Climate justice is our responsibility too

Everyone is aware that different parts of the world are experiencing weather extremes.  Under the heading “Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to emigrate”, National Geographic recently reported that “Drought and shifting weather are making it difficult for many small-scale farmers to feed their families, fuelling a human crisis”.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme of the United Nations are concerned that drought is having a considerable impact on the most vulnerable in Central America. It has led to a loss of 280,000 hectares of agricultural land in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as a result affecting the food security of more than two million human persons.

We are aware, even as a result of local experience, that drought and floods cause considerable damage to agriculture and are occurring with increasing frequency. Some countries are experiencing an acute lack of rain while others are experiencing a concentration of a year’s rainfall in the space of a few days. These changing patterns of the weather are the result of human behaviour, accumulated over a large number of years through ever-increasing carbon emissions.

Clearly, climate change threatens essential resources – such as water and food – on which communities depend, putting in question their very right to life.

The politics of Climate Change, on the initiative and insistence of island states, in particular Pacific island micro-states, is currently focusing on the need to limit increases in global warming to not more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is a consensus among the global scientific community that, beyond such an increase, a climatic apocalypse would be more likely. This will be the cause of not just more drought and floods but also of unprecedented rise in sea level, as a result wiping out coastal areas, and low-lying islands all around the globe.

The special report issued by the lnter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October explains in detail the views of the global scientific community on the current state of play: it explains the science of climate change and the future of the Earth. A total of 224 leading scientists from 40 countries have assessed 30,000 scientific papers and their conclusions cannot be ignored.

Its report warns that the earth has already warmed by one degree Celsius more than the pre-industrial age. If we retain the present level of activity, we are warned that the temperature will rise a further half of a degree before the year 2050.

This is the reason why the scientific community considers that carbon emissions must be reduced, achieving net zero emissions before the year 2050. However, there are various pockets of resistance to attaining such an objective in a number of countries. So much that four of them (Russia, the United States, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) have sought to water down the global consensus on the IPPC report conclusions in Katowice, at the climate change summit held earlier this month.

Each and every country has a role in achieving this substantial reduction of carbon emissions, subject to the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. Malta also has such a responsibility to contribute to a reduction of carbon emissions in order to ensure that the 1.5 degree barrier is not breached.

In Malta, the switching of energy generation from one dependent on heavy fuel oil to gas was a positive step. However, in the long term, this is not enough as gas is considered a transition fuel: a step on the path to energy generation completely dependent on renewable sources. We require more energy generated from the sun and wind and we also need to ensure that good use is made of energy generated from waves – so abundant in the sea around us. The application of technology will lead to the creation of new, sustainable jobs and simultaneously contribute to an improvement in the quality of life for everyone.

Transport, however, is still a major problem considering Malta’s carbon emissions due the astronomic increase in the number of cars on our roads. Unfortunately, instead of investing in sustainable transport, the government has embarked on a massive programme of further development of the road infrastructure which will only result in encouraging more cars on our roads. Consequently, this will cancel out the progress being achieved with the registered increase in the use of public transport.

To add insult to injury, the proposed tunnel below the seabed between Malta and Gozo is essentially a tunnel for the use of cars. It is estimated that, as a result of this tunnel, the vehicle movement between the two islands will increase from 3000 to 9000 vehicle movements daily over a 15-year period. An alternative sustainable service providing for the movement of people would be a fast ferry service from Gozo to the commercial centres of Malta. However, the encouragement of the use of cars is central to the projected tunnel as tolls will be paid by car owners.

All this runs counter to the National Transport Master-Plan 2025 which establishes the reduction of cars from Maltese roads as an achievable target.

Reducing the number of cars on our roads will not only improve the quality of the air we breath but will also be a small but important contribution to global climate justice through a reduction in carbon emission levels.

Climate justice is our responsibility too.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 30 December 2018

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.