Planning for the foreseeable future

Human nature has always been preoccupied with the future. However, at times we tend not to realise that we mould a substantial part of the future through our actions today. Unfortunately, sometimes our actions today and the future we want, point towards completely different directions.

Our future is necessarily a common one, as explained in the 1987 report of the UN Commission on Environment and Development -, the Brundtland report – aptly entitled Our Common Future. Drafted by an international commission led by former Norwegian Socialist Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, this report placed sustainable development on the global discussion platform, emphasising that we are responsible not only for each other’s welfare today but also for that of future generations. We need to consider carefully that our actions today have a considerable impact and can possibly limit the choices that future generations would have to make.

The impact of our behaviour on the climate is one such example. The impact of climate change is causing havoc in weather patterns and consequently also impacting on all areas of human activity. The patterns and intensity of rainfall is unpredictable. Our road infrastructure never coped, and now it is getting worse.

Earlier this week The Guardian reported that the planet has just a five per cent chance of reaching the Paris climate goals. Rather than avoiding warming up by more than 2oC by the end of the century, it is more likely that Mother Earth will heat up to around 5oC beyond the pre-industrial era.

The predicted consequences are catastrophic. Another report published in April this year had informed us that there are worrying signs for Greenland ice sheet which covers 80 percent of its 1.7 million square kilometres surface area: it has been observed melting faster than ever before. On its own, this factor could potentially cause a rise of many meters in sea level – as many as seven metres.

This is certainly not the future we want. Any rise in sea level rise, even if minimal, would threaten the functionability of all coastal areas and facilities. It would also wipe out entire coastal communities and islands worldwide would disappear. It would be a future of climate- change refugees pushed to higher ground by a rising sea-level. This will not only have an impact low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean: it will also hit closer to home.
Take a look at and consider the places along the Maltese coast: Msida, Ta’ Xbiex, Pietá, Sliema, Marsaskala, Marsaxlokk, San Pawl il-Baħar, Burmarrad, Birżebbuġa, Marsalforn, Xlendi and many more.
Readers will remember the occasional rise in sea-level at Msida. In one such instant – on 11 May last year – the change in sea level was of more than a metre as a resulting flooding the roads along the coast. This phenomenon is known as seiche (locally referred to as “Il-Milgħuba”) and reported in this newspaper under the heading “Phenomenon: sea-water level rises in Msida, traffic hampered.” It also occurs at St George’s Bay in Birżebbuġa – on a small scale but on a regular basis, causing quite a nuisance to car users.

Now this phenomenon only occurs temporarily, yet it still substantially affects traffic movements when it does. Imagine if the rise in sea level rise is of a permanent nature?

Large parts of our coast are intensively developed – with roads and residential properties, as well as substantial sections of the tourism infrastructure and facilities. In addition, there is also the infrastructure of our ports which we have developed as a maritime nation over the centuries. All this points to the need for adequate planning to implement urgent adaptation measures in order to reinforce Malta’s coastal infrastructure. If we wait too long it may be too late.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 August 2017

F’Pariġi sar l-ewwel pass

Plan B

Nhar is-Sibt f’Pariġi rappreżentanti ta’ 200 pajjiż waslu fi ftehim dwar il-bidla fil-klima li ġie deskritt bħala wieħed ambizzjuz u li jagħti tama għall-futur. Bil-ftehim ta’ Pariġi ġie miftiehem li ż-żieda fit-temperatura ma taqbiżx b’iktar minn 2oC dik taż-żmien pre-industrijali fil-waqt li ser isiru sforzi biex possibilment iż-żieda l-anqas ma tasal sa 1.5oC.  Dan sar billi kull pajjiż intrabat individwalment biex jistabilixxi l-emmissjonijiet li jeħtieġ li jnaqqas biex jintlaħaq dan l-iskop.

Dawn l-ammont ta’ emissjonijiet ikunu reveduti perjodikament biex ikun assigurat li l-isforz ta’ kulħadd magħdud flimkien jgħin biex naslu għall-iskop komuni li jonqos it-tibdil fil-klima u l-impatti tiegħu fuq id-dinja.

Intlaħaq qbil li huwa meħtieġ investiment ta’ $100 biljun dollar biex ikunu mgħejjuna l-pajjiżi mhux sviluppati biex dawn ukoll ikunu f’posizzjoni li jaddattaw l-ekonomija tagħhom ħalli anke huma jagħtu l-kontribut tagħhom fit-tnaqqis tal-emissjonijiet mingħajr ma jħarbtu l-ekonomija dgħajfa tagħhom. B’hekk il-piz ikun jista’ jintrefa minn kulħadd għax min ma jiflaħx jiġi mgħejjun.

Il-ftehim ta’ Pariġi jorbot lil kull pajjiż li jistabilixxi hu l-emmissjonijiet tiegħu fil-futur iżda ma hemmx obbligu dwar kemm għandhom ikunu dawn l-emmissjonijiet. B’differenza mill-passat dan il-ftehim iħalli ħafna iktar diskrezzjoni f’idejn il-pajjiżi li iffirmawh u allura jiddependi ħafna iktar minn qatt qabel fuq il-volontà tal-pajjiżi individwali. Hawn qegħda d-diffikulta prinċipali tal-ftehim ta’ Pariġi: il-wegħdiet li għamlu s’issa l-pajjiżi individwali meta tgħoddhom flimkien m’humiex biżżejjed. Għad jonqos ħafna iktar x’isir.

Huwa għalhekk li l-għaqdiet ambjentali internazzjonali fil-waqt li huma sodisfatti li l-ftehim intlaħaq jenfasizzaw li dan għadu biss l-ewwel pass. Warajh iridu jiġu ħafna passi oħrajn li jekk ma jseħħux ma jintlaħaq xejn minn dak li ġie miftiehem.

Ma kienx faċli li jaslu sa hawn għax kienu diversi l-pajjiżi li baqgħu jkaxkru saqajhom, anke f’Pariġi. Pajjiżi bħall-Arabja Sawdita u l-Venezwela, produtturi ewlenin taż-żejt opponew kemm felħu. L-istess pajjiżi żviluppati argumentaw kontra l-prinċipju li jerfgħu l-piż tat-tniġġiż passat li wassal lid-dinja fil-posizzjoni diffiċli li tinsab fiha illum.

 

Jeħtieġ nifhmu li t-tibdil fil-klima diġa qiegħed magħna. Illum li (kif jgħidulna l-esperti) diġa qbiżna t-temperatura pre-industrijali bi 1oC u qed naraw b’għajnejna temp li qed jinbidel bin-natura tħarbat kull ma hawn madwarna.

Qed naraw xita li qed tonqos fil-frekwenza imma żżid fl-intensità, temperatura medja li qed togħla, silġ fil-poli u fuq il-muntanji li qed idub bil-konsegwenza li l-livelli tal-ibħra bdew jogħolew.

Diġa qed naraw b’għajnejna l-ħerba li qed tħalli warajha l-bidla fil-klima. Dan iżda għadu m’hu xejn ħdejn dak li jista’ jseħħ jekk il-pajjiżi kollha li nġabru u ftehmu f’Pariġi ma jwettqux dak li wegħdu. Għax l-effetti tal-bidla fil-klima huma serji ħafna.

Għalina f’Malta t-tibdil fil-klima jħalli impatt fuq saħħita, fuq l-ekonomija u anke bħala riżultat tal-għoli tal-livell tal-baħar il-kosta ta’ pajjiżna ukoll hi mhedda. Inżommu quddiem għajnejna li l-ogħli fil-livell tal-baħar jeffettwa l-faċilitajiet kollha kummerċjali u turistiċi li pajjiżna għandu mal-kosta, sviluppati tul is-snin bid-dedikazzjoni ta’ tant ġenerazzjonijiet li ġew qabilna.

Biex Malta tnaqqas il-kontribut tagħha lejn il-bdil fil-klima jeħtieġ li tkun inkoraġġita iżjed il-ġenerazzjoni ta’ enerġija alternattiva kif ukoll li jonqsu drastikament il-karozzi mit-toroq, permezz tal-użu ta’ mezzi differenti u alternattivi ta’ trasport u b’użu ikbar tat-trasport pubbliku. Hemm bżonn ukoll ta’ pjan fit-tul dwar kif tul is-snin ser innaqqsu l-emmissjonijiet mingħajr ma jkun hemm impatt negattiv fuq l-ekonomija. Dan jista’ jsir permezz ta’ dak li jissejjah Carbon Budget li jorbot lill-Gvern li jnaqqas id-dipendenza fuq iż-żjut billi jistabilixxi miri speċifiċi. Il-bidla li trid twassal għal tnaqqis tad-dipendenza fuq il-fjuwils fossili hija opportunità biex mhux biss nagħtu kontribut ikbar għat-tnaqqis tal-impatti fuq il-klima, imma ukoll biex ikollna arja nadifa, innaqqsu t-tniġġis u l-mard, kif ukoll biex nibnu ekonomija moderna li toffri sors ta’ għixien sostenibbli lin-nies.

Din hi l-unika triq.

pubblikat fuq iNews : it-Tnejn 14 ta’ Diċembru 2015

Malta’s Nine Ghost Towns

The 2005 Census had revealed that 53,136 residential units in Malta were vacant. This was an increase of 17,413 units over the 35,723 vacant residential units identified during the 1995 Census. Faced with an increase of over 48 per cent in 10 years, a responsible government would have contained the development boundaries as existing supply can satisfy the demand for residential accommodation for many years to come.

In 2006, just nine months after the 2005 Census, the Nationalist Party-led Government defied common sense and, instead of applying the brakes, it further increased the possibilities for building development through three specific decisions. Through the rationalisation process, the PN-led Government extended the boundaries of development in all localities. Then it facilitated the construction of penthouses by relaxing the applicable conditions. If this were not enough, it increased the height limitations in various localities, intensifying development in existing built-up areas.

As a result of increasing the permissible heights, sunlight was blocked off low-lying residential buildings in the affected areas.

These residences were using sunlight to heat water through solar water heaters or to generate electricity through photovoltaic panels installed on their rooftops.

They can now discard their investments in alternative energy thanks to the PN-led Government’s land use policies!

The result of these myopic land use planning policies further increased the number of vacant properties, which is estimated as being in excess of 70,000 vacant residential units. (Mepa chairman Austin Walker, in an interview in June 2010, had referred to an estimated 76,000 vacant residential properties.)

The estimated total of vacant residential properties is equivalent to nine times the size of the residential area of Birkirkara, the largest locality in Malta, which, in 2005, had 7,613 residential units.

These ghost towns over the years have gobbled up resources to develop or upgrade an infrastructure that is underutilised. Spread all over the Maltese islands, these ghost towns have required new roads, extending the drainage system, extending the utility networks and street lighting as well as various other services provided by local councils.

The funds channelled to service ghost towns could have been better utilised to upgrade the infrastructure in the existing localities over the years.

The above justifies calls for an urgent revision of development boundaries through a reversal of the 2006 rationalisation exercise where land included for development in 2006 is still uncommitted.

Similarly, the relaxation of height limitations and the facilitated possibility to construct penthouses should be reversed forthwith.

All this is clearly in conflict with the efforts being made by the Government itself, assisted with EU funds, to increase the uptake of solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels.

I am aware of specific cases where decisions to install photovoltaic panels have had to be reversed as a result of the development permitted on adjacent property subsequent to the 2006 height relaxation decisions.

In its electoral manifesto for the forthcoming election, AD, the Green party, will be proposing a moratorium on large-scale development in addition to the reversal of the above policies as it is unacceptable that the construction industry keeps gobbling up land and, as a result, adding to the stock of vacant property.

The market has been unable to deal with the situation and, consequently, the matter has to be dealt by a government that is capable of taking tough decisions in the national interest.

Neither the PN nor the Labour Party are capable of taking such decisions as it has been proven time and again that both of them are hostages to the construction industry.

The slowdown of the activities of the construction industry is the appropriate time to consider the parameters of its required restructuring. It is clear that the construction industry has to be aided by the State to retrain its employees in those areas of operation where lack of skills exist.

There are three such areas: traditional building trades, road construction and maintenance as well as marine engineering.

Traditional building skills are required primarily to facilitate rehabilitation works of our village cores and to properly maintain our historical heritage. Our roads require more properly-trained personnel so that standards of road construction and maintenance are improved and works carried out in time. Our ports and coastal defences require a well-planned maintenance programme and various other adaptation works as a result of the anticipated sea-level variations caused by climate change.

The construction industry employs about 11,000 persons. It is imperative that its restructuring is taken in hand immediately.

In addition to halting more environmental damage, a long overdue restructuring will also serve to mitigate the social impacts of the slowdown on the families of its employees through retraining for alternative jobs both in the construction industry itself and elsewhere.

The so-called ‘social policy’ of the PN and the PL have neglected these families for years on end.

 

published in The Times on 29 September 2012

A Green Vision – 50 years on

50 years ago Rachel Carson published her seminal book “Silent Spring”.

In 1962 Carson, a zoologist, argued that the use of pesticides had unintended consequences as whilst pesticides targeted pests they ended up affecting birds and their offspring. The result being a decrease in the bird population brought  about by intoxication as a consequence of the poisoning of the food chain.

Rachel Carson was the first person to give a popular voice to ecological concerns. In so doing she laid the foundations of environmentalism. It can be safely stated that her Silent Spring was the trigger of popular ecological awareness in the United States and Europe and to the consequential setting up of environmental NGOs as well as Green Political Parties.

Today’s generation is indebted to Rachel Carson for a powerful environmental movement in the four corners of the earth. We owe to her the popular awareness and understanding of nature’s fragility.

But obviously awareness and understanding is not sufficient. It must be our motivation to act. Planet Earth, fifty years after Silent Spring was published, is in a much worse state then ever. It has a temperature, it is warming up. Sea levels are rising. The climate is changing to one of less frequent but more intense storms which leave a trail of havoc in their path.

Water resources are declining.

Waste is not sufficiently understood as an underutilised resource.

The sea has also been heavily polluted and its resources plundered.

Consider the following observation made by Callum Roberts oceanographer at York University.

“The seas are the ultimate sinks. Chemicals get washed out of the soil and into streams and rivers. They should settle on the sea bed and stay there. However, fishing has become so intense, with boats dredging up scallops and bottom-welling  fish all the time, that we are constantly ploughing up these toxins, including DDT, and stirring them back into the water.”

The environment movement was born 50 years ago to make a difference. It was born out of a love for nature but is not restricted or limited to nature.  It has set out to implement  a green revolution : bettering our quality of life and as a result bequeathing a planet earth in a better state of health to future generations.

 

published on di-ve.com on 14 September 2012

The chihuahua that roared

During the Cancún Climate Summit Bolivian President Evo Morales emphasised that “nature has rights”. He insisted on a 1°C rise above the pre-industrial-age temperature as the maximum permissible.

Stripped of his trademark anti-US remarks the Morales input at Cancún would not have led to any radically different conclusions at the summit. Who can dispute his declaration in favour of families already deprived of water because of drought, or islanders facing the loss of their homes and possessions as a result of rising sea levels? His plea was one to buttress arguments in favour of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Realistically, however, there was never a chance of this being accepted.

Participants at Cancún opted instead for declarations which though very important as a political statement served to postpone decisions to the Durban Climate Summit towards the end of this year. It is this postponement which led to the Morales outburst equating lack of definite action with “ecocide which is equivalent to genocide because this would be an affront to mankind as a whole”.

Cancún went one step further from the declarations of the past. Agreement in principle was reached on the need for inspections in order to account for commitments made. As to who will eventually carry out the monitoring, reporting and verification this is still to be determined. Maybe this will be concluded at Durban later this year on the basis of the agreement in principle sealed at Cancún.

Climate change diplomacy is moving although at a very slow pace.

In the words of BBC Cancún correspondent Richard Black one can compare the 2009 Copenhagen summit to a Great Dane which whimpered while the Cancún 2010 summit can be compared to a chihuahua which roared. Much was expected from Copenhagen but little tangible results were achieved. On the other hand while there were no great expectations from the Cancún summit, foundations for a comprehensive settlement in the future were laid. Whether this will be achieved at Durban or possibly later is still to be seen.

At Cancún pledges by countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions were formalised. Developing countries for the first time agreed to look into possible cuts in their own emissions. They made no formal pledges yet they moved one step forward towards a more reasonable application of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle in climate change diplomacy.

Countries represented at Cancún gave formal backing to the UN’s deforestation scheme REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). As a result of REDD rich countries will pay poor countries not to chop down forests on their territory. This will compensate them for their lost income and further encourage the production and use of sustainable timber. The developed countries will thus be paying for protecting biodiversity as well as for the service which forests are rendering as carbon sinks. Details of the REDD scheme have still to be worked out. Maybe by the Durban Climate Summit these will be settled.

The Cancún agreement has acknowledged for the first time in a UN document that global warming must not exceed pre-industrial temperatures by more than 2°C. While being a big step forward, this is clearly not enough. In fact exceeding pre-industrial temperatures by more than 1.5°C endangers the very existence of a number of islands as well as low-lying coastal areas.

Small island states and coastal areas are already feeling the impacts of climate change: millions reside and earn their livelihood in such areas. If temperature rises are not contained within the said 1.5°C increase these millions risk becoming climate change refugees.

The first climate change refugees have already left their homeland. Those displaced by sea level changes have already left the Carteret Islands and Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean.

Drought has been playing havoc with the lives of various African nations resulting in escalating tribal conflicts which have displaced millions of human beings. In Malta we have direct experience of this through the boat refugees departing from Libyan shores, a number of whom end up in Malta.

Depending on the actual rise above pre-industrial temperatures, current projections indicate that in the long term more than one billion human beings could face losing their homes and possessions in islands and coastal areas as a result of sea level rise. Millions more will be displaced as a result of the impacts of changing weather patterns. Availability of water will change as a result of a varying frequency and intensity of rainfall. As a result this will impact agriculture, sanitation and the quality of life in the areas affected.

Mr Morales is right. Nature has rights. It will strike back in defence of these rights if current greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced substantially. Maybe the roaring chihuahua will alert policy makers around the globe that there is no alternative to substantial reductions across the board.

 

Published in The Times of Malta : January 1, 2011