The air we breathe

Officers of the Environment and Resources Authority, interviewed by the local media, emphasised what we have known for ages: the main contributor to air pollution in Malta is transport. St Anne Street in Floriana is the most polluted street in Malta, while Msida will soon exceed the maximum permissible limits of EU regulations on air quality.

It is pretty obvious that the main culprit is the number of cars on our roads. Successive governments, however, have been reluctant to bell the cat. Instead they go around in circles, tackling the effects and continuously avoiding the causes.

The solution lies in reducing the number of cars on our roads and simultaneously improving the quality of the remaining numbers.

During the 2017 Electoral Campaign in Malta, Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party proposed the electrification of cars on Maltese roads within a maximum of 20 years. This proposal means that all petrol and diesel run cars would be taken off our roads within a maximum of 20 years. Inevitably, air pollution would decrease drastically.

Alternattiva Demokratika’s proposal was subsequently taken up by Joseph Muscat in September 2017 in one of his Sunday sermons. However, we have not heard anything more on the matter since.

Reducing the number of cars on our roads is achievable due to the fact that most of the trips made by cars are of less than 15 minutes duration. This is understandable, as most of the distances we travel are short.

Only one thing is missing: the political will to act.

Floriana, in addition to having the most polluted street on the island, must also cope with emissions from cruise liners, which, depending on the direction of the prevailing wind, more often than not blow their fumes directly across the Floriana residential area. To a lesser extent, this is an experience also shared by Birżebbuġa as a result of the ship movements at the Malta Freeport Terminal.

Ships should switch over to less polluting fuels when in port, a matter which is regulated by a number of European Union Directives. The difficulty with this is that enforcement is practically non-existent.

Theoretically, there is also another solution to control and substantially reduce pollution from ships, once these are berthed. It would be possible to switch over the electricity supply required by a ship from one dependent on the ship generators to a source of electrical power which is land-based. Two preliminary studies have been carried out locally, one focused on the Grand Harbour and the other focused on the Freeport Terminal at Birżebbuġa. These studies were carried out in terms of the EU Commission Recommendation on the promotion of shore-side electricity for use by ships at berth in Community ports, a recommendation that was adopted in 2006.

The above-mentioned studies have reached similar conclusions in that it is considered that progress cannot be achieved by unilateral action at individual ports. Action must be industry-wide and must be driven internationally or by the EU.

It is known that only sea vessels which call at ports in the American state of California are equipped to take onshore power supply, because California has legislated on the matter.

The EU recommendation of 2006 has paved the way for a number of studies across the EU on the economic feasibility of onshore power supply to ships berthed close to residential areas. We can only hope that these studies are taken into consideration when plotting the way forward.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 22 July 2018

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