Obliterating the future

Humanity is at war with nature. Isn’t it about time for peace?

This is the basic message of António Guterres, United Nations Secretary General, in an address delivered at Columbia University earlier this week.

António Guterres said: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes.”

If humanity keeps the current pace there is the danger that we destroy the future before we have even understood the risks that we are continuously creating.

The past decade has been the hottest in human history. Some are still focusing on short term gains ignoring long term losses. Even if all the commitments made at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 are honoured completely, we would still have some way to go in order to attain the agreed minimum objectives: limiting the global mean temperature increase to not more than 2 degrees Celsius, hopefully closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Beyond the 2-degree limit climate change will become catastrophic and irreversible.

Climate change is nature fighting back forcefully, without discriminating. The war is on at full speed all over the globe. In some parts it is drought. In others it is floods. Havoc is the result everywhere. The intensity and frequency of storms is on the increase as the cumulative impacts of our actions continuously increase.

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 unequivocally.

It has been a hectic 48 years since the first ministers for the environment were appointed as a direct result of the deliberations of the international community in the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in June 1972. Some progress has definitely been achieved over the years but it is certainly nowhere close to enough.

It has been realised that there is only one earth which we need to care for. It has been 34 years since the Brundtland report placed sustainable development on the international agenda. Though officially accepted as an important policy objective, it is still subject to mental gymnastics in determining practical every day action to reduce impacts which threaten our future.

The spirit of the 2015 Paris summit is one which recognised the need for urgent action, yet five years down the line procrastination is still the order of the day. As we may have realised by now, half measures are not effective in addressing nature’s revenge.

We cannot keep postponing the decision to determine the cut-off date for the elimination of petrol and diesel run vehicles from our roads. The decision announced in September 2017 is taking too long to implement leading to the reasonable assumption that reluctance is having the upper hand.

The electrification of our roads is one important step which needs to be implemented rapidly if we are to start the path to carbon neutrality in a meaningful way. It must however also be accompanied by a reduction of the number of cars on our roads, an achievable objective, given the small distances which we travel in such a small country. 

It is to be underlined, once more, that the Transport Master Plan for the Maltese Islands has identified that around 50 per cent of our car journeys are for short distances in respect if which we can definitely use alternative means.  This signifies that the required changes, in our case, are less painful, even in the short term. We need however to address contradictory policy stances: the required reduction of cars from our roads will be more difficult to achieve if the development of large-scale road infrastructure is still the order of the day. Even the proposed Gozo Channel tunnel falls in this category as its feasibility is dependent on maximising car movements, a requirement which is in direct contradiction to the Paris Climate Summit conclusions!

The risk of obliterating the future is still present. Nature will not be fooled. It can distinguish between greenwash and meaningful action. Unfortunately, it is clear that it has not been impressed by our action to date. There is not much time left to change course.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 December 2020

Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor

 laudato_si_    Cry of the Earth

 

This is the title of Leonardo Boff’s seminal work on the inextricable link between social justice and environmental degradation, originally published in 1995.  Earlier, during the 1972 UN Human Environment Conference in Stockholm, it was also the rallying cry of India’s Prime Minister  Indira Gandhi who, on behalf of the developing world, forcefully insisted that poverty was inextricably linked with environmental degradation.  In Stockholm Mrs Gandhi had emphasised that “the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty  –  how can we speak to those who live in villages and slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers and the air clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source?”

This is also the underlying theme of the encyclical Laudato Sì published by Pope Francis last June. It is not just a seasonal Latin American flavour at Vatican City.  The earth’s tears are continuously manifested in different ways depending on the manner in which she is maltreated .

Environmental degradation has a considerable impact on the quality of life of  us all except, that is, for the quality of life of  the select few who pocket the profits by appropriating for themselves advantages (economic or otherwise) and lumping the negative impacts on the rest.

Environmental degradation is an instrument of social injustice. Consequently, enhancing the protection of the environment is also essential to restore social justice.

The water table is subject to continuous daylight robbery: over the years it has been depleted by both authorised and unauthorised water extraction.  What is left is contaminated as a result of the impact of fertilisers as well as surface water runoff from the animal husbandry industry. Theft and acute mismanagement  are the tools used in the creation of this injustice.

The Malta Freeport has been quite successful over the years in contributing to economic growth and job creation. The price for this has, however, been paid by Birżebbuġa residents – primarily through being subjected to continuous noise pollution on a 24/7 basis. Various residential units in the area closest to the Freeport Terminal are vacant and have been so for a considerable time. A noise report commissioned as a result of the conditions of the Terminal’s environmental permit will be concluded shortly. Hopefully, the implementation of its conclusions will start the reversal of the Freeport’s negative impacts on its neighbours.

The Freeport, together with various fuel storage outlets, the Delimara Power Station (including the floating gas storage facility which will soon be a permanent feature) as well as fish-farms have together definitely converted Marsaxlokk Bay into an industrial port. As a result of various incidents during 2015, spills in Marsaxlokk Bay signify that Pretty Bay risks losing its title permanently.   Fortunately, Birżebbuġa residents have been spared additional impact originating from minor ship and oil-rig repairs after they reacted vociferously to a decision by the MEPA Board to permit such work at the Freeport Terminal.

Public Transport has made minor improvements but nowhere near what is required. It is essential that Malta’s congested roads are mopped up of the excessive number of cars. Improving the road infrastructure will just make it easier for more cars to roam about in our roads, thereby increasing the scale of the problem.  The major consequences are a reduced ease of access and the deterioration air quality.

We will soon be in a position to assess the impact of two other major projects: a business hub at the Malta International Airport as well as a car-racing track with various ancillary facilities. The former will take up land at the airport carpark but will have considerable impact on the surrounding villages. The car-racing track may take up as much as 110 hectares of land outside the development zone and have a considerable impact on both nature and local residents in the areas close to where it will be developed.

The list of environmental impacts that we have to endure is endless.

I could also have included the impact of the Malta Drydocks and the consequent squeezing out of residents from the Three Cities as a result of its operations, primarily as a result of sandblasting, in the 1970s and 1980s. I could also have added the impact of the waste recycling plant at Marsaskala and the refusal of the authorities to finance studies on the impact of its operations on the health of residents, or else the impact of the operation of petrol stations close to and within various residential areas.

The size of the Maltese islands is limited. A number of the abovementioned  activities/developments  are essential, but others are not. However, it stands to reason that we should not bear the brunt of non-essential activities or developments. This should lead us to plan more carefully so that  the impacts of the activities that are essential are adequately addressed.

As evidenced by the above list, unfortunately over the years those taking decisions betrayed their responsibilities towards the common good, seeking, instead the interests of the select few thereby compounding social injustices.

This is Malta’s contribution to the accumulated tears of Mother Earth.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 10 January 2016