Change must be fair

Achieving carbon neutrality is long overdue. It has long been obvious that an economy that is dependent on fossil fuel is not sustainable. The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change) at its 2015 Paris summit finally agreed to plot the basic roadmap required. If we do not follow this roadmap, havoc is the name of the future.

Climate change is already here. However, its impacts can be much worse than what we are already experiencing: extremes of temperature, drought in some regions with floods in others. We see the disasters developing almost daily. It will get much worse before it can get any better.

The mean global temperature is rising. The measured increase varies between one region and another. In the Mediterranean, recent studies have indicated that here we are very close to surpassing a 1.5-degree Celsius rise over the pre-industrial age temperature. We can feel the impact already.

As an island state Malta should be at the forefront of the global climate change debate. Unfortunately, our country is among the laggards continuously seeking to avoid or minimise the action required at our end. Our size does not exempt us from our responsibilities towards the future.

Our slow take-up of renewable energy over the years and the institutional resistance to transport electrification are among the most obvious examples.

We do remember the insistence on the part of Maltese governments with the EU Commission that Malta renewable energy targets should be 10 per cent and not 20 per cent of the energy generated. Likewise, after a policy announcement in favour of transport electrification in 2017, four years down the line we are still without clear targets. The change will now have to be adopted at a quicker pace, and one which we are not yet prepared for.

The EU has unveiled a proposal intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent, compared to 1990 levels, by the year 2030, an intermediate target on the roadmap to carbon neutrality by 2050.

One of the measures proposed would require raising the share of the renewable energy generated to 40 per cent of the final energy consumption, meaning that Malta, within nine years, would be required to quadruple the renewable energy which it generates. This would be quite tough, in view of having repeatedly been successful in wriggling of our commitments over the years.

A de facto ban on petrol and diesel cars by 2035 would accelerate our path to electrification of transport. That is a target to be achieved within fourteen years. Locally, however, it will not solve much, if not coupled with a substantial decrease in private car usage.

The proposal to tax shipping and aviation fuel would undoubtedly have a considerable impact on islands and the peripheral states of Europe. It makes sense when applied to the European mainland which is more dependent on railways, a suitable alternative. In respect of islands and the peripheral states it will be certainly painful, even though it will, when applied, contribute to achieving emission reduction targets.

Tourism would be hit considerably by a tax on aviation fuel, dependent on the extent of the taxation rates applied.

The aviation and maritime sector are significant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions which have so far have avoided being addressed due to very effective lobbying over the years. The EU proposals would ensure that this will no longer be the state of affairs, dependent that is, on the taming of the lobbies!

Some have already described the proposals of the EU Commission as political suicide as their far-reaching impacts could trigger considerable social unrest. Achieving carbon neutrality is essential but the paths selected will be very painful, some more than others. In the ensuing discussion we have to ensure that while the essential decisions are taken without delay the poor and the most vulnerable are shielded from having to pay the accumulated cost of inaction over the years.

The biggest challenge we face is to ensure that the Green Deal is fair. The ecological transformation must be socially just and place people, not profits, as its central consideration. Change must however happen the soonest. The longer we postpone taking action the higher the price we will have to pay.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 18 July 2021

We need a Carbon Budget

Searching for the word “climate” through the 2021 Pre-Budget document published earlier this week entitled Towards a Sustainable Economy one finds the word three times: twice referring to the United Nations Agenda which has to be addressed by Malta as a prospective UN Security Council member, while a third reference is to policy documents under preparation in Malta. The word climate in the pre-budget document is not associated with any climate change policy implementation or action and its impact on the Maltese economy.

It is already five years since the Paris Climate Summit and its conclusions are still being “studied” in Malta. If we keep on procrastinating, achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 will be very difficult to attain.

When Parliament approved the Climate Action Act in 2015 it identified that one of the tools to be used in the politics of climate change was the formulation of a Low Carbon Development Strategy. Consultation on a Vision to develop such a strategy was carried out in 2017, but three years down the line the final policy document is nowhere in sight, even though the Minister for Climate Change Aaron Farrugia has indicated that it may be concluded towards the end of this year. 

A Low Carbon Development Strategy will identify those sectors which are of considerable relevance in developing a low carbon strategy. Some of them are major carbon emission contributors to be addressed. Other sectors are part of the solution as they provide alternative tools which serve to decouple the economy from intensive energy use, in the process reducing carbon emissions.

The Vision which was subject to public consultation three years ago identifies a number of sectors as areas for climate action, namely: enterprise, energy, transport, waste, water, agriculture, tourism, information and communication technologies (ICT) and finance.

The Low Carbon Development Strategy, when published, should address these areas of action. It would also be expected that such a strategy would also identify the manner in which we will be in a position to achieve our target of carbon neutrality. Such a strategy would also, for completeness be expected to be coupled with a carbon budget which would break down the general target into specific manageable objectives which could be achieved over a specific and reasonable timeframe.

At the Paris Climate Summit, together with all other countries, Malta made pledges to take action in order to lay the foundations for reducing climate impacts. If all the pledges made at Paris are honoured, however, we will still be very far off from achieving the target of not exceeding a two-degree Celsius temperature rise. Much more is required.

Unfortunately, Malta’s climate related policies are double faced. On one hand the Malta government publicly pledges action to address climate change. Simultaneously, however, it proceeds with massive road infrastructural projects which encourage more cars on our roads. On the other hand, plans for the electrification of our roads are apparently subject to an elephantine gestation period. In the meantime, car emissions compete with power generation emissions as Malta’s major contributor to climate change.

It is unfortunate that the Low Carbon Development Strategy and the associated Carbon Budget are taking too long to be formulated. It will take much longer to implement them as special interest groups will undoubtedly seek to protect their specific areas to the detriment of attaining our carbon-neutral objective.  

Malta should be at the forefront of climate change action. Parliament’s declaration recognising the existence of a climate emergency is not enough. Words must give way to action. As an island, Malta should be aware that a primary climate change challenge in the years to come will be a rising sea level as a result of which the coastline may recede inwards at a rate so far unknown. The coast, we may remember, is home to most of our maritime and tourism infrastructural facilities, all of which are under threat. Even residential areas close to the sea level will be impacted. This would include all sandy beaches and the residential/commercial areas at l-Għadira, Xemxija, Salini, Gzira, Msida, Sliema, Ta’ Xbiex, Pietà, Marsa, Marsaxlokk, Marsaskala, Birzebbuga, Xlendi, and Marsalforn. Impacts could also move towards inland low-lying areas such as Qormi.

If we take too long to bring our own house in order, it may be too late.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 13 September 2020