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

Planning for the foreseeable future

Human nature has always been preoccupied with the future. However, at times we tend not to realise that we mould a substantial part of the future through our actions today. Unfortunately, sometimes our actions today and the future we want, point towards completely different directions.

Our future is necessarily a common one, as explained in the 1987 report of the UN Commission on Environment and Development -, the Brundtland report – aptly entitled Our Common Future. Drafted by an international commission led by former Norwegian Socialist Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, this report placed sustainable development on the global discussion platform, emphasising that we are responsible not only for each other’s welfare today but also for that of future generations. We need to consider carefully that our actions today have a considerable impact and can possibly limit the choices that future generations would have to make.

The impact of our behaviour on the climate is one such example. The impact of climate change is causing havoc in weather patterns and consequently also impacting on all areas of human activity. The patterns and intensity of rainfall is unpredictable. Our road infrastructure never coped, and now it is getting worse.

Earlier this week The Guardian reported that the planet has just a five per cent chance of reaching the Paris climate goals. Rather than avoiding warming up by more than 2oC by the end of the century, it is more likely that Mother Earth will heat up to around 5oC beyond the pre-industrial era.

The predicted consequences are catastrophic. Another report published in April this year had informed us that there are worrying signs for Greenland ice sheet which covers 80 percent of its 1.7 million square kilometres surface area: it has been observed melting faster than ever before. On its own, this factor could potentially cause a rise of many meters in sea level – as many as seven metres.

This is certainly not the future we want. Any rise in sea level rise, even if minimal, would threaten the functionability of all coastal areas and facilities. It would also wipe out entire coastal communities and islands worldwide would disappear. It would be a future of climate- change refugees pushed to higher ground by a rising sea-level. This will not only have an impact low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean: it will also hit closer to home.
Take a look at and consider the places along the Maltese coast: Msida, Ta’ Xbiex, Pietá, Sliema, Marsaskala, Marsaxlokk, San Pawl il-Baħar, Burmarrad, Birżebbuġa, Marsalforn, Xlendi and many more.
Readers will remember the occasional rise in sea-level at Msida. In one such instant – on 11 May last year – the change in sea level was of more than a metre as a resulting flooding the roads along the coast. This phenomenon is known as seiche (locally referred to as “Il-Milgħuba”) and reported in this newspaper under the heading “Phenomenon: sea-water level rises in Msida, traffic hampered.” It also occurs at St George’s Bay in Birżebbuġa – on a small scale but on a regular basis, causing quite a nuisance to car users.

Now this phenomenon only occurs temporarily, yet it still substantially affects traffic movements when it does. Imagine if the rise in sea level rise is of a permanent nature?

Large parts of our coast are intensively developed – with roads and residential properties, as well as substantial sections of the tourism infrastructure and facilities. In addition, there is also the infrastructure of our ports which we have developed as a maritime nation over the centuries. All this points to the need for adequate planning to implement urgent adaptation measures in order to reinforce Malta’s coastal infrastructure. If we wait too long it may be too late.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 August 2017

The risk of being ill-prepared

Hurricane Sandy swept through the states of New York and New Jersey making it clear to all that the forces of nature, amplified and stronger as a result of climate change, will spare no one.

The impacts of climate change are here for all to see. The destructive power of nature is being made incrementally worse by a warming climate. In 2012, it was Hurricane Sandy that wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey. In 2005, it was Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans.

The havoc left behind in New York and New Jersey has been documented by the visual media. Less evident was the damage and misery in Haiti and neighbouring Caribbean countries.

Nature does not discriminate; it does not distinguish between rich and poor. Nor does it distinguish between developed and undeveloped countries. It sweeps away all that lies in its path.

Large areas of New York were without electricity. Over 40,000 New Yorkers were homeless as a result of Hurricane Sandy. This made the news.

However, disaster-stricken Haiti has been hit much harder. More than 200,000 Haitians already in makeshift homes as a result of the 2010 earthquake are now homeless.

A cholera outbreak in Haiti could be made worse by floods. Haiti, which is an agricultural economy, has also suffered a large loss of crops. This will lead to food shortages compounding the misery of an already impoverished nation.

Meteorologists have commented that more hurricanes are occurring late in the season, even after their “normal” season has ended. A 2008 study had pointed out that the Atlantic hurricane season seems to be starting earlier and lasting longer.

Normally, there are 11 named Atlantic storms. The past two years have seen 19 and 18 named storms. This year, with one month to go, there are already 19 named storms.

It is not only in the Atlantic that the climate is changing. Earlier this month, the Meteorological Office informed us that, in Malta, October 2012 was the sixth hottest month on record since 1922. With an increased frequency we too are witnessing more intense storms, which are playing havoc with an ill-prepared infrastructure.

The civil protection issues resulting from flooding will be hopefully addressed through storm-water relief projects substantially funded by the EU. While this will go a long way towards reducing damage to life and limb, it addresses the effects while leaving the causes of flooding largely unaddressed.

Malta’s climate change adaptation strategy, adopted some time ago, had pointed towards the issue of rainwater harvesting, which has not and still is not given due importance in new developments both those on a large scale as well as those on a much smaller scale.

The lack of application of rainwater harvesting measures through the construction of appropriately-sized water cisterns is an important contributor to the flooding of Malta’s roads and the overflowing public sewers whenever a storm comes our way. This occurs irrespective of the severity of the storm. Addressing this cause would go a long way towards reducing the volume of storm water that has to be contained to prevent it from causing damage.

By now it should be clear that there is no political will to address the issue as such a measure would entail taking action against developers (large and small) who did not provide rainwater harvesting facilities in their quest to increase profits (or reduce costs) in their land development projects. This has been the unfortunate practice for the past 50 years. Old habits die hard.

The expenses required to tackle a principal cause of the problem has been shifted from the developers onto the public purse, this including the EU funds being utilised. This expense has to make good for the accumulated (and accumulating) incompetence in rainwater management by focusing on the effects but simultaneously ignoring the causes.

Therefore, when one speaks on the devastating impacts of nature and climate change it should be realised that some of these impacts are being amplified as a result of the way in which successive governments have mismanaged this country’s resources.

The impacts of flooding are the ones which leave a lasting impression due to their detailed documentation by the media. There are, however, other impacts that are as important and in respect of which a public debate is conspicuously absent. I refer in particular to the impact of rising temperatures on agriculture and health.

Higher temperatures will slowly change our agriculture as the type of crops that can withstand higher temperatures are generally different from those which are currently prevalent. In addition, higher temperatures means that we will have some alien insects flying around, some of which are disease carriers.

Not discussing these issues does not mean that they will disappear. It only means that we are ill-prepared for the inevitable impacts and the necessary changes.

There is much to be done. So far, we have barely scratched the surface.

Published in The Times of Malta Saturday November 10, 2012