The war on nature is suicidal

If we are to register any significant progress in addressing our quality of life we must once and for all end the war on nature. This has been emphasised by Inger Anderson, the Executive Director of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) when she was addressing the Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, currently in session at Montreal.

This has been also emphasised by a multitude of speakers within other fora, notably those related to climate, most recently in Sharm El Sheikh during the latest Climate Summit.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity are just two of the many efforts and initiatives of the international community in order to end the continuous human war on nature.

Small steps forward have been made but they are nowhere near being enough in order to have any significant impact in halting the damage done to date as well as reversing its consequences.

It has been an uphill struggle for more than fifty years. It was in Stockholm fifty years ago, in June 1972, that the international community agreed for the first time ever, to recognise the environment as an important issue to be delt with by the global political agenda.

The UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 laid the foundations for international environmental governance. The Stockholm Conference is in fact credited with introducing the environment in the contemporary political lexicon.

Opening the United Nations Montreal Biodiversity Conference, this week, Antonio Guterres-UN Secretary General, said that humans are treating nature “as a toilet”. Nature, said Guterres, is humanity’s best friend: without nature, we have nothing, without nature we are nothing!

We threaten nature in many ways: urbanisation, deforestation, agricultural intensification, all forms of pollution, climate change as well as the spread of invasive species. Possibly these are the primary vehicles used in the intensive war waged by humanity against nature.

It is about time that we seek ways to make peace. With nature, however, there is no room for negotiation! We must seek to make peace before nature strikes back with full force. It is already retaliating, and this will definitely get much worse.

There is no possibility to negotiate with nature, her demands are clear and simple: unconditional surrender. We need to change our ways and habits. Nature can be a reliable friend but if transformed into an enemy, it is ruthless, as climate change shows continuously and unequivocally.

Nature is what sustains everything on earth, yet it is declining on a global level. The rate of extinction of species is increasing exponentially.

Expanding protected areas is not enough to arrest nature’s decline. We need to change our behaviour through seriously addressing the various environmental threats. We must limit the spread of invasive species, and halt deforestation. We need to protect agricultural land. It is imperative that we drive some sense into land use planning. We also need to eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies. We need to protect what’s left of the natural resources which we have been provided with!

It is only when our actions match our nice words that we can start achieving the required results. Until then, we inch closer to a collective suicide.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 December 2022

Wanted: a transport policy which makes sense

Everywhere is within reach in the Maltese islands: distances are relatively small. It is, in addition, an established fact, documented in the Transport Masterplan, that 50 per cent of private car trips on our roads take less than fifteen minutes. Do we need to be dependent on private cars for such short distances?

Over the years public transport was neglected. In the absence of suitable public transport, and as a reaction thereto, a pattern of car dependency has inevitably developed. The resulting congested roads are a symptom of this fact rather than being, as suggested in Parliament earlier this week by a government backbencher, the direct consequence of an increase in the country’s standard of living.

There have been improvements in public transport in the last years: these are however insufficient. Having free public transport is a good but pre-mature initiative as public transport has yet to be efficient and reliable. The decision announced last week by Transport Minister to invest in cycle lanes, is welcome, even if it comes a little late in the day.

The heavy investment in road infrastructure over the years has been misdirected as it has focused on the effects instead of on the causes of traffic congestion. The financial resources utilised in the Marsa Road network, the Central Link and elsewhere, will, at the end of the day, prove to be monies down the drain as traffic congestion will build up once more. This is already evident even in these early days. Others have been there before us as is revealed by countless studies carried out all over the world on the link between traffic congestion and improvement of the road infrastructure.

It is only through the provision of alternative means of sustainable mobility that the problematic behavioural pattern we have developed over the years can be addressed. Moving away from car dependency will however be a very slow process if policy makers keep continuously sending conflicting signals.

Making it easier for the car user through more or better roads is no help in solving the problem. It will make matters worse. Likewise, the subsidisation of petrol and diesel is sending a clear message to all that car dependency is not even considered to be a problem.

Three specific factors are currently in play: traffic congestion, fuel cost and the transition to transport electrification. If properly managed, together they can help us move towards a state of sustainable mobility. The transition period is however necessarily painful unless it is properly managed.

Postponement in tackling traffic congestion properly will only make matters worse.

Improvement of road infrastructure has postponed the issue of tackling traffic congestion into the future. Fuel subsidies have added to the problem as they blatantly ignore it. Electrification, unless coupled with a reduction of cars on the road will add acute electricity dependency on foreign sources to our current problems. Energy sovereignty has been problematic for quite some time: it will get worse.

The second electricity interconnector with the Sicilian mainland will worsen our car dependency as a result of linking it with a dependency on electricity generated outside our shores. We know quite well what that signifies whenever the interconnector is out of service, whatever the cause!

We need to go beyond the rhetoric and act before it is too late. It is also possible to ensure that the vulnerable are adequately protected. This would mean that instead of having across-the-board subsidises, these would be focused on those who really need them. All those who have mobility problems should receive focused assistance to help them overcome the difficulties which could result from a modal shift in transport. We cannot however go on with subsidies for all: it is not sustainable, neither economically, nor environmentally or socially

Land use planning can also be of considerable help if it is focused on the actual needs of the whole community instead of being at the service of the developers. We need to ensure that each community is self-sufficient in respect of its basic needs. This will, on its own, decrease traffic generated by the search for such needs.

The climate change debate is a unique opportunity to rethink the way we plan our cities as one way in which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as ‘the 15-minute city’ by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our basic needs are available within easy reach, not more than 15 minutes away.

Carlos Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means. Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

All we do is essentially linked. At the end of the day traffic congestion and the related car dependency are a product of our mode of behaviour.  Thinking outside the box, we can tackle it successfully, as a result unchaining ourselves from our car dependency, consequently adjusting to a better sustainable lifestyle.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 20 November 2022

It-tibdil fil-klima: it-turiżmu mhux ser jeħlisha

Żmien il-biljetti tal-ajru bid-€10 spiċċa, qalilna Michael O’Leary, tar-Ryanair. Dan wara li sirna nafu matul dawn l-aħħar ġimgħat li fl-Unjoni Ewropeja, biex tkun implimentata l-inizjattiva l-ħadra (Green Deal), anke l-avjazzjoni teħtieġ li tagħti s-sehem tagħha billi tibda tinternalizza l-impatti ambjentali. Dan ifisser li l-ispiża riżultat tal-impatti ambjentali tal-avjazzjoni għandha tibda tkun inkluża fil-prezz tal-vjaġġ. Dan hu applikazzjoni diretta u prattika tal-prinċipju ambjentali li min iħammeg jeħtieġ li jħallas (polluter pays principle).

L-avjazzjoni ilha teħlisha billi kienet eżentata għal żmien twil milli terfa’ l-piż tal-impatti tal-emissjonijiet li tiġġenera. Issa dan ma jistax jibqa’ hekk. Din l-industrija ukoll trid tibda tagħti kont ta’ egħmilha. Bħas-setturi ekonomiċi l-oħra trid terfa’ l-piz tal-impatti ambjentali tagħha.  

Li min iħammeġ iħallas hu prinċipju ambjentali bażiku li jifforma parti integrali mill-liġi Ewropeja. Riżultat ta’ hekk dan iservi ta’ gwida għall-formolazzjoni tal-politika tal-Unjoni Ewropeja.  Sa mill-2004 dan il-prinċipju hu ukoll parti integrali mil-leġislazzjoni ambjentali Maltija. Anke fil-kaz tagħna dan il-prinċipju għandu jagħti direzzjoni ċara fil-formolazzjoni tal-politika Maltija.

Sfortunatament, minkejja li l-Parliament f’Malta approva mozzjoni li biha għaraf l-emerġenza klimatika, din id-dikjarazzjoni baqgħet fuq il-karta.  Ftit li xejn sar biex id-deċiżjonijiet meħtieġa riżultat tal-għarfien ta’ l-eżistenza ta’ din l-emerġenza jittieħdu. Hu diżappuntanti li wieħed minn dawk responsabbli biex mexxa l-quddiem din il-mozzjoni issa qed jgħid li l-azzjoni biex ikunu indirizzati l-impatti klimatiċi tal-avjazzjoni huma kontra l-interess nazzjonali. M’għandux idea x’inhu jgħid.

Ejja nkunu ċari:  bħala arċipelagu f’nofs il- Mediterran, il-gżejjer Maltin inevitabilment ikunu effettwati mill-istadji li jmiss tal-impatti tat-tibdil tal-klima, ċjoe l-għoli fil-livell tal-baħar.  Iz-zoni mal-kosta ilaqqtuha waħda sewwa, possibilment jispiċċaw taħt l-ilma, kollha jew kważi, skond kemm jogħla l-livell tal-baħar.  Dan japplika ukoll għall-infrastruttura kostali li tinkludi l-parti l-kbira tal-faċilitajiet turistiċi.

Hu fl-interess nazzjonali ta’ Malta li l-miri klimatiċi tal-2015 ta’ Pariġi jkun osservati u li jiġu  implimentati l-iktar kmieni possibli. Ma jagħmilx sens li nfittxu li nkunu eżentati. Bla dubju jkun hemm impatti konsiderevoli. Imma l-impatti  jekk naġixxu  biex nindirizzaw it-tibdil fil-klima huma ferm inqas mill-impatti li jkollna nħabbtu wiċċna magħhom jekk nibqgħu nippruvaw nevitaw ir-responsabbiltajiet  tagħna.

Tul is-snin, bla dubju, it-teknologija tkompli titjieb, u probabbilment li din tgħin biex jonqos il-piz tal-impatti.  It-tieni rapport ambjentali dwar l-avjazzjoni Ewropeja ippubblikat fl-2019 jiġbed l-attenzjoni li fiz-zona Ewropeja l-konsum medju tal-fuel fuq it-titjiriet kummerċjali naqas b’ 24 fil-mija bejn l-2005 u l-2017. Imma fl-istess żmien kien hemm żieda ta’ 60 fil-mija fil-kilometraġġ tat-titjiriet kummerċjali!

Din l-istatistika tiġbor fiha l-problema kollha: it-teknoloġija qed tnaqqas l-emissjonijiet għal kull kilometru tat-titjiriet, imma n-numru ta’ kilometri tal-vjaġġi qed jiżdied bil-kbir għax ħafna iktar nies qed jivvjaġġaw bl-ajru.  

Bħalissa għaddej dibattitu dwar taxxa fuq il-fjuwil tal-avjazzjoni. Din hi waħda mill-miżuri essenzjali u meħtieġa biex ikun possibli li sal-2030 u lil hinn il-gassijiet serra jonqsu b’55 fil-mija.  

Din l-inizjattiva għandha twassal biex il-prezz tal-biljett tal-ajru jkun jirrifletti l-ispiza reali, inkluż dik ambjentali ikkawżata mill-emissjonijiet.  Dan jista’ jseħħ jew b’żieda ta’ taxxa mal-prezz tal-biljett tal-ajru inkella billi dak li jkun jagħmel użu minn mezzi alternattivi ta’ transport.

Jekk wieħed jagħmel użu ta’ mezzi alternattivi ta’ transport it-taxxa tkun evitata u dan bil-konsegwenza li jkunu evitati ukoll l-impatti ambjentali tal-ivvjaġġar bl-ajru. Fl-Ewropa kontinentali dan jista’ jseħħ bl-użu tal-ferrovija li bosta drabi  hi alternattiva kemm effiċjenti kif ukoll iktar nadifa. Imma fil-kaz ta’ Malta u gżejjer oħra dan l-użu tal-alternattivi potenzjali hu limitat ħafna.  Dan iwassal għal żieda inevitabbli fl-ispiża biex dak li jkun jivvjaġġa bl-ajru u riżultat ta’ hekk jonqos in-numru kemm ta’ Maltin li jivvjaġġaw kif ukoll ta’ barranin (turisti) li jiġu Malta.

Għalkemm eventwalment jista’ jkun hemm xi konċessjonijiet raġjonevoli għal dawk li jgħixu fil-periferiji/gżejjer, it-turiżmu ma jistax jibqa’ jevita li jerfa’ l-piz tal-impatti tiegħu: dan hu meħtieġ biex isseħħ ġustizzja, kemm soċjali kif ukoll ambjentali!  Hu fl-interess ta’ Malta li l-impatt ambjentali tat-turiżmu, b’mod partikolari dak tal-massa, jkun indirizzat u ikkontrollat qabel ma jkun tard wisq. L-industrija tal-avjazzjoni teħtieġ li tkun imċaqalqa bi strumenti ekonomiċi bħat-taxxa ambjentali biex tirristruttura ruħha. Ejja niftakru li bħall-gżejjer kollha, Malta, flimkien mal-komunitajiet kostali, tkun minn tal-ewwel li ssofri l-agħar konsegwenzi tat-tibdil tal-klima: l-għoli fil-livell tal-baħar. It-turiżmu ma jeħlisiex. Il-klima mhux ser tikkunsidra l-posizzjoni partikolari ta’ Malta jew l-impatt fuq l-ekonomija: in-natura ma tiddiskriminax, tibqa’ għaddejja minn fuqna bħalma għamlet bnadi l-oħra fejn kaxkret kull ma sabet fin-nofs!

It-turiżmu qiegħed f’salib it-toroq. Jeħtieġ li b’mod urġenti jaddatta ruħu u jaddatta għall-impatti tat-tibdil fil-klima. Dan hu l-futur reali tat-turiżmu, mhux l-eżenzjoni mit-taxxi.

ippubblikat fuq Illum: 14 t’Awwissu 2022

Climate change: tourism will not be spared

The era of €10 air fares is over, warned Michael O’Leary, Ryanair boss. This follows the news in the past weeks that within the European Union, in order to implement the Green Deal, aviation must do its part by internalising its environmental costs. That is, environmental costs must be incorporated in the price of air fares. This is a direct and practical application of the polluter pays principle.

Aviation has been a free rider for quite some time, being exempted from shouldering the impacts of the emissions which it generates. The holiday is now over and as a direct result the tourism industry must take stock of the situation. Like all other economic sectors, it must factor in its costings the environmental impacts which it generates.

The polluter pays principle is a basic environmental principle which forms an integral part of the EU acquis: it guides EU policy. Since 2004 it also forms an integral part of Malta’s environmental legislation and consequently it should also guide the formulation of Maltese policy.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding the approval by Parliament of a motion declaring recognition of the climate emergency, this declaration is still a paper declaration. The necessary policies required to face this emergency have never been discussed, approved and acted upon. It is disappointing that a prime mover behind the climate emergency motion is now equating the required action to address aviation’s climate change impacts as being contrary to the national interest. He has no idea on the matter!

Let us be clear:  as an archipelago in the centre of the Mediterranean, the Maltese islands will be severely impacted by the next stages of climate change impacts, that is the rise in sea level. The coastal areas will be hard hit, possibly they will be wiped out or substantially reduced, depending on the extent of the sea level rise. This is also applicable for all the coastal infrastructure, which includes practically all tourism facilities.

It is in Malta’s national interest that the 2015 Paris climate goals are adhered to and implemented the soonest. Seeking exemptions is not on.  Obviously there will be considerable impacts. The impacts of acting to address climate change will however be substantially less if we act than if we continue avoiding our responsibilities. 

Over the years technology will undoubtedly improve, possibly reducing the burden. The second European Aviation Environment Report drawn up in 2019 by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Environment Agency (EEA) and Eurocontrol points out that within the European area, the average fuel consumption of commercial flights has decreased by 24 per cent over the period 2005-2017. However, over the same time frame there has been a 60 per cent increase in the kilometres flown by commercial flights!

This statistic frames the issue: technology is driving down the emissions per passenger kilometre, however the number of passenger kilometres has been on an exponential increase as more people are travelling by air.

Currently there is an ongoing debate regarding a tax on aviation fuel. This is one of the essential measures needed to enable the reduction of 55 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and beyond.

This initiative is aimed to ensure that the price of an air flight includes all costs, including the environmental costs caused by the resulting emissions. This can be carried out either by a tax on air travel or else through the use of alternative means of transport, as a result of which the tax can be avoided legally, with the resultant decrease of the environmental impacts. In mainland Europe the use of trains is many a time a good alternative for air travel not just due to its efficiency but also in generating less environmental impacts. In the case of Malta and other islands the potential use of alternatives is very limited. This leads to an inevitable increase in the cost of air travel and the consequential decrease in air travelling, both incoming and outgoing.

Although there may eventually be some reasonable concessions for those who live on isolated islands, tourism cannot keep avoiding its own environmental impacts: this is what social and environmental justice demands! It is in Malta’s interest that the environmental impacts of tourism, particularly mass tourism, is contained before it is too late. The aviation industry must be prodded through economic means, such as environmental taxation, to restructure itself. Let us all remember that like all islands, Malta, together with coastal communities, will be the first to suffer some of the worsts repercussions of climate change: the increase in sea level. Tourism will not be spared. The climate will not consider our special situation or our economic considerations – nature does not discriminate: it will roll over us as it did elsewhere!

Tourism is at a crossroad. It needs to urgently adapt to the impacts of climate change. This is tourism’s future, not tax exemptions.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 14 August 2022

Emerġenza Klimatika: l-impatt tal-karozzi u l-avjazzjoni

Temperaturi rekord, li f’ħafna każi jaqbżu l-40 grad Celsius, nirien qerrieda u nixfa f’diversi pajjiżi. Din hi l-aħbar ewlenija mal-Ewropa kollha f’dawn il-ġranet. Din il-mewġa ta’ sħana mhiex xi sorpriża.  

Rapport mill- Joint Research Station tal-Unjoni Ewropeja li kien ippubblikat iktar kmieni din il-ġimgha, intitolat  Drought in Europe July 2022, jemfasizza li parti sostanzjali mit-teritorju tal-Unjoni Ewropeja hu soġġett għal nixfa li f’numru ta’ każi ilha tinġemgħa. Din hi in-normalità l-ġdida!

Il-klima ta’ bħalissa għandha impatt negattiv fuq l-agrikultura fl-Ewropa kollha. L-uċuħ tar-raba’ ser jirrendu ferm inqas. Fl-Italja, ġara tagħna, fuq it-TV rajna  il-livell tal-ilma tax-xmara Po li hu ferm iktar baxx mis-soltu: hemm metri inqas. L-esperti qed jgħidu li l-volum preżenti tal-ilma tax-xmara hu madwar 80 fil-mija inqas mis-soltu. Nofs l-irziezet Taljani għandhom problemi kbar ikkawżati min-nixfa u t-temperaturi għoljin li qed jiffaċċaw.

Dan m’hu xejn ġdid għall-biedja f’Malta. Ilna niffaċċjaw dawn il-kundizzjonijiet. In-nuqqas tal-ilma hi xi ħaġa normali f’Malta, in-nixfa, imma, qed issir ukoll iktar spissa. Imbagħad jiġu mumenti fejn jinfetħu s-smewwiet Ii jgħarrqu kull m’hawn b’għargħar li jkaxkar kollox.

Il-klima ilha żmien tinbidel ftit ftit u dan riżultat tal-istil ta’ ħajja li qed ngħixu. In-natura ilha żmien tagħtina s-sinjali li ma nistgħux nibqgħu għaddejjin kif aħna. Imma kontinwament ninjorawha. Riżultat ta’ hekk issa għandna din l-emerġenza klimatika, li, ġibniha b’idejna.

L-emerġenza klimatika issa hi rejaltà u hi parti integrali mill-ħajja tagħna. Biex nindirizzawha irridu nibdew nagħtu kaz dak li qed tgħidilna n-natura. Hu meħtieġ  li dan kollu jkun rifless fil-politika li tħares fit-tul. Speċifikament nistennew li l-politika li ma mhiex kompatibbli ma dak meħtieġ biex nindirizzaw it-tibdil fil-klima tkun indirizzata b’mod immedjat.  

Malta m’għandiex industrija li tagħti xi kontribut kbir għat-tibdil fil-klima. Il-problemi ewlenin fil-kaz tagħna ġejjin mit-trasport: mill-karozzi u mill-ajruplani.

In-numru ta’ karozzi fit-toroq għadu qed jiżdied kontinwament. Ix-xogħolijiet konnessi mat-titjib fl-infrastruttura tat-toroq qed isiru bl-iskop uniku li t-toroq ikunu jifilħu għal iktar karozzi. Dan ikompli jżid mal-problema. Il-konġestjoni tat-traffiku tonqos naħa u tiżdied band’oħra! Minkejja l-ħafna kliem sabiħ ma hemmx ir-rieda politika li l-kontribut  tal-karozzi għat-tibdil fil-klima jkun indirizzat.

Il-qalba tal-karozzi għall-elettriku, waħedha, mhux ser issolvi l-problema. L-emissjonijiet jibdew jonqsu fit-toroq u jiċċaqalqu għas-sors tal-elettriku li nużaw biex niċċarġjaw il-batteriji. L-enerġija rinovabbli li qed niġġeneraw hi ta’ kwantità insinifikanti!

Parti mill-problema nesportawha lejn Sqallija billi nużaw l-interconnector, li flok wieħed issa hu ippjanat li jkollna tnejn. B’hekk inkomplu inżidu  d-dipendenza tagħna għall-ħtiġijiet enerġetiċi.

Flimkien mal-qalba tal-karozzi għall-elettriku irid isir sforz ġenwin biex jonqsu sostanzjalment il-karozzi mit-toroq tagħna. Iċ-ċokon tal-gżejjer Maltin jagħmilha iktar possibli li nindirizzaw id-dipendenza tagħna fuq il-karozza u li din tkun sostitwita bi transport pubbliku effiċjenti. Kważi kullimkien jista’ jintlaħaq b’faċilità.

F’ Ottubru t-trasport pubbliku ser ikun b’xejn. Dan waħdu mhux biżżejjed: jinħtieġ trasport pubbliku li jkun effiċjenti.  Hu biss meta t-trasport pubbliku jkun alternattiva tajba li jkun jagħmel sens għall-gvernijiet li jibdew il-proċess biex jonqsu b’mod sostanzjali l-karozzi mit-toroq tagħna.

Biex nindirizzaw l-impatti tal-avjazzjoni l-istorja hi iktar ikkumplikata.  Id-dibattitu kurrenti dwar taxxa fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni, kif diġa ġie emfasizzat, ser ikollu impatt sproporzjonat fuq il-gżejjer periferali fl-Unjoni Ewropeja. Imma l-problema hi waħda reali u teħtieġ li tkun indirizzata bla iktar dewmien.

Il-qalba tal-argument fid-diskussjoni li għaddejja hi dwar l-impatt ta’ taxxa fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni fuq it-turiżmu. Mhux biss it-turiżmu lejn il-gżejjer Maltin, imma dak lejn kull rokna tal-Unjoni Ewropeja. Ilkoll kemm aħna naċċettaw il-prinċipju ambjentali bażiku li min iħammeġ jeħtieġ li jħallas (polluter pays principle) li illum il-ġurnata jifforma parti kemm mill-liġi Ewropeja kif ukoll minn dik Maltija.  Anke it-turiżmu għandu jerfa’ l-piż tal-impatti li jiġġenera, in partikolari l-impatti ambjentali tiegħu. Dak hu l-iskop tat-taxxa proposta fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni.

Wasal iż-żmien li t-turiżmu ukoll jibda jirristrittura ruħu u jibda jagħti każ tal-impatti ambjentali tiegħu. Bl-emerġenza klimatika wara l-bieb ma jagħmilx sens li nibqgħu għaddejjin bit-tkaxkir tas-saqajn.

Żommu quddiem għajnejkom li l-gżejjer u l-komunitajiet mal-kosta jaqilgħu l-ikbar daqqa meta jibdew jiżdiedu l-impatti tat-tibdil fil-klima, billi jibda jgħola l-livell tal-baħar.  Xi gżejjer u uħud mill-komunitajiet mal-kosta l-anqas biss jibqgħu jeżistu.

Man-natura ma tistax tinnegozja, trid tbaxxi rasek!

ippubblikat fuq Illum: 24 ta’ Lulju 2022

Climate Emergency: addressing car and aviation impacts

Record breaking temperatures, in many cases exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, fires raging across a multitude of countries and drought, is the current news all over Europe. The current heatwave was not unexpected.

The European Union’s Joint Research Station in a report published earlier this week, entitled Drought in Europe July 2022, reports that a substantial portion of EU territory is exposed to warning levels of drought, or even worse. This will soon be the new normal!

The current climate will severely impact agriculture all over Europe. The impact on crop yields will be substantial. In neighbouring Italy, we have witnessed on TV the level of the waters of the river Po being several metres lower than usual: its current capacity is 80 per cent down on what’s normal at this time of the year. Fifty per cent of Italian farms are at risk, devastated by drought and high temperatures.

All this is nothing new for Maltese agriculture. We have been there before, at times due to prolonged drought, at others as a result of havoc creating floods which are increasing in frequency.

The climate has been slowly changing over the years, reacting to the changing human behaviour. Nature has been reacting slowly, signalling time and again that it will not be subdued.  Nature’s signals have been repeatedly ignored: as a result, we are now faced with a climate emergency.

The Climate Emergency is now a reality which is an integral part of our daily life. Addressing it would signify that we start taking note of nature’s signals and act accordingly. It stands to reason that this should be reflected in our country’s long-term policies. Specifically, one would expect that policies which are incompatible with responsible action to address climate change, are immediately addressed.

Malta has no heavy industry which contributes to climate change.  Our major contributor to climate change is transport, specifically road transport and aviation.

The number of cars on the roads is continuously increasing. Road infrastructure improvements taken in hand are intended to increase the capacity of Maltese roads and consequently are and will continue to add to the problem. Traffic congestion is being shifted from one area to another. Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, there is clearly no political will to act and address the contribution of road transport towards climate change.

Electrification, on its own, will not solve the problem. It will rather shift emissions from our roads to the source of electricity used in charging our cars. The renewable energy we generate is not sufficient to cater for our needs, in particular if we have to also cater for a complete electrification of our car fleet.

Part of the problem will be exported to the Sicilian mainland through the submarine energy cables and will be serve to increase our energy dependency.

Electrification of our roads must be coupled with a drive to substantially reduce cars from our roads. The relative smallness of the Maltese islands makes it much easier than elsewhere to substitute our car dependency with an efficient public transport. Almost everywhere is within easy reach.

Come October public transport will be free of charge. This must be coupled with an effort to increase its efficiency and reliability. It is only when public transport is a suitable alternative that it makes sense for governments to start a campaign to substantially reduce cars from our roads.  

Addressing the impacts of aviation is more complicated. The current debate on an aviation fuel tax, as pointed out by various political observers, will impact the peripheral islands within the EU in a disproportionate manner. At the end of the day some solution will have to be found to this aspect of the problem, without further delay.

The crux of the issue, however, is the impact of such an aviation fuel tax on tourism, not just tourism directed towards Malta but that directed to all areas within the EU. All of us accept the basic “polluter pays principle” which is enshrined not only in EU legislation but also in local laws and regulations. Even tourism should internalise its environmental costs. That is the purpose of the proposed aviation fuel tax.

It is time that the tourism industry starts its much-delayed restructuring. With the climate emergency on our doorstep there is no purpose in delaying any further.

Kindly keep in mind that islands and coastal communities will be the worst hit when the impacts of climate change increase substantially through a sea-level rise. Some islands, as well as a number of coastal communities, as a result, will simply cease to exist.

One cannot bargain with nature; you have to follow its instructions!

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 24 July 2022

Beyond electric cars

Minister Miriam Dalli is partially right when stating that green transport schemes should focus on fully electric options. She made this statement when queried about subsidies for hybrid cars. Emphasising that zero-emission vehicles will be the only ones in receipt of funding assistance is the correct way forward.

But are electric cars in reality zero emission vehicles? In actual fact this is dependent on the source of electricity used when they are charged. When renewable energy is used to power electric vehicles, than we can state that they are zero emission vehicles, otherwise they are not.

There are other important considerations which need to be made. Green transport policy should be much wider than schemes subsidising zero-emission vehicles.

Only approximately 10 per cent of the energy utilised in the Maltese islands is renewable energy generated in Malta, primarily solar energy. The rest is either generated at the gas-powered Delimara power station or else imported through the interconnector with the Sicilian mainland. Plans are in hand to commission a second interconnector primarily to cater for the anticipated substantial increased demand for electricity as a result of the car electrification process.

Is this sustainable? Government is apparently ignoring this consideration.

Malta will be increasingly dependent for its immediate electrical energy needs on the interconnectors with the Sicilian mainland. Failure of the interconnectors to operate for more than a few hours would render most of us immobile as there will not be enough electricity to charge our cars! This is not a far-fetched possibility as we have experienced many a time when the interconnector was out of action, for a variety of reasons. A case in point being when the interconnector was damaged as a result of its being entangled with the anchors of a tanker during a storm.

In parallel with car electrification plans it is essential that the extreme dependency of our population on car ownership is addressed. This can be done through various initiatives.

Increased use of public transport is an initiative which is already being tackled. The announcement that as of October 2022 all public transport will be free of charge can be helpful if its efficiency is enhanced. If public transport is regular and sticks to the planned time-tables it can, over a period of time, contribute significantly to addressing car dependency. One has to underline the fact that car dependency in Malta and Gozo has primarily developed as a reaction to an unreliable public transport. As a result, there is still a reluctance to trust public transport. It still has to continuously prove itself, even though there have been significant improvements in the service provided.

Car-sharing schemes can be helpful in reducing cars from our roads. Currently in Malta we have one company offering the service of 450 cars which are available for shared use (against payment obviously). Using one of these cars instead of owning your own helps in reducing cars from our roads. Having just 450 cars being subject to shared use is however too little. Fiscal incentives including subsidies to those opting to share cars rather than to own them could be helpful.

We should continuously remember that in most cases, in Malta, we travel for short distances. Having less cars on our roads will also contribute to more road safety and consequently this would encourage more walking and cycling, especially when the distance involved is small.

Electrification of our roads on its own is not sufficient. It is just one of a number of tools which need to be applied in transport policy to contribute to a reduced climate impact, attain safer roads, achieve cleaner air and also to ensure more sustainable mobility.

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday: 22 May 2022

From Dubai to Singapore

Last week, the President of the Republic, laying out the programme for the new government in what is known as the speech from the throne, emphasised that the environment is a core value for this government. Reading through the speech prepared by government, his Excellency was clear by dwelling on a number of different topics of considerable environmental importance.

However, Dr Vella was unfortunately not advised as to how and when the government intends to address its continuous contradictions in its drive to shift its focus from the infrastructure to the environment.

The elastic environmental politics presented by this government ranges from more flyovers to achieving carbon neutrality, simultaneously being dependent on two interconnectors tapping the Sicilian energy market.

Previous governments led by the Labour party had sought to transform Malta into another Dubai, that is a land of high rises and extensive land reclamation . The attempt at Dubai-ification embarked on by the Muscat led government will apparently now be transformed into a Singaporization as emphasised by infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia. This is the implementation of the policy of continuity which his Excellency was apparently not sufficiently advised about.

The current crop will do their best to outshine their predecessors. Since there is not much more land to ruin, they have therefore turned their gaze towards the sea which they will be ruined in due course.

Preliminary studies carried out in the past had identified the areas in Maltese waters where land reclamation could be considered, subject to more in-depth studies. The coastal areas identified and studied are those along the  Magħtab/Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq coastline and the Xgħajra/Marsaskala coastline. These are the coastal zones which have to be watched and protected.

The basic question to ask before embarking on planning any land reclamation projects is: what do we need land reclamation for? In the past land was reclaimed to construct the Freeport or to protect the coast at Msida, Gżira and elsewhere.

If any new pressing need is identified one should carefully consider them.

The Netherlands used land reclamation successfully to adequately manage its low-lying land. Hong Kong made use of land reclamation to create high value land required for its airport on the Chek Lak Kok island. Through land reclamation Singapore expanded its container port, an essential cornerstone in its economy.

The way to go about tackling land reclamation is through serious public consultation. Labour in government has, so far, only consulted developers on land reclamation. It has, in the recent past, only consulted those who were seeking new ways to make a quick buck! These are the fourth-floor guys who are only interested in making hay while the sun shines.

If government is serious about land reclamation it should immediately publish a list of its proposed projects. This should be accompanied by a draft national land-reclamation strategy for public consultation. At this point consultation should not be with the speculation lobby: it has already been extensively consulted. Consultation at this stage should primarily be with environmental NGOs and the coastal communities, in particular those directly impacted.

Having said the above I do not think that land reclamation is or should be a priority. Rather, the priority should be the restructuring of the construction industry: specifically cutting it down to size and putting it to good use.

The country would be economically, environmentally and socially much better off if the construction industry is assisted in its much-needed restructuring. It would undoubtedly need to shed labour which can be absorbed by other sectors of the economy. Retraining would be required to ease the entry of the shed labour force into other economic areas.

After years of haphazard and abusive land-use planning, land reclamation is the last thing we need!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 15 May 2022

Planning is for people

Land use planning should, and can, be developed into an effective tool to combat the impacts of climate change. This can be done by effectively encouraging development which contributes to reducing climate change impacts.

Apparently, it is too much to expect from our authority responsible for land use planning.

The development of large commercial centres may make economic sense, but do they make environmental and social sense?

This is what sustainable development is all about: that economic development must continuously factor in environment impacts as well as social considerations. The term sustainable development is on everyone’s lips, but it is definitely and continuously ignored when push comes to shove. When decisions are taken, unfortunately it is the euros which take a priority over sustainability.

It is not just about the actual land to be developed, or the buildings to be redeveloped. Much more has to be taken into consideration in each and every decision taken.

Consider for example the Lidl network or another multiple supermarket competitor chain currently planning an alternative network in Malta. Their impacts are multiple. There is definitely an impact on the existing commercial community which can be gauged by a retail impact assessment. There are however also widespread social and environmental impacts which are generally minimised or ignored by all the decision takers.

The social impact definitely needs a meticulous assessment. The changing nature of our residential neighbourhoods through the squeezing out of the small outlets, both commercial and artisanal, and consequently forcing all residents to look far beyond the community and its neighbourhoods for their needs, at times even their basic daily needs, is a major impact. This has and is still transforming our localities and consequently our communities such that at times you need to travel from one locality to another to satisfy your basic needs. This is not a positive development, yet it has been continuously ignored.

A direct impact of all this is that the expense to satisfy our needs is now increased to include the environmental impact of travel with the consequential contribution to climate change. Expenses are not only those which are paid in euro. These specific expenses are a charge debited to our ecological account.

Sustainable land use planning can put an end to all this. Unfortunately, it is not, as climate change impact has not been embedded as an essential element to be addressed by local land use planning!

Current land use planning practice needs to be turned on its head in order to prioritise community needs and impacts on the ecology over the requirements of the economy.

This is what the 15-minute city concept is all about! In reality it is nothing new as it signifies having our basic necessities close by, as in times gone by, when our localities were smaller and alive with vibrant communities. Small is beautiful we were told some years back by Erst Schumacher. The full title of his opus is more revealing: “Small is Beautiful. Economics as if people mattered.” People should be the focus of all our activity. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

I still vividly remember the phrase “planning is for people” in one of the André Zammit’s first urban planning lectures I attended at university. It was a phrase lifted from the UK Skeffington report drawn up in 1969 and examining the participation of the public in land use planning!

Where are the people and their needs in our land use planning? Following the various land use planning cases as they develop, it is clear that as practised locally, land use planning is more a compendium of rights relative to property development than a process regulating the use of land for the ultimate benefit of the whole community. Planning is for people, not for profit!

Land use planning: as if people really mattered!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 8 May 2022

Urban open spaces and climate change

After a free-for-all building spree during which the development of multiple private gardens in our towns and villages were targeted, mostly successfully, our towns and villages have been promised open spaces. This, it is being stated, will bring nature closer to people! A shining sun which will hopefully produce less hay!

The implementation of the first such proposal for an open space is nearing conclusion. An open space in the Tar-Rabbat Housing Estate in Ħamrun has been partially built-up to produce an artificial garden on concrete stilts! The area below the concrete stilts is being reserved for parking of cars! This is definitely not an open space.

The open spaces which we need should not add to the concrete jungle which has developed unabated around us over the years. The open spaces should be free from any form of construction and should be the opportunity to squeeze out cars from the urban environment, preferably relegating them to the periphery of our towns and villages. The open spaces are meant to re-introduce nature into our lives, even if in a very limited way.

Our urban areas have been left to develop on their own for quite too long. As a result, they have been guided by business-friendly or market-friendly authorities, producing the mess of an urban jungle we have to face every day. This is a mess resulting from political decisions which have ensured that profits repeatedly have a priority over people and their quality of life.

The availability of funds to introduce open spaces in our urban areas is a unique opportunity to redesign the urban environment such that it becomes people-friendly. It is also an opportunity to bring urban planning in line with the requirements of climate change mitigation policy.

Earlier this month the latest report on climate change was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). The document, almost 3000 pages long, emphasises that without profound changes to our lifestyle the Paris 2015 Climate Summit objectives will not be attained.

As islands, Malta and Gozo should be at the forefront in the international climate change debate. Climate change is already here. Extremes of temperature, long periods of drought or sudden floods are no longer a rare occurrence in the Maltese islands. We have experienced this repeatedly over the past years.

A sea-level rise will impact our coastal areas. Large stretches of our coastline are developed and used for residential purposes or else they are utilised for the maritime and tourism industries. A sea level rise, dependent on its extent, would severely impact all this activity. It is in our interest that any sea level rise resulting from climate change would be minimal, if at all. This can only happen if the climate mitigation targets agreed to at the Paris Summit are adhered to the soonest.

One of the ideas doing the rounds in the climate change debate is to rethink our urban design strategy as one of the basic tools with which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as “the 15-minute city” by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris Mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away on foot or by bike! Consequently, our dependency on the car would be done away with, as a result even claiming back our streets. The open spaces initiative could fit in perfectly within the parameters of the “15-minute city”.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyle within this framework?

The Covid-19 pandemic has given most of us a taste of working from home. If this could become a permanent feature of our urban lifestyle, some of us would not need not travel to work every day. This would address and potentially reduce our addiction to the car. Over a period of time this would impact our carbon emissions.

Our contribution to climate change mitigation as a result of which we can accelerate our path to carbon neutrality could be achieved without impacting our mobility. Through a judicious use of public transport, and the facilitation of other sustainable mobility options our mobility can in fact be substantially improved as a result.

Come October all public transport will be free of charge. Hopefully it will also be reliable and efficient. If adequately planned this could be a turning point in climate change mitigation measures as over a period of time it can lead to a reduction of cars from our roads. Initially such a reduction would necessarily be of a temporary nature. Eventually we can move towards a permanent change.

Within this context open spaces adequately planned have a pivotal role. They improve our quality of life by bringing it closer to nature in our 15-minute cities.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 24 April 2022