Malta’s climate-change vulnerability

Malta is one of many climate-vulnerable islands.  Malta is not as vulnerable as the Maldives, which has an average altitude of 150 centimetres above sea-level and a highest natural point of 5.10 metres, as a result of which it is the world’s lowest lying country. Most of the Maldives will disappear once sea-level rise takes over. The Maldives is a touristic destination in the Indian Ocean. 

If the Paris 2015 Climate Summit target of restraining temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial age temperature is achieved, we will still face a sea level rise of around 50 centimetres. If on the other hand this target is exceeded but the temperature rise is still below 2 degrees Celsius the sea level rise will be close to three metres.

The current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, emphasises the IPCC report issued last Monday, if unchecked, points to an estimated 2.7-degree Celsius temperature increase by 2100 which increase could signify a substantial rise in sea level.

Where do we go from here? It is the answer which level headed climate diplomats will seek to hammer out in Glasgow this coming November, and in the preparatory meetings leading thereto.

It is clear that at the present emission rate of greenhouse gases, the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold could be reached as soon as 2030. Only immediate reduction of emissions will reduce the impacts which are already evident all around us: excessive increase in temperature extremes, increased frequency of intensive storms, prolonged drought in areas and floods in others. We will have to face more of this together with a sea-level rise until such time that we can reduce it through adopting climate friendly policies and lifestyles.

We need to work in tandem with nature if we expect to stand a chance in mitigating the havoc which awaits us. This is the objective of the carbon neutrality debate: reducing emissions in order that the damage done to date is contained the soonest and hopefully reversed, even if partially. In this process everyone must do his bit. We should not wait for others to act and expect that we are exempted from doing anything.

Our vulnerability as an island should be convincing enough that it is in our interest that we not only take action ourselves but also that we convince others about it. 

In order to reach this objective, we need to align our behaviour with what nature expects: the specific requirement is to have a climate friendly economy. Tourism and transport are two areas of activity which need to be cut down in size as they are among the major contributors of the Maltese islands to climate change.

Tackling tourism adequately will be painful. We must however realise once and for all that having 3 million tourists annually, most of them flying over, is not on. Their cumulative impacts are substantial not just on the local environment but even on a regional and global level. Now is the time to do it when we are in the process of recovering from the COVID-19 devastation. We should not aim for business-as-usual but should opt specifically against mass tourism and in favour of quality tourism at a much-reduced level. It would be less painful if we learn the COVID-19 lessons and ensure that tourism is more climate friendly.  In this respect if we keep on encouraging low-fare policies we will continue the process of digging our own grave.

Addressing land transport is also imperative. In a small country such as ours it should be obvious that everywhere is within easy reach. The Transport Strategy in fact clearly points out that over 50 per cent of car trips in the Maltese islands are for short distances of a duration of less than 15 minutes. There are better alternatives to using private cars for such very short distances. Beyond short distances, nowhere on the islands is so far away. Public transport when efficiently organised could go a long way to solving the contribution of transport to climate change.

Tackling climate change requires the courage to take tough decisions. I will not be critical of the initiative to have a carbon neutral public garden or making available grants and subsidies to encourage roof gardens! Such initiatives are however insignificant when viewed in context of what needs to be done. 

Malta is very vulnerable. A sea-level rise, even if this is at the lower end of what is being estimated, would seriously jeopardise our coastal infrastructure. It would also create havoc in a number of coastal settlements. We cannot keep postponing decisions into the future.  We have an ethical responsibility towards future generations: the planet we have in trust should be in better shape when they take over. The longer we take to decide on the action required, the more painful the consequences.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 14 August 2021

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