A Price To Pay

The report to the UK government by Sir Nicholas Stern in late 2006 underlined that the effects of climate change are on our doorstep. There is a cost which we will have to pay even if we act in good time. The cost is, however, substantially higher if we do not act at all and it increases further with every “bad” policy decision.

Malta needs to take all possible action to reduce its carbon emissions. It is an unavoidable necessity. Within this context it is necessary to debate on a national level the utility of having a carbon budget, a point which I emphasised last year (Wanted: A Carbon Budget, October 10, 2007). Carbon budgeting will entail reporting regularly to Parliament on the manner in which targets are to be achieved as well as the extent to which Malta would be in line with its set targets.

The opposition spokesman on climate change has already declared his intention of presenting a private member’s Bill in this respect. In the process he is trying to lay the foundations for a credible opposition environmental policy which has been nowhere in sight for ages. The opposition’s initiative, stated the minister responsible for climate change, is ill-timed as a climate change commission has just been appointed and one should have the decency to await its conclusions.

There is obviously another side to the argument. That we are fed up of commissions reporting: report after report with nothing tangible resulting. The minister responsible for climate change has been in office for more than 10 years (having a portfolio responsible for the environment and, consequently, climate change for most of this time) and throughout all these years he had more than ample time to plan for national action on climate change. But, obviously, he was too busy dealing with local plans and could ill afford the time to act for climate change !

Malta urgently needs to plan for both the short term as well as the long term effects of climate change. The most obvious effect is that caused by changing patterns of climate. Extremes of weather in the form of higher temperatures, more intense rainfall and more severe storms are already being felt. A rise in sea levels is also on the cards. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has forecast that sea levels could rise between 28 and 43 centimetres by the end of this century. Yet, new research is already pointing towards the 1.50 metres range as being a more likely occurrence by 2100.

Depending on its magnitude, a sea level rise could play havoc with Malta’s coastline which would change beyond recognition. It could also threaten the existence of coastal settlements like Msida, Gżira, parts of Sliema, Marsascala, Marsaxlokk, Birżebbuġa, Għadira, Marsalforn and Xlendi. The Freeport, seaside facilities including hotels and resorts as well as Grand Harbour facilities would also be under threat.

Effects would not be just along the coastline. They could move further inland towards low-lying areas like Marsa, Qormi, Burmarrad and beyond. This would also have a bearing on our territorial waters, on fishing rights and oil exploration rights. Although these are “just” long-term effects they should be taken seriously as it seems that this will be the inheritance we will pass on to future generations! (On a global level as many as one billion people could be forced to move from their homes by 2050.)

A sea level rise will also cause further damage to what’s left of our water table, currently the source of 40 per cent of Malta’s potable water supply. This will increase the salinity of the ground water thereby causing it to be of little use for human consumption. Coupled with a predicted annual rainfall reduction this will have a devastating effect on the sustainable freshwater yield from our aquifers. It will increase the pressure on energy intensive RO plants.

Agriculture will be effected too. Changed weather conditions will not be able to sustain our current crops. Our farmers will have to switch to new crops.

A change in climate will also accelerate an ecological change as it will create the right conditions for the establishment of alien species that cannot do so to date, simultaneously wiping out existing species on the islands. In the long term, Malta’s climate could start resembling that of the tropics. This would create the right conditions for new pests and diseases currently prevalent in such climates.

Most of us have been aware of the above for years. Sufficient information has been available to enable the government to act. Unfortunately it had other priorities, or, worse, it did not have the will to act.

The longer the wait the harder it will be to take action and the higher the price which the Maltese community will have to pay.