No Compromise with Nature


published on December 19, 2009

by Carmel Cacopardo


At the time of writing negotiators at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference are still wrangling. The bone of contention is that the developed world has already used up the planet’s capacity to absorb emissions through past industrial activity whilst the developing countries as well as the emerging economies are demanding their fair share. This, they maintain, could be achieved through adequate funding as well as monitoring of binding emission targets. It is estimated that business as usual will lead to a global temperature increase of around six degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Researchers maintain that in order to minimise required adaptation measures it is imperative to restrict a temperature increase to not more than two degrees. Island states consider that any increase above 1.5 degrees would be catastrophic. The Maldives, Tuvalu and Fiji have been vociferous in their campaigning for drastic emission cuts by all states in the short term. They risk being submerged. In Africa, countries are already shouldering drought and the resulting famine due to a collapse of agriculture. Faced with these problems many seek to move elsewhere away from nature’s wrath. Malta’s problem of illegal immigration is a direct result of these impacts of climate change on the African Continent. Mitigation through the reduction of carbon emissions is not a switch which can be put on or off at ease. It is, in part, the result of a carefully planned shift away from a carbon economy. There is a substantial financial cost related to such a transition. Alternatively as demonstrated in the Stern Report, the financial, ecological and human costs will be substantially higher. Malta is committed to mitigation measures decided within an EU framework. These currently entail a reduction of carbon emissions by 20 per cent on the basis of 1990 emission levels and the sourcing of 10 per cent of energy needs from sustainable alternatives by 2020. Government has been moving very slowly and it is still not clear whether targets will be achieved. The mitigation measures implemented by the global community will determine the intensity of the climate changes that Malta will have to face together with the rest of the international community. Malta’s vulnerability is substantial and comparable to that faced by the Pacific and Caribbean islands. If mitigation measures implemented are not substantial the temperature rise will be closer to six degrees. This will mean more drastic impacts as a result of higher sea level rises, reduced rainfall, as well as more intense storms. Malta’s adaptation measures will be dependent on the extent to which the international community implements the mitigation measures agreed to. So far the assumption has been that the international community would come to its senses and agree to measures which restrict a temperature rise to not more than two degrees Celsius. This requires a 40 per cent global carbon emission cut by 2020. Yet commitments made to date are insufficient. The resulting sea level rise could be substantial: around two metres by the end of this century. This will affect coastal facilities, low lying residential areas as well as the water table. It may also affect the extent of Malta’s rights over the surrounding sea in view of the fact that these rights are determined on the basis of a distance from the coastline. A receding coastline may affect territorial waters, fishing rights as well as the economic zone (including oil exploration rights). A rising sea level will affect most of Malta’s tourism facilities as well as the commercial infrastructure in our ports. These will as a result, either be closer to or else below sea level. Malta’s beaches such as Għadira, Għajn Tuffieħa and Pretty Bay will be below sea level whilst some low-lying residential areas may have to be abandoned. The water table will be affected by a rise in sea level through an increase in its salinity. Coupled with the mismanagement of water resources in past years, climate change will lead to a situation where ground water in Malta will not be usable if not subject to substantial, costly and energy intensive treatment. This will hasten the collapse of agriculture which is dependent on the direct use of water extracted from the water table. It will also increase exponentially the cost of water used for consumption and industrial purposes. Consideration of the impacts of climate change should thus lead us to consider whether the Maltese islands will still be capable of supporting a population of 400,000. Misuse of nature’s resources in the past coupled with the foreseeable impacts of climate change lead to the inevitable conclusion that in the not too distant future it will be difficult to support human life on these islands. Resistance to change over the years signifies that environmental problems faced by Malta have increased. Nature does not compromise. Deferring action will condemn millions (including Maltese) to immeasurable suffering.

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.