From Dubai to Singapore

Last week, the President of the Republic, laying out the programme for the new government in what is known as the speech from the throne, emphasised that the environment is a core value for this government. Reading through the speech prepared by government, his Excellency was clear by dwelling on a number of different topics of considerable environmental importance.

However, Dr Vella was unfortunately not advised as to how and when the government intends to address its continuous contradictions in its drive to shift its focus from the infrastructure to the environment.

The elastic environmental politics presented by this government ranges from more flyovers to achieving carbon neutrality, simultaneously being dependent on two interconnectors tapping the Sicilian energy market.

Previous governments led by the Labour party had sought to transform Malta into another Dubai, that is a land of high rises and extensive land reclamation . The attempt at Dubai-ification embarked on by the Muscat led government will apparently now be transformed into a Singaporization as emphasised by infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia. This is the implementation of the policy of continuity which his Excellency was apparently not sufficiently advised about.

The current crop will do their best to outshine their predecessors. Since there is not much more land to ruin, they have therefore turned their gaze towards the sea which they will be ruined in due course.

Preliminary studies carried out in the past had identified the areas in Maltese waters where land reclamation could be considered, subject to more in-depth studies. The coastal areas identified and studied are those along the  Magħtab/Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq coastline and the Xgħajra/Marsaskala coastline. These are the coastal zones which have to be watched and protected.

The basic question to ask before embarking on planning any land reclamation projects is: what do we need land reclamation for? In the past land was reclaimed to construct the Freeport or to protect the coast at Msida, Gżira and elsewhere.

If any new pressing need is identified one should carefully consider them.

The Netherlands used land reclamation successfully to adequately manage its low-lying land. Hong Kong made use of land reclamation to create high value land required for its airport on the Chek Lak Kok island. Through land reclamation Singapore expanded its container port, an essential cornerstone in its economy.

The way to go about tackling land reclamation is through serious public consultation. Labour in government has, so far, only consulted developers on land reclamation. It has, in the recent past, only consulted those who were seeking new ways to make a quick buck! These are the fourth-floor guys who are only interested in making hay while the sun shines.

If government is serious about land reclamation it should immediately publish a list of its proposed projects. This should be accompanied by a draft national land-reclamation strategy for public consultation. At this point consultation should not be with the speculation lobby: it has already been extensively consulted. Consultation at this stage should primarily be with environmental NGOs and the coastal communities, in particular those directly impacted.

Having said the above I do not think that land reclamation is or should be a priority. Rather, the priority should be the restructuring of the construction industry: specifically cutting it down to size and putting it to good use.

The country would be economically, environmentally and socially much better off if the construction industry is assisted in its much-needed restructuring. It would undoubtedly need to shed labour which can be absorbed by other sectors of the economy. Retraining would be required to ease the entry of the shed labour force into other economic areas.

After years of haphazard and abusive land-use planning, land reclamation is the last thing we need!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 15 May 2022

Urban open spaces and climate change

After a free-for-all building spree during which the development of multiple private gardens in our towns and villages were targeted, mostly successfully, our towns and villages have been promised open spaces. This, it is being stated, will bring nature closer to people! A shining sun which will hopefully produce less hay!

The implementation of the first such proposal for an open space is nearing conclusion. An open space in the Tar-Rabbat Housing Estate in Ħamrun has been partially built-up to produce an artificial garden on concrete stilts! The area below the concrete stilts is being reserved for parking of cars! This is definitely not an open space.

The open spaces which we need should not add to the concrete jungle which has developed unabated around us over the years. The open spaces should be free from any form of construction and should be the opportunity to squeeze out cars from the urban environment, preferably relegating them to the periphery of our towns and villages. The open spaces are meant to re-introduce nature into our lives, even if in a very limited way.

Our urban areas have been left to develop on their own for quite too long. As a result, they have been guided by business-friendly or market-friendly authorities, producing the mess of an urban jungle we have to face every day. This is a mess resulting from political decisions which have ensured that profits repeatedly have a priority over people and their quality of life.

The availability of funds to introduce open spaces in our urban areas is a unique opportunity to redesign the urban environment such that it becomes people-friendly. It is also an opportunity to bring urban planning in line with the requirements of climate change mitigation policy.

Earlier this month the latest report on climate change was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). The document, almost 3000 pages long, emphasises that without profound changes to our lifestyle the Paris 2015 Climate Summit objectives will not be attained.

As islands, Malta and Gozo should be at the forefront in the international climate change debate. Climate change is already here. Extremes of temperature, long periods of drought or sudden floods are no longer a rare occurrence in the Maltese islands. We have experienced this repeatedly over the past years.

A sea-level rise will impact our coastal areas. Large stretches of our coastline are developed and used for residential purposes or else they are utilised for the maritime and tourism industries. A sea level rise, dependent on its extent, would severely impact all this activity. It is in our interest that any sea level rise resulting from climate change would be minimal, if at all. This can only happen if the climate mitigation targets agreed to at the Paris Summit are adhered to the soonest.

One of the ideas doing the rounds in the climate change debate is to rethink our urban design strategy as one of the basic tools with which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as “the 15-minute city” by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris Mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away on foot or by bike! Consequently, our dependency on the car would be done away with, as a result even claiming back our streets. The open spaces initiative could fit in perfectly within the parameters of the “15-minute city”.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyle within this framework?

The Covid-19 pandemic has given most of us a taste of working from home. If this could become a permanent feature of our urban lifestyle, some of us would not need not travel to work every day. This would address and potentially reduce our addiction to the car. Over a period of time this would impact our carbon emissions.

Our contribution to climate change mitigation as a result of which we can accelerate our path to carbon neutrality could be achieved without impacting our mobility. Through a judicious use of public transport, and the facilitation of other sustainable mobility options our mobility can in fact be substantially improved as a result.

Come October all public transport will be free of charge. Hopefully it will also be reliable and efficient. If adequately planned this could be a turning point in climate change mitigation measures as over a period of time it can lead to a reduction of cars from our roads. Initially such a reduction would necessarily be of a temporary nature. Eventually we can move towards a permanent change.

Within this context open spaces adequately planned have a pivotal role. They improve our quality of life by bringing it closer to nature in our 15-minute cities.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 24 April 2022

Climate Change and the 15-minute city

The latest report on climate change was published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this month. The full document is almost 3,000 pages long!

The current international debate on climate change is focusing on whether the objectives of the 2015 Paris Climate Summit are achievable. It is clear to all that, without profound and imminent changes in our lifestyles, these objectives will not be achieved.

The clear objective agreed to in Paris is to reduce carbon emissions in order to achieve carbon neutrality soonest. This would ensure that the global mean temperature does not surpass the pre-industrial temperature by more than 1.5ºC. This would in turn tame the climate over time.

As an island, Malta should be at the forefront in the international climate change debate. We will be severely impacted like all other countries. In fact, we are already at the receiving end of the impact of extreme weather conditions at an increased frequency. Long periods of drought are more frequent. Likewise, we have experienced more than a fair share of floods, which have caused considerable damage all over the islands.

As islands, sea-level rise will add to our problems in Malta and Gozo in a manner which is dependent on the rate at which this will take place. A substantial part of our essential infrastructure lies along our coast. This will potentially be severely impacted as a result of a sea-level rise. Just think about the impacts on the tourism infrastructure, for example.

One of the ideas doing the rounds in the climate change debate is to rethink the way we plan our cities as one way in which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as ‘the 15-minute city’ by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our needs are available not more than 15 minutes away.

Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means.

Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

COVID-19 has given most of us a taste of remote working. In a limited way, this could become a permanent feature of our urban lifestyles. Some of us need not travel to work every day. With proper planning, remote working could reduce a substantial number of cars from our roads permanently and, consequently, the associated carbon emissions.

In the Maltese islands, distance should not be an issue: almost everywhere is within easy reach. Our National Transport Master Plan, in fact, advises us that 50 per cent of trips carried out by our private vehicles are for short distances, having a duration of less than 15 minutes. Achieving 15-minute cities should not be that difficult if we put our heads together to address it.

Our contribution to climate change mitigation, as a result of which we can accelerate our path to carbon neutrality, could be achieved through a substantial reduction of cars from our roads. We can achieve this without impacting our mobility. Through a judicious use of public transport and the facilitation of other sustainable mobility options, our mobility can be substantially improved as a result.

Come October, all public transport will be free. Hopefully, it will also be reliable and efficient. If adequately planned, this could be a turning point in climate change mitigation measures as, over a period of time, it can lead to a reduction of cars from our roads. Initially, such a reduction would necessarily be of a temporary nature. Eventually, we can move towards a permanent change.

Real change takes time to achieve.

Giving shape and form to 15-minute cities could be the next realistic challenge in our climate mitigation road map. All that is required is the political will.

published in The Times of Malta: 21 April 2022

Il-kosta tagħna lkoll: inħarsuha

Għaddej sforz kontinwu biex il-kosta tkun ikkommerċjalizzata. Sforz li ilu għaddej is-snin.

Il-jott marina proposta f’Marsaskala hi biss eżempju wieħed minn bosta li mhux limitati għan-nofsinnhar politiku, iżda li huma mifruxa mal-pajjiż.  Fost l-eżempji hemm it-Terminal tal-Port Ħieles, Manoel Island, il-Bajja tal-Balluta, ix-Xatt u l-jott marina tal-Birgu, il-jott marina fil-Kalkara u x-Xatt tal-Belt.  

Hemm ukoll għaddej il-kummerċjalizzazzjoni tal-ispazji pubbliċi mal-kosta, bil-bankini b’kollox.

L-art pubblika kontinwament qed tkun trasformata f’minjiera ta’ profitti privati, ħafna drabi għall-magħżulin. Il-kwalità tal-ħajja tar-residenti rari jagħtu każ tagħha, jekk mhux fl-aħħar minuta. Meta possibli jevitawha kompletament ukoll.

Għaddew madwar erba’ snin minn meta l-Parlament approva il-leġislazzjoni biex tissaħħah il-protezzjoni tal-kosta permezz tal-liġi dwar id-dimanju pubbliku. Kellna kemm-il Ministru li tkellem b’mod pompuż dwar dan. L-għaqdiet ambjentali ippreżentaw lista ta’ iktar minn għoxrin sit, mifruxa mal-kost,a li kollha kemm huma jikkwalifikaw għall-protezzjoni. Ninsab infurmat li l-għaqdiet ambjentali għamlu riċerka estensiva dwar min hu sid din l-art. Iżda sfortunatament l-Awtorità tal-Artijiet u l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar qed iżommu dan il-proċess milli jitwettaq, anke għal dawk il-każijiet fejn l-art hi kollha kemm hi propjetà pubblika.  

Għalfejn jiġu approvati dawn il-liġijiet jekk ma hemm l-ebda intenzjoni li dawn ikunu implimentati?

Nafu li wieħed mill-impatti ewlenin tat-tibdil fil-klima fuq il-gżejjer, inkluż dawk Maltin, hu bit-tibdil fl-livell tal-baħar. Numru ta’ gżejjer fl-Oċejan Paċifiku li mhumiex wisq il-fuq minn livell il-baħar diġa bdew jisparixxu taħt baħar li l-livell tiegħu qed jogħla. Robert Abela, Prim Ministru, huwa u jindirizza l-laqgħa Internazzjonali fi Glasgow dwar it-tibdil fil-klima (COP26), iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa, emfasizza dan il-punt.

L-għoli fil-livell tal-baħar ikollu impatt sostanzjali fuq il-gżejjer Maltin, skond kemm dan ikun kbir. Jeffettwa l-infrastruttura kostali kollha: l-infrastruttura marittima, dik tat-turiżmu, tal-ilma kif ukoll l-infrastruttura tal-enerġija li huma kollha b’xi mod marbuta mal-kosta. Kemm-il darba jogħla l-livell tal-baħar dawn kollha jitħarbtu.  Anke iż-żoni residenzjali viċin tal-kosta jsofru impatti mhux żgħar.  

Ħadd ma jaf eżatt dwar kemm, kif u meta dan ser iseħħ. L-ewwelnett għax il-proċess li bih dan iseħħ għad mhux mifhum biżżejjed. Imma ukoll għax għalkemm ma nistgħux nevitawh nistgħu nnaqqsu l-impatt tiegħu billi nindirzzaw u nnaqqsu l-emissjonijiet tal-karbonju.

Repetutatament fil-laqgħat tal-UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change) li jsiru regolarment tul is-snin, kien hemm emfasi fuq il-ħtieġa li ż-żieda fit-temperatura globali minn kif kienet fl-era pre-industrijali ma tiżdiedx b’iktar minn 1.5 gradi Celsius. Dan sar fuq insistenza tal-istati gżejjer u tal-pajjiżi sottożviluppati, għax għal snin twal il-limitu raġjonevoli kien meqjus li kien ta’ 2 gradi Celsius. Pass ieħor il-quddiem. Imma mhux biżżejjed.

F’Pariġu fl-2015 kien hemm qbil dwar dan kollu. Imma sfortunatament dan ma kienx ikkonvertit f’azzjoni. Huwa dak li issa qed nistennew li jseħħ fi Glasgow.

Huwa essenzjali li nindirizzaw it-tibdil fil-klima bis-serjetà. Anke l-ħarsien tal-kosta jiddependi minn hekk.

ippubblikat fuq Illum :il-Ħadd 7 ta’ Novembru 2021

Claiming back (and protecting) our coast

A continuous effort to commercialise the coast is under way. It has been going on for quite some time.

The proposed Marsaskala yacht marina is just one example. It is possibly the latest of many examples, not just in the political south, but throughout the Maltese islands. The Freeport Terminal, Manoel Island, Balluta Bay, the Birgu Waterfront and yacht marina, the Kalkara yacht marina, Valletta Waterfront are some of the most glaring examples which come to mind.

There is also the ongoing commercialisation of the public spaces adjacent to the coast, including pavements and open spaces.

Public land is continuously being transformed into private profits, many times for the chosen few. In practically all cases,the quality of life of residents is not factored in, until the eleventh hour. Whenever possible, it is avoided completely.

It has been around four years since parliament approved legislation in order to reinforce the protection of the coastline through the public domain legislation. Much was said pompously by many a Minister. Environmental NGOs have submitted a list of over twenty sites along the coast which qualify for protection. I am informed that eNGOs have even carried out extensive research on ownership issues related to these sites. It is indeed unfortunate that the Lands Authority and the Planning Authority have ground the whole process to an unacceptable halt. This applies even in those instances where it is proven beyond any doubt whatsoever that the land in question is public property.

Why approve such laws when there is no intention to implement them?

We are aware that one of the main areas through which climate change will impact islands, including the Maltese islands, is through sea level rise.  A number of low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean are already in the process of disappearing below a rising sea level.  Robert Abela, Prime Minister, addressing the Glasgow Climate Change COP26 earlier this week emphasised this point.

A rise in sea level will have a substantial impact on the Maltese islands, depending on its extent. It will impact the coastal infrastructure: the maritime, tourism, as well as the water and electricity infrastructure are all linked to our coast. A sea level rise will play havoc with all this. It will even impact the residential areas which have been developed close to the coast.

No one is certain as to when, how and the extent of this happening. Primarily this is due to the fact the natural processes in play are not fully understood yet. It is also however possible that mitigation measures planned and in hand to reduce carbon emissions could be quite effective if taken up.

During UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change) meetings it is continuously emphasised that the increase in global mean temperature should not exceed 1.5 degree Celsius over the pre-industrial temperature. This is the result of extensive lobbying by island states and under-developed countries over the years. They have been successful in adjusting the objective from the previous 2 degree Celsius.  This is definitely a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. 

In Paris in 2015 this was already agreed upon. Yet it was all words, none of which was converted into action. At Glasgow we need some decisions which are implemented the soonest.

Taking definite action on climate change is required to protect our coast.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 7 November 2021

Mina : rovina

Il-mina proposta bejn Malta u Għawdex, għal darba oħra qegħda fl-aħbarijiet.

Waqt konferenza stampa, iktar kmieni matul il-ġimgħa, kelliema tal-PN fissru kif jaħsbuha dwar il-mina proposta bejn Malta u Għawdex. Bħas-soltu jippruvaw jogħġbu liż-żewġ naħat (favur u kontra l-mina), din id-darba bil-proposta ta’ referendum dwar jekk il-mina għandhiex issir jew le.

Kieku kellu jseħħ referendum ta’ din ix-xorta, dan għandu jinvolvi lil kulħadd, u mhux biss lill-Għawdxin. Dan billi l-impatti negattivi tal-mina, jekk isseħħ, ser jolqtu liż-żewġ naħat tal-fliegu: kemm f’Malta kif ukoll f’Għawdex.  

Mid-dettalji li nafu s’issa dwar il-mina, hu magħruf li f’Malta din ser tibda minn ħdejn l-Għerien, villaġġ ċkejken, villaġġ trogloditiku fil-limiti tal-Mellieħa. Kif jixhed ismu dan il-villaġġ hu parzjalment fl-għerien, fejn kienu jgħixu uħud mill-ewwel abitanti f’dawn il-gżejjer. Riżultat tat-tħaffir għall-mina dan il-villaġġ ser jinqered kompletament. F’Għawdex, min-naħa l-oħra, l-mina tibda fl-inħawi Ta’ Kenuna, fil-limiti tan-Nadur b’impatt qawwi u negattiv fuq il-biedja lokali.  

Tajjeb li neżaminaw mill-ġdid uħud mill-argumenti għala mhemmx ħtieġa ta’ mina li kull ma ser iġġib hu rovina.  

Il-mina proposta bejn Malta u Għawdex ser tkun tiddependi mill-karozzi w inġenji oħra li għax jagħmlu użu minnha jħallsu. Biex il-mina tagħmel sens ekonomiku n-numru ta’ karozzi u inġenji li jagħmlu użu mill-mina jrid ikun wieħed sostanzjali.  F’wieħed mill-istudji li saru u li hu pubbliku kien hemm estimu li l-moviment ta’ karozzi u inġenji oħra bejn Malta u Għawdex jiżdied bi tlett darbiet, minn tlett elef kuljum għal disat elef kuljum. L-istudju hu intitolat Establishing a Permanent Link between the Island of Gozo and Mainland Malta: An Economic Cost Benefit Analysis of Available Strategic Options u kien ikkummissjunat mill-Kamra tal-Kummerċ Għawdxija flimkien ma’ Transport Malta.

Jagħmel sens li l-karozzi li kull jum jiżdiedu fit-toroq Għawdxin jiżiedu bi tlett darbiet? It-toroq Għawdxin jifilħu għal dan? Għandna nissagrifikaw il-kwalità tal-arja f’Għawdex ukoll?  Jagħmel sens li nesportaw il-problemi tat-traffiku minn Malta għal Għawdex?  it-tweġiba ovvja għal kull waħda minn dawn il-mistoqsijiet hi: le, dan ma jagħmilx sens. Bosta minna huma konxji li anke illum, it-toroq Għawdxin diġa ma jifilħux għat-traffiku li jiġi minn Malta kuljum.

Is-servizz tal-katamaran (fast-ferry service) li riċentement beda jitħaddem għandu l-potenzjal għal soluzzjoni fit-tul biex tkun indirizzata b’mod raġjonevoli l-mobilità sostenibbli bejn il-gżejjer.  Imma dan is-servizz, waħdu, mhux biżżejjed, jeħtieġ li jkun rinfurzat mis-servizz tat-trasport pubbliku kif ukoll minn faċilitajiet aħjar fil-port tal-Imġarr Għawdex.

Mid-dibattitu tul ix-xhur qed tissaħħaħ l-idea li minbarra r-rotta diretta bejn l-Imġarr u l-Port il-Kbir jista’ jkun utli li jkun hemm xi waqfiet. Din hi proposta li tajjeb li tkun ikkunsidrata, imma irridu noqgħodu attenti li din ma tkunx skuża li warajha tinħeba strateġija biex jiżdied l-iżvilupp mal-kosta, b’mod partikolari dawk il-partijiet tal-kosta li għadhom mhux mittiefsa. Ikun tajjeb li nillimitaw ruħna għall-infrastruttura kostali eżistenti.

L-iżvilupp tas-servizz tal-katamaran, b’dan il-mod, mhux biss iwassal għal ħolqa effiċjenti u permanenti bejn il-gżejjer. Iwassal ukoll għal tnaqqis ta’ karozzi mit-toroq tagħna, kemm f’Malta kif ukoll f’Għawdex.  

Il-mina proposta mhiex soluzzjoni, hi problema, iġġib rovina. Nistgħu nsolvu l-problemi ta’ mobilità bis-sens komun. Is-servizz tal-katamaran hi waħda minn dawn is-soluzzjonijiet: issolvi problema illum mingħajr ma tgħabbi l-ġenerazzjonijiet futuri.  

ippubblikata fuq Illum : 8 t’Awwissu 2021

The Gozo tunnel white elephant

The Gozo tunnel issue is once more on the agenda. It forms part of the Father Christmas politics of the Nationalist and the Labour Party.

At a press conference earlier during the week, spokespersons on behalf of the PN put forward their arguments on the Gozo tunnel, as usual trying to straddle both sides of the debate through a proposal for a referendum as to whether the tunnel should proceed or not!

If such a referendum were to take place it should involve everyone and not just Gozitans, as the proposed tunnel will have considerable (negative) impacts on both sides of the Channel.

The details of the proposed tunnel, as known to date, signify that the tunnel will have a Malta starting point close to the troglodytic hamlet at l-Għerien in the limits of Mellieħa which hamlet would, as a result, be completely obliterated. At Gozo the tunnel will start at Ta’ Kenuna, within the limits of Nadur impacting considerably the agricultural community in the area.

It would be pertinent however to reiterate some of the arguments as to why we do not need another white elephant.

The proposed Gozo tunnel is dependent on cars and other vehicles making use of it, consequently paying the relevant tolls. Maximising such vehicular use is crucial for the proposed tunnel to make any economic sense. One of the studies carried out, which is in the public domain, had estimated that the current daily movements of vehicles between Malta and Gozo should be trebled from 3000 daily movements to 9000 daily movements. The study entitled Establishing a Permanent Link between the Island of Gozo and Mainland Malta: An Economic Cost Benefit Analysis of Available Strategic Options was commissioned by the Gozo Business Chamber together with Transport Malta.

Does it make sense to treble the daily vehicle movements on Gozitan roads? Do Gozitan roads have that capacity? Should we sacrifice air quality in Gozo too? Does it make sense to export traffic problems from Malta to Gozo? The obvious answer to all these questions is a clear no. Most of us are aware that Gozitan roads are already bursting at the seams as a result of the vehicles crossing over at this point in time.

The fast-ferry service, recently commencing operation is the potential long-term solution to having a reasonable and sustainable mobility between the islands. It has however to be buttressed by a more focused public transport service and better port facilities at Mġarr Gozo.

The debate over the months has suggested that in addition to a direct Mġarr-Valletta-Mġarr route one could consider intermediate stops on the coast along the route. This is an option worth considering in some depth. Care should however be taken that this would not increase development along the coast, particularly in those stretches of the coast which are still in an almost natural state. The preference for establishing intermediate stops should go for existing coastal infrastructure which could be improved.

The further development of the fast-ferry service would thus not only lead to a permanent efficient link between the islands, but also to a considerable reduction of cars from our roads on both sides of the Channel.

The proposed tunnel is not a solution, it is a problem. We can solve our mobility problems by opting for common sense solutions. The fast-ferry service is one such solution: it solves today’s problem without burdening future generations.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 8 August 2021

Tourism: from Covid to Climate Change

The tourism lobby, through the MHRA (Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association), is once more breathing down the authorities’ neck. Some of their former employees have not returned, after the pandemic.  They are obviously referring to those employees of theirs who were shed off their payroll, as soon as the pandemic impacts started being felt.

After treating some of their employees like shit they are now asking for tax exemptions as a carrot to attract them back to fill the void created. Tax exemptions?  Difficult to qualify if you are employed on a zero-hour contract, hardly paying any tax at all!

The fact that an increasing number of employees are migrating from the tourism industry, is indicative that the employment conditions and the remuneration paid by the industry, at least, to some of its employees, is not worth it. If it were, former employees would come back on their own without the need to be enticed with tax exemptions.

Specifically, sections of the tourism industry are based on cheap labour: paying miserly hourly rates on zero-hour contracts. In addition to having reasonable rates of pay, it is imperative that zero-hour contracts are scrapped. That is to say a contract of employment must be for an agreed number of hours per week and not left at the absolute discretion of the employer. Greens in Malta have repeatedly advocated this step. A Labour government is apparently not interested.

Isn’t it about time that the tourism industry gets its act together? Government has over the years dedicated many resources to help the industry get on its feet. Various subsidies and favourable administrative decisions including planning policies designed to ride roughshod over the residential community are in place. Yet they want more.

At almost 3 million tourists in 2019, Malta is definitely close to a saturation point in the uptake of tourists it can handle. This has placed too large a strain on the country’s infrastructure.

Covid has clearly identified an Achilles heel. We need to learn a number of lessons. Foremost to reduce our dependence on tourism in order to ensure that the next time movement between countries is an issue, impacts on all are cushioned considerably. The next issue is round the corner. It is climate change.

Last week various initiatives were announced by the EU Commission in order that the target of carbon neutrality by 2050 is achieved. The Commission has identified a number of measures which could facilitate the achievement of an intermediate target of 55 per cent greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030 and beyond.

One such initiative is the environmental taxing of aviation fuel. Such an initiative is intended to internalise the environmental costs of such flights. This could result in either of two options: the payment of a carbon tax by those who use such flights or the use of alternative modes of transport thus avoiding altogether the payment of the tax.

On mainland Europe, use of trains is in many cases a suitable alternative which has considerably reduced environmental impacts. However, in our case we do not have practical alternatives to aviation. This will inevitably increase the costs of flights and consequently bring about a reduction in the number of tourists opting to visit Malta. Most of our competitors will be similarly impacted, but that is no consolation for the industry! Cheap plane fares could soon be history.

As announced by Minister Miriam Dalli, Malta expects that it is a “special case”. Most probably it will be successful in negotiating a reasonable transition, and/or some exceptions. In the long run, however, opposing outright such a measure goes against Malta’s long-term interests. Malta, like all island states, together with coastal settlements and communities, will have to face some of the worst impacts of climate change, that is sea-level rise. The climate, would not care less about our special case, or our economy. It will impact us just as forcefully. The climate is merciless.

It would be pertinent to remember that most of our tourism infrastructure lies along or within reach of the coast. This signifies that a sea-level rise could easily play havoc with such infrastructure. If substantial, a sea-level rise will also seriously impact our coastal communities, which are spread over quite a large area along the coast.

It is about time that we stop and think carefully. Tourism is at the crossroads. It needs to be subject to an overhaul: taking into consideration the covid lessons, and applying them to the climate change scenario which sooner or later we will have to face. This is the future of tourism, not tax exemptions.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 25 July 2021

When caves collapse: people may be killed

On the 14 September the Planning Authority approved application PA3487/19 which proposed the   “stabilization of dangerous rock slope; repair to deteriorated concrete wall and construction of wave dissipation slope along the Qui Si Sana coastline”.

In simple language this involves a permit for remedial works after a cave along the Sliema Qui Si Sana coastline collapsed, thereby exposing the MIDI development works immediately behind the cave: the basement level of residential blocks T14 and T17.

We have been told that the cave collapsed as a result of erosion along the coastline. Some readers may tend to forget that way back in 2016, a Maltese geologist had sounded the alarm that a “high-rise had been constructed over a fractured and eroded sea cliff, which could collapse any time soon.” The collapse in fact occurred relatively quite soon, signifying that the geologist was pointing out the obvious which was being ignored or not given due consideration by the developer and his advisors.

The point to be made is why the Planning Authority permitted the development to take place so close to the coastline. As far as I am aware, the EIA relative to the Tigne Development by MIDI does not reveal any detailed studies on the condition of the coast as well as on the impacts of erosion on the Qui Si Sana coastline and its relevance to the development of the MIDI project. The issue is not just one of remedial works but on why the Planning Authority  ignored the state of the coast, as a result permitting development too close to the coastline for comfort. The collapse is adequate proof of all this. The Planning Authority has much to explain in this specific case. Its actions, or lack of them, should be investigated.

The issue is not one relative to the structural stability of the development but of the protection of the coastline.

Erosion as a result of natural elements occurs continuously. It is a natural ongoing phenomenon.

In this respect it may be pertinent to draw attention to a report, authored by a team of geologists, dated October 2007 and entitled : “Report on Coastal Sliema. Geology, geomorphology, sites of scientific interest and coastal protection considerations.” This report was commissioned by the Sliema Local Council.

The 50-page report, which makes interesting reading, emphasises that a number of sites along the Sliema coast “are undergoing rapid coastal erosion that will increase with climate change, resulting in instability or failure in coastal infrastructure.”

Of particular interest is that the report, authored in 2007, goes on to state that “The faulted coast along Għar id-Dud is retreating rapidly by dislodgement of boulders along joints and faults. Public structures that may be affected include Tower Road promenade. The Għar id-Dud cave may also partially or totally collapse, leading to the caving-in of the overlying pedestrian promenade. If collapse is sudden and during daytime/early night time, injury and loss of lives may result.”

I have personally drawn attention of the Transport Minister to the above some time ago, however to date I am not aware that any action has been taken.

The matter was already very worrying way back in 2007 and most probably it is even worse now, after thirteen years, given that no coastal protection works have been taken in hand in the area in the intervening period.

The Għar id-Dud cave is the result of natural erosion and collapse accelerated by wave action. This is a natural process that cannot be halted unless adequate coastal protection works are initiated. If nature is left on its own, the end result is quite predictable: a complete collapse of Għar id-Dud, a caving in of the overlying pedestrian promenade and a number of dead or injured pedestrians, depending on the time of day when a collapse possibly occurs.

Will Transport Malta and the other authorities wake up from their slumber and act immediately please?

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 27 September 2020

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