Malta: a double-faced climate change policy

Estimates for sea-level rise, both globally as well as in Europe, vary depending on the assumptions made as to the rate at which ice at the polar caps and Greenland is melting.

The carbon emission-mitigation policy scenario also has a direct bearing on these estimates. These estimates range between a 34- and 172-centimetres potential sea-level rise by the end of the current century. Lower emissions together with a focused mitigation policy may restrict sea-level rise towards the lower end of the range.

However, notwithstanding, no one is in a position to predict as to whether such a sea-level rise will be gradual or sudden. It is however feared that once a tipping point is reached changes may occur at a much faster pace than anticipated. We all are on a learning curve on this!

Any sea-level rise, gradual or sudden, will have an impact on our coastline and in particular on the infrastructure developed over the years along the coast. This infrastructure is primarily of a touristic nature but it also includes residential development at times built along the water’s edge with or without the acquiescence of the planning authorities.

There is nothing to worry about if the sea-level rise wipes out abusive development. When one considers the potential impact on coastal infrastructure that is, however, a different kettle of fish.

The coastal infrastructure is already battered by the ever-frequent storms. The impact of a sea-level rise will without any doubt redraw the coastal map of the Maltese islands.

Let us have a look at our history books. At 5.20am of Monday 28 December 1908, Messina in neighbouring Sicily experienced one of the most powerful earthquakes to ever hit Europe, measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale. Immediately, a tsunami generating waves as high as 9 metres was unleashed. Just over two hours later, at 7.45am, the tsunami, slightly tamed, reached the Maltese Islands.

Various local newspapers of the time reported that low-lying areas were flooded from 7.45am until around 4.00pm when the sea receded back to its “normal level”. Herbert Ganado, in his Rajt Malta Tinbidel (Volume 1, page 37) states that residences and shops along the coast in Sliema, Msida, and Pietà were suddenly flooded. The average sea-level rise was 1.20 metres. The Grand Harbour was spared as it was protected by the breakwater, whose construction had been finalised a couple of years earlier.

A sea-level rise as a result of climate change would repeat the Malta impacts of the 1908 tsunami on a permanent basis. The low-lying parts of the Maltese coastline would then be permanently underwater. This would include all sandy beaches and the residential/commercial areas at l-Għadira, Xemxija, Salini, Gzira, Msida, Sliema, Ta’ Xbiex, Pietà, Marsa, Marsaxlokk, Marsaskala, Birzebbuga, Xlendi, and Marsalforn. Impacts could also move towards the inland low-lying areas such as Qormi.

Sea-level rise is inevitable. It is only its extent which can be reduced. This can happen if we take appropriate action which reduces carbon emissions and hence contributes to nudging the temperature increase towards the least possible.

At the Paris Climate Summit, together with all other countries, Malta made pledges to take action to lay the foundations for reducing climate impacts. If all the pledges made at Paris are honoured, however, we will still be very far off from achieving the target of not exceeding a two-degree Celsius temperature rise. Much more is required.

Malta’s climate related policies are double faced. On one hand the Malta government pledges action to address climate change. Simultaneously it proceeds with road infrastructural projects which encourage cars on our roads. Car emissions compete with power generation emissions as Malta’s major contributor to climate change. Is it not about time that we bring our own house in order? We are digging our own grave with a double-faced climate policy.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 24 May 2020

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