solutions proposed by the authorities have provoked a wave of rejection and indignation, as occurred with the intention of installing a “undercover incinerator” in the municipality of Arico. For Claudia Asensi, from Ecologistas en Acción and author of the report Canary Islands in the face of the climate emergencylocal governments are abusing technological solutionism to address the climate crisis.
“The Canary Islands is a territory that is very limited in size, fragile in its ecosystem characteristics and in its economic and social reality. To maintain a life worth living in our Archipelago, a cultural change is necessary and reorient our development model towards caring for people and the environment”, reflects the expert.
Most of the scientists consulted positively value the good intentions of the political class. But remember that they are not enough. For Dorta, “probably nature forces us to change”. And for Asensi, the ideal would be to start complying with current legislation. “I am referring, for example, to the continuous non-compliance in terms of wastewater discharges from land to sea that deteriorate our marine ecosystems.” The same beach in Tenerife, located in Los Silos, has received two black flags for pollution, according to a recent report of Ecologists in Action. It is the only area of the Canary coast with a double penalty for poor management.
In 2018, several studies published in the magazine Environmental Science & Policy highlighted the lack of public policies to mitigate the worst effects of climate change in Tenerife. because those consequences as has been documented the Earth and Atmosphere Observation Group (GOTA) of the ULL this year, will arrive, regardless of the scenario of CO2 emissions in the coming decades.
“It is not too late to act, but the inertia is great and we are running out of time. Reversing the situation requires accepting our emergency situation, and a firm and concerted commitment, both from political actors and from the population”, concludes Asensi.
The south of Tenerife, an “amusement park”
Tenerife has 162,573 tourist places including hotels, apartments, holiday homes and rural houses, according to data published in January 2022 by the Cabildo de Tenerife. Cuna del Alma is the last major tourism macroproject approved on the Island. This building will occupy 650,000 square meters in one of the few remaining virgin areas in southern Tenerife, Puertito de Adeje. The work includes 420 luxury residences and has been temporarily paralyzed by the island corporation, given the possible presence of archaeological sites.
According to the urban planner María Tomé, in order to achieve a more sustainable model, Tenerife should not limit itself to stop creating tourist places, but it would have to bet on a “degenerative culture” and reduce hotel rooms. “We are creating a Disney World of tourism. The local population goes to work in that amusement park that is now the south of Tenerife, but they live outside of it because it is totally taken over by tourism”, she points out.
Has quality tourism been confused with luxury tourism? “Luxury is a cultural attribute related to a minority that wants to do things that are within the reach of a few, but we have to think about whether this is the type of tourism that interests us in order to achieve more sustainable development,” says ULPGC professor Matías Gonzalez. “What happens when luxury tourism involves destroying a natural ecosystem with a construction of thousands of square meters?” asks the expert.
On the other hand, we must not forget that massive urbanization has little to do with the green economy. An efficient building stock with almost zero consumption is one of the objectives of the Canarian climate action strategy, but for this, policies must be promoted from now on, since 97% of the buildings on the Islands need energy rehabilitation to reach the levels of efficiency necessary for the decarbonisation of the sector in 2040, according to the Canarian climate action strategy.
For Araceli Reymundo, an expert in bioclimatic architecture, not everything that should be done is being done. “You are barely using the Bioclimatic Design Manual for the Canary Islands published in 2011. At the moment it is still something optional. But a real estate developer is only interested in selling as many apartments as possible. So, on that side, we can say that the system does not help much to move forward”.
roads and trains
If the province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife were an autonomous community, it would be the one with the highest density of roads with 64 kilometers of road network for every 100 square kilometres. However, the main solution that the Tenerife administrations have given to the collapse and traffic jams is to build even more. In the south of the island, the construction of a third lane in each direction along the entire highway that connects Santa Cruz with Las Américas is already underway. This project has been presented as the antidote to traffic jams and has a value of 1,955,632 euros.
In the north of Tenerife the formula is repeated. A new highway of 380 million euros is in the public exhibition phase. It is a six-kilometre, six-lane road that is intended to be built between the Tenerife North airport area and the center of La Laguna. In statements to the media, the president of the Cabildo, Pedro Martín, defended that this was the most respectful alternative with the environment to solve the traffic jams that occur every day in this section, since 75% of the work will be buried.
“There are rivers of ink written in the scientific community that tell us that road expansion becomes an incentive for car use,” reasons Yeray Hernández, a researcher at the Department of Applied Economics and Quantitative Methods at the ULL. According to a study recently published in the magazine Case Studies on Transport Policy, the most effective measure to reduce traffic is urban or circulation tolls, where drivers would have to pay to enter urban centers and the money collected would be used to optimize public transport. In the Canary Islands, the Minister of Ecological Transition has said that “the problem” in the Islands “is not the roads, but the cars”.
The geographer José León, for his part, insists that traffic jams occur because work activity is concentrated in the capital and in the city of La Laguna, while the population has built their homes scattered in rural areas, next to cultivation plots. “When the orchards ceased to be functional because we imported a large part of the products we consume, they became solar.”
Another proposal in terms of mobility is the construction of a train in the south and another in the north. For the first of them, an investment that exceeds two million euros is being considered and includes the expropriation of land to build the roads. For the urban planner María Tomé, the best use of the infrastructures already available should be prioritized. “For example, putting more buses in different parts of the island to guarantee that people can be well connected. A new type of transport in such a small and diverse territory does not make sense, ”she concludes Tomé.
Possible solutions to the current model
“There are professionals in many parts of the world who are doing urban planning without building anything,” begins urban planner María Tomé. At this point, she points out the importance of sitting down to talk with the island’s social groups and with citizens. “There is the option of regenerating what is already built, rethinking cities and spaces.”
For the geographer José León, the solution is not simple. Tenerife “has created a disastrous urban planning”, lacking adequate infrastructure, but there are neighborhood plans that have tried to improve all the shortcomings of this self-constructed and informal urban planning.
According to Matías González, it is possible to reorient the model and save part of the natural environment. Hope is greater in the case of marine ecosystems, which regenerate more quickly. For this, a cultural transformation is necessary that remembers “the true essence” of nature. “When we destroy the environment we are destroying a source of value. We have believed that the essence of tourist activity consists in building infrastructures to fill them”.