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

Tibdil tal-klima: miżuri li jeħtieġ li jkunu ġusti

Huwa essenzjali li nilħqu l-mira ta’ emissjonijiet żero tal-karbonju (carbon neutrality). Ilu żmien ovvju li ekonomija dipendenti fuq iż-żjut mhiex waħda sostenibbli. Il-Konvenzjoni tal-Ġnus Magħquda dwar it-Tibdil fil-Klima, fis-summit ta’ Pariġi, fl-2015, kienet fasslet pjan dwar it-triq meħtieġa biex nintlaħqu miri li jħarsu l-klima. Jekk ma nimxux ma’ dan il-pjan, il-futur ifisser biss gwaj.

It-tibdil fil-klima diġa qiegħed magħna.  Madanakollu, l-impatti fuqna jistgħu jkunu ferm agħar minn dak li għaddej bħalissa: temperaturi estremi, nixfa’ kbira f’xi reġjuni u għargħar f’oħrajn. Id-diżastri qed iseħħu quddiem għajnejna kuljum. Il-qagħda għad trid teħżien bosta, qabel ma l-affarijiet (forsi) jaqilbu għall-aħjar.

It-temperatura medja fuq livell globali qed tiżdied. It-temperatura imkejla tvarja minn reġjun għall-ieħor. Fil-Mediterranean, studji riċenti qed jindikaw li qegħdin viċin li naqbżu żieda ta’ grad u nofs Celsius fuq it-temperatura pre-industrijali. L-impatti ta’ dan diġa qed inħossuhom.

Bħala stat gżira, Malta messa li hi fuq quddiem fid-dibattitu globali dwar it-tibdil fil-klima.  Sfortunatament, pajjiżna hu fost dawk il-pajjiżi li kontinwament ikaxkru saqajhom biex jevitaw jew inaqqsu l-azzjoni meħtieġa da parti tagħhom. Il-fatt li aħna żgħar ma jeżentaniex mir-responsabbiltà tagħna lejn il-futur.

Fost l-eżempji ta’ dan hemm ir-resistenza, tul is-snin, biex nagħtu importanza lill-ġenerazzjoni ta’ enerġija rinovabbli flimkien mat-tkaxkir tas-saqajn għall-proċess tal-elettrifikazzjoni tat-trasport.  

Ilkoll niftakru l-insistenza tal-Gvernijiet Maltin mal-Kummissjoni Ewropeja biex il-miri ta’ Malta dwar l-enerġija rinovabbli ma jkunux l-20 fil-mija iffissati mill-Kummissjoni imma jinżlu għal 10 fil-mija tal-enerġija totali ġġenerata.  Bl-istess mod, minkejja li fl-2017 saret dikjarazzjoni politika mill-Gvern favur l-elettrifikazzjoni tat-trasport, wara 4 snin għadna bla pjan u miri ċari. Il-bidla issa ser ikollha isseħħ b’ritmu mgħaġġel u ftit li xejn jidher li bħala pajjiż aħna ippreparati għaliha.

L-Unjoni Ewropeja għadha kemm żvelat pjan bi proposti biex l-emissjonijiet serra jitnaqqsu b’55 fil-mija meta mqabbel ma dawk tal-1990. Dan għandu jseħħ sal-2030, u dan bħala mira intermedja fit-triq lejn emmissjonijiet żero tal-karbonju (carbon neutrality) sas-sena 2050.

Waħda mill-proposti li qed issir hi li l-enerġija minn sorsi rinovabbli ġġenerata fl-Unjoni Ewropeja tkun ta’ 40 fil-mija mill-enerġija kollha użata. Dan ikun ifisser li fi żmien 9 snin Malta jkun jeħtieġilha li timmultiplika b’erbgħa l-enerġija rinovabbli li niġġeneraw fil-pajjiż. Din ser tkun mira iebsa, iktar u iktar meta tieħu kont tal-fatt li tul is-snin il-pajjiż dejjem ipprova jiżloq mill-obbligi tiegħu f’dan il-qasam.

Proposta oħra tal-Unjoni Ewropeja hi li sal-2035 ma jidħlux iktar fis-suq karozzi li jaħdmu bid-dijsil u l-petrol. Din mira li ser ikun meħtieġ li nilħquha fi żmien 14-il sena. Lokalment din mhi ser issolvi xejn jekk ma tkunx imżewġa ma miżuri biex jonqsu l-karozzi mit-toroq.

Proposta oħra tal-Kummissjoni Ewropeja hi dwar l-introduzzjoni ta’ taxxa fuq il-fjuwil użat milll-vapuri kif ukoll dak użat fl-avjazzjoni. Din il-proposta bla dubju jkollha impatt mhux żgħir fuq il-gżejjer u l-istati periferali Ewropej. Hi proposta li hi motivata mill-fatt li l-Ewropa kontinentali hi moqdija iktar bil-ferrovija, ġeneralment effiċjenti u li hu meqjus li tħalli impatti ambjentali ferm inqas mill-ajruplani.

Bi proposta ta’ din ix-xorta it-turiżmu jintlaqat sewwa. Kemm tkun kbira d-daqqa jiddependi minn kemm tkun kbira taxxa ta’ din ix-xorta.  Malta, il-Greċja u Ċipru diġa qed jgħidu li ma jaqblux ma dan!

Kemm is-settur tal-avjazzjoni kif ukoll dak marittimu huma kontributuri sinifikanti ta’ emissjonijiet serra. Sal-lum dawn iż-żewġ setturi evitaw  li jkunu nklużi fil-miżuri biex inkun mħarsa mit-tibdil fil-klima minħabba lobbying qawwi. Il-proposti tal-Unjoni Ewropeja jekk jidħlu fis-seħħ jibdlu din is-sitwazzjioni, dejjem sakemm il-lobbying jinżamm taħt kontroll!

Uħud diġa iddeskrivew dawn il-proposti (u oħrajn) tal-Unjoni Ewropeja bħala suwiċidju politiku u dan minħabba li l-impatti konsiderevoli tagħhom jistgħu jkunu l-kawża ta’ nkwiet soċjali qalil. Li nilħqu l-mira ta’ emissjoni żero tal-karbonju hu essenzjali imma rridu nkunu konxji li l-impatti tal-miżuri meħtieġa inevitabilment ser iweġġgħu bosta bihom.  Id-diskussjoni meħtieġa trid tassigura li waqt li jittieħdu d-deċiżjonijiet meħtieġa bla iktar dewmien, il-vulnerabbli, inkluż dawk bla mezzi jew b’mezzi limitati, għandhom ikunu mħarsa  milli jkunu huma li jħallsu għall-ispiża akkumulata minħabba nuqqas ta’ azzjoni għal snin kbar.

L-ikbar sfida ghal dan il-Patt Aħdar hi li l-bidla meħtieġa teħtieġ li tkun waħda li issir b’ġustizzja. It-trasformazzjoni ekoloġika teħtieġ li tkun soċjalment ġusta. Dan tagħmlu billi tpoġġi lin-nies mhux il-kapital jew il-profitti bħala l-konsiderazzjoni ċentrali tagħha. Il-bidla, iżda trid isseħħ illum qabel għada. Iktar ma ndumu nkaxkru saqajna, iktar ikun għoli l-prezz li jkollna nħallsu.

ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 18 ta’ Lulju 2021

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

Min jitwieled tond, ma jmutx kwadru

Uħud ma kienux qed jistennew li Malta tiżdied fuq il-lista l-griża tal-Financial Action Task Force (FATF).  Il-kitba, iżda, ilha fuq il-ħajt għal bosta żmien. Sfortunatament il-linġwaġġ tal-governanza tajba ma jinftiehemx minn kulħadd. B’mod partikolari, min l-unika valur li jifhem fih hu dak tal-flus, ftit li xejn ser jifhem u jagħti kaz.  

Uħud donnhom jgħixu kontinwament fid-dellijiet. Donnhom jippreferu li jinsatru fid-dell tal-kważi anonimità. It-taħwid f’dan it-tip ta’ ambjent hu ferm iktar faċli.

Skond rapporti fil-media, l-awditur intern tal-Awtorità tal-Artijiet,  Charlene Muscat, qed tingħata l-ġemb u ġiet miżmuma milli taqdi r-responsibbiltajiet tagħha. Qed jingħad li dan ilu jseħħ numru ta’ xhur.  Wara li ħejjiet rapport kritiku dwar ħidmet l-Awtorità tal-Artijiet issa ser tispiċċa trasferita x’imkien ieħor fis-servizz pubbliku.  

Charlene Muscat, li kienet ġurnalista mal-One kif ukoll hi ex-Sindku Laburista tal-Imqabba kienet impjegata biex tiffaċilita l-governanza tajba fl-Awtorità tal-Artijiet u dan billi tagħmel il-verifiki interni ta’ ħidmet l-awtorità.  Ġiet miżmuma milli tagħmel xogħolha billi, fost oħrajn ma tħallietx tattendi laqgħat tal-Bord u nżammilha aċċess għall-files meħtieġa biex tagħmel xogħolha. Fi ftit kliem xi ħadd iddeċieda li xogħol l-awditur intern ma kienx iktar meħtieġ. Nifhem dan xi jfisser għax dan għaddejt minnu jiena ukoll f’ċirkustanzi oħra xi żmien ilu.

Dan hu eżempju ieħor ta’ Gvern li jgħid ħaġa u jagħmel oħra: jikkuntrasta ma dak kollu li ntqal dwar il-posizzjoni ta’ Malta fuq il-lista l-griża tal-FATF. Il-Prim Ministru Robert Abela ilu jxerred id-dmugħ tal-kukkudrilli dwar kemm Malta ġiet ittrattata ħażin meta tqegħdet fuq din il-lista l-griża, għax ma ħaqqiex hekk. Imbagħad, fl-istess ħin il-Gvern tiegħu stess jirresisti proċessi ta’ verifika trasparenti, tant essenzjali biex tkun assigurata governanza tajba.  Mingħajr  governanza tajba, trasparenza u kontabilità, ftit hemm ċans li neħilsu minn posizzjoni fuq il-lista l-griża!

L-Awtorità tal-Artijiet twaqqfet ftit wara li tfaċċa l-iskandlu Gaffarena, bħala rimedju għat-taħwid li kien tfaċċa dakinnhar. Għad hemm lok għal bosta spjegazzjonijiet anke dwar dan, għax il-ħolqien tal-Awtorità jidher li ma solviet xejn, għax min jitwieled tond, ma jmutx kwadru.

Dak li kien CEO tal-Awtorità tal-Artijiet, James Piscopo, kien warrab mill-kariga tiegħu ftit inqas minn sena ilu. Il-kuntratt tiegħu ma kienx ġie mġedded, u dan meta bdew jissemmew numru ta’ allegazzjonijiet serji fil-konfront tiegħu.  Kien intqal li t-taqsima tar-reati ekonomiċi fil-korp tal-Pulizija kienet qed tinvestiga numru ta’ transazzjonijiet offshore. Investigazzjoni kumplessa li jekk u meta tkun konkluża setgħet possibilment titfa’ dawl fuq  bosta ħwejjeġ. Dak li kien skrivan mal-Air Malta għad hemm bosta ħwejjeġ x’jispjega!

Iil-qarrejja bla dubju jiftakru x’għadda bejn is-sidien tal-Lukanda Fortina u l-Awtorità tal-Artijiet. Kif art pubblika li oriġinalment ngħatat b’kundizzjonijiet favorevoli għat-turiżmu spiċċat tiġi sviluppata b’mod spekulattiv għal ufiċċini u appartamenti. Żvilupp li qed iwassal għal qliegħ ta’ miljuni, a spejjes tal-kaxxa ta’ Malta. S’issa għad mhux ċar kif dan seħħ u min kien responsabbli biex ippermettieħ. L-Awtorità tal-Artijiet għad trid tispjega x’ġara eżattament.

Fid-dell, kważi mistura, hemm numru ta’ interessi kummerċjali marbutin flimkien. Interessi li nifhem li bdew ifeġġu fuq l-iskrijn tal-komputer ta’ dik li kienet l-awditur intern tal-Awtorità tal-Artijiet. L-ispjegazzjonijiet iżda qatt ma ngħataw.

Meta nħolqot l-Awtorità tal-Artijiet, flok dak li kien id-Dipartiment tal-Artijiet, kien intqal b’ħafna pompa li ser tiddaħħal iktar serjetà fl-amministrazzjoni tal-art pubblika. Ma kienx ser ikollna iktar “King tal-Lands”, għax kollox kien ser jgħaddi f’idejn ir-Repubblika!  Fir-rapporti annwali tal-Awtorità tal-Artijiet hu emfasizzat li din hi mibnija fuq prinċipji sodi: fuq sens ta’ ġustizzja, kontabilità u trasparenza. Probabbilment li dik li kienet awditur intern ma taqbel xejn ma dan!  

ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 4 ta’ Lulju 2021

Old habits die hard

Malta’s grey-listing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) may have caught some on the wrong foot.  The writing, however, has been on the wall for some time. The language of good governance does not have any meaning or significance to those who appreciate values only within the context of the skills required to handle a bank account.

Unfortunately, lurking in shadowy grey areas has been a favourite past-time for some, where they consider themselves as being quite at home.

According to reports in the media, the Internal Auditor at the Lands Authority, Charlene Muscat, has been side-lined, prevented from carrying out her duties and responsibilities for a number of months. She is now being redeployed elsewhere in the civil service. This follows her critical report on the Lands Authority.

Charlene Muscat, a former One TV reporter and former Labour Mayor of Mqabba was employed in order to ensure that proper internal checks and balances are in place thereby facilitating good governance at the Lands Authority. She has been obstructed from doing her work properly by being prevented from attending board meetings, and from having access to files. In a few words, someone, somewhere made sure that the Internal Auditor is rendered useless and ineffective. I have a personal understanding of what this means and feels, having been through it myself elsewhere.

This is another example of the double-talk of government and comes hot on the heels of the FATF grey listing. The Prime Minister Robert Abela whines and whinges about Malta’s grey-listing by the FATF, shedding many crocodile tears in the process. However, at the same time, his own government actively resists the implementation of transparent internal auditing processes, a basic prerequisite for good governance. Without good governance, transparency and accountability we will never get rid of grey-listing.

Set up in the wake of the Gaffarena scandal, the Lands Authority has quite a lot of pending explanations, as apparently, old habits die hard!

Former Lands Authority Chief Executive James Piscopo stepped down from his role less than a year ago after his contract was not renewed in the wake of a number of serious allegations in his regard.  The economic crimes unit is apparently still investigating a number of offshore transactions of the former Air Malta purchasing clerk: a complex investigation which, once concluded, could possibly join a lot of dots, as a result placing more grey areas under the spotlight.

Readers may remember the dealings of the Fortina Hotel owners with the Lands Authority as a result of which public land made available to the Fortina developers in the past for tourism purposes is currently being redeveloped partly as offices and apartments. It is not so far clear as to who and how made it possible for subsidised public land to be available for speculation. A very grey area which the Lands Authority has a duty to be very transparent about.

In the grey shadows there are a number of interlocking commercial interests which I presume time and again appear on the computer screens of the Lands Authority internal auditor. Explanations have not been forthcoming yet.

When the Lands Authority was created, rising from the ashes of the former Lands Department, it was depicted as the long-awaited solution to the opaque internal secretive dealings involving land in public ownership. The Lands Authority would no longer have a king. Now it ought to be part of the republic! Its annual reports emphasise that it has a corporate philosophy grounded in the values of fairness, accountability and transparency. Really? The (former) internal auditor is definitely not convinced about that!

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 4 July 2021

Tourism planning needs tuning in to reality

A ten-year tourism strategy entitled Recover, Rethink, Revitalise has been published for consultation. It is a strategy which advocates an improvement in quality but does not seek to address the oversupply of bed-stock.

During summer of 2019, Tony Zahra, President of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) had sounded the alarm: he was reported as saying that the number of tourists visiting Malta was too high. He emphasised that it was substantially exceeding the limits of what the country can take sustainably. Tony Zahra was obviously emphasising the interest of the lobby group which he heads: the hotel industry.

The proposed tourism strategy advocates a return to the pre-Covid19 tourism levels, albeit recognising that this will be difficult to achieve as well as accepting that it will take quite some time to be achieved, if at all. Searching through the tourism strategy document for the terms agri-tourism and eco-tourism yields a zero-return indicating that the document is more of a post-Covid hotel industry roadmap than a tourism strategy.

The strategy indicates that the best scenario forecasts until 2030 suggest an increase from the 2019 2.75 million tourists to between 3 and 3.2 million tourists which would generate an average 21 million overnight stays annually. The strategy goes on to state that on the basis of existing and in the pipeline licenced bed-stock this equates to an unprofitable 57.5 per cent occupancy rate. The unlicenced bed stock further dilutes occupancy rates closer to 50 per cent, we are informed by the strategy document.

This does not point towards a potential recovery but more that the tourism industry, is, in this critical period shackled by the land development free-for-all advocated by land use planning policies over the past years. Specifically, this has been done through the continuous tinkering with the height limitation adjustment policy for hotels as well as the haphazard application of flexibility in day-to-day land use planning.

This in no way translates into a quality improvement!

The decadent land use planning process has infected tourism planning too. No wonder that the former Chief Executive of the Planning Authority is now the CEO of the Malta Tourism Authority. It is poetic justice that he should be responsible for cleaning the mess to which he substantially contributed to!

Where do we go from here?

The authors of the tourism strategy are aware that there are other possible solutions but they shoot them down. These last months were an opportunity to re-examine the fundamental role of tourism within the overall socio-economic context of the Maltese islands. The Covid19 pandemic has resulted in a reduced movement of people, a less hectic lifestyle, reduced emissions and the reduction of other negative elements for which tourism is usually singled out as a major contributor. 

Contrary to what the proposed tourism strategy opines, it is not simplistic to seriously consider the need to reset the industry. A lower level of tourism activity would prove beneficial to the destination by making it less busy and less crowded to the benefit of both the local resident population and visitor satisfaction. Obviously, it would reduce the tourism contribution to the national economy, but it would also reduce the substantial costs which planners tend to ignore or else to shift onto other sectors! Costs are not just measured in financial terms but also in terms of environmental and social impacts.  

Some months ago, I had written about turistofobia, a term coined by Catalan anthropologist Manoel Delgado, indicating a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists and tourism. The social discontent associated with the pressures linked to tourism growth cannot be ignored any further.

Among the issues contributing to this developing tourist phobia are social discomfort, environmental degradation (including both generation of waste and excessive construction activity), traffic congestion, noise, the loss of cultural identity and socio-cultural clashes.

The post-Covid19 recovery is a unique opportunity for tourism planners to take note of and tune in to reality.  Unfortunately, the proposed strategy sidesteps the real issues.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 31 January 2021

Writing off future generations

Our actions today are a first draft in designing the future. They are tomorrow’s blueprint. Our future as well as that of future generations.

The ice sheets are melting at a faster rate than ever before. The resulting sea-level rise will obliterate coastal settlements around the globe. Even the Maltese islands will be impacted by a sea-level rise, irrespective of its magnitude. The larger the sea-level rise the more severe the impacts.

On a global level the sea is rising around 3 millimetres per annum. This varies with region. This variation may be insignificant to the naked eye and as result many would not even notice it.

No one can state with certainty as to how much the sea level will eventually rise. It is however clear to the scientific community that an increase in the mean global temperature is a major contributor. Islands and coastal communities all around the world will bear the brunt of this sea-level rise.

In the Pacific Ocean the sea has risen at a rate of three times the global average. A number of low-lying islands have already disappeared below the sea.  In the Indian Ocean, The Maldives, a major touristic destination, risks losing 77 per cent of its land with a 50-centimetre sea-level rise. It will completely disappear if the sea level rises to a metre or more.  

There is a time lag between our actions and sea-level rise such that we can substantially decrease sea-level rise in the future if we act appropriately now.

This is the reason underlying the EU’s policy of carbon neutrality, that is taking steps to ensure that net carbon emissions are reduced to zero by 2050, preferably earlier.

The Mediterranean Sea is a hotspot of climate change. Mediterranean experts on climate and environmental change within the framework of the UNEP Mediterranean Action Plan have drawn up a report entitled “Risks associated to climate and environmental changes in the Mediterranean Region”. This report points at the enormous challenges facing the Mediterranean due to the projected rising temperature in the region.

Without policy change it is estimated that the Mediterranean Region will, on average, be 2.2 degrees warmer in 2040 than it is today. This will have a considerable impact on water resources, agricultural production and health, amongst other issues. By 2100 without meaningful policy change this could lead to a one metre rise in sea level impacting severely the coastal communities in the Mediterranean.

The tourism industry, with most of its facilities situated along the coastline, will be obliterated. The impacts of climate change will be so severe that Covid-19 impacts will seem to be child’s play in comparison.

All over the world governments have been reluctant to act and take definite action on climate change to limit the potential temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and definitely to not more than 2 degrees Celsius. The commitments made at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 are a welcome first step, but they are certainly not enough.

It has been estimated that if all commitments made in Paris are adhered to, we would still be on track to hit a temperature increase in excess of the two-degree limit. This would lead to a global disaster.

The first to bear the brunt will be islands all around the globe followed closely by low-lying coastal areas. This is the reason for island states being so vociferous in Climate Change fora, insisting for more action. It is unfortunate that Malta’s voice is not sufficiently heard in such fora. It is about time that we get our priorities right. Our relative silence is writing off future generations in the Mediterranean.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 3 January 2021

Niftħu l-iskejjel ftit ftit

Il-messaġġi konfliġġenti fil-bidu tas-sajf minn politiċi fis-sens li l-Covid-19 kien taħt kontroll huma in parti responsabbli għall-qagħda attwali. Kien in partikolari l-Prim Ministru flimkien mal-Ministru tat-Turiżmu li pubblikament emfasizzaw li issa li l-pandemija kienet taħt kontroll stajna ingawdu is-sajf!

Kienet din l-attitudni irresponsabbli li wasslet biex ġew rilassati b’mod mgħaġġel ir-restrizzjonijiet marbuta mal-Covid-19 meta s-sens komun kien jitlob pass iktar kawt.

Nifhem li l-operaturi ekonomiċi li kienu qed iġorru l-piz kienu kontinwament isusu wara l-awtoritajiet tat-turiżmu. Imma meta l-Gvern ċeda bagħat l-agħar messaġġ possibli: li r-restrizzjonijiet ma kienux meħtieġa. Meta l-Prim Ministru mbagħad ħafer il-multi li weħlu dawk li abbużaw u kisru l-kundizzjonijiet tal-kwarantina u restrizzjonijiet oħra, għaxxaqha!

Din hi s-sitwazzjoni attwali: fi tmiem is-sajf ir-rata tal-infezzjonijiet tal-Covid-19 hi sfortunatament l-ogħla s’issa f’Malta. Il-106 każ ta’ Covid-19 li irriżultaw nhar l-Erbgħa huma bozza ħamra li qed  itteptep u tgħidilna li l-kontrolli li għanda illum mhux adegwati. Hemm ħtieġa ta’ infurzar aħjar.  

L-ekonomija qalgħet daqqa ta’  ħarta għalkemm is-sussidji u l-għajnuniet li ħareġ il-Gvern bla dubju naqqsu l-impatt tad-daqqa. 

Il-mixja lura lejn in-normalità mhiex waħda faċli. Mhux ser isseħħ mil-lum għal għada. Teħtieġ il-paċenzja min-naħa ta’ kulħadd. Teħtieġ ukoll sens ta’ responsabbiltà billi nsegwu l-prewkazzjonijiet kollha neċessarji, fosthom li nilbsu l-maskri protettivi, mhux biss biex nipproteġu lilna nfusna imma fuq kollox biex nipproteġu lill-oħrajn.

L-argument bħalissa huwa jekk l-iskejjel għandhomx jiftħu jew le. Fin-nofs hemm l-interess tal-edukazzjoni tal-istudenti, il-ħtiega tal-genituri li jaħdmu u s-saħħa kulħadd: fuq quddiem nett dik tal-istudenti kif ukoll tal-għalliema kif ukoll ta’ dawk kollha nvoluti fl-amministrazzjoni tal-iskejjel u tal-istituzzjonijiet edukattivi.

Hemm ħafna argumenti validi għax l-iskejjel u l-istituzzjonijiet edukattivi għandhom jiftħu. Dan minkejja li l-protokolli dwar l-imġieba meħtieġa damu ma ħarġu b’mod li kabbru l-inċertezza ta’ kulħadd.

L-ewwel u qabel kollox hu fl-interess tal-istudenti, kbar u żgħar, li l-istituzzjonijiet edukattivi jerġgħu jiftħu l-bibien tagħhom. Hemm limitu dwar kemm jista’ jsir tagħlim effettiv b’mod virtwali. It-tagħlim b’mod elettroniku bla dubju jista’ jgħin – hu għodda tajba – imma qatt ma jista’ jissostitwixxi l-kuntatt dirett bejn l-għalliema u l-studenti b’mod partikolari ta’ dawk li għadhom fl-istadji inizzjali tat-tagħlim. F’numru ta’ każi ta’ studenti vulnerabbli l-kuntatt dirett bejn l-għalliem u l-istudent hu l-unika mezz ta’ tagħlim effettiv. Dawn huma fost l-iktar li batew bl-għeluq komplet tal-iskejjel u l-istituzzjonijiet edukattivi. Il-ħsara li saritilhom mhux faċli li tkun rimedjata. Bħala riżultat tal-għeluq tal-iskejjel, effett dirett tal-Covid-19, hemm numru ta’ tfal li qegħdin fil-periklu li jintilfu għal kollox għas-sistema edukattiva!

L-iskejjel jeħtieġ li jiftħu ukoll għax il-genituri jeħtieġ li huma ukoll imorru għax-xogħol. L-għeluq tal-iskejjel qed iżżomm numru ta’ ġenituri milli jmorru lura għax-xogħol għax inkella ma jibqa’ ħadd biex jieħu ħsieb l-ulied. Niftakru li issa anke in-nanniet huma out of action għax huma fost il-vulnerabbli! Mhuwiex raġjonevoli li nistennew li f’dan il-mument kritiku jerfgħu l-piż in-nanniet, b’periklu għal saħħithom. Fost dawk li qalgħu daqqa kbira bl-egħluq tal-iskejjel hemm il-familji b’genitur wieħed: dawn qed jissograw l-impieg tagħhom ferm iktar minn ħaddieħor.

Mhux kull xogħol hu possibli li jsir bit-telework! Fejn hu possibli dan għandu jibqa’ jsir. Imma kif nafu ilkoll dan mhux possibli dejjem.

Fid-dawl tal-ispluzjoni ta’ każi tal-Covid-19 naħseb li minkejja l-ħtieġa li l-iskejjel jiftħu, m’huwiex prattiku li dawn jiftħu kompletament u dan biex jonqos ir-riskju tal-imxija tal-Covid-19. Huwa l-każ li nesploraw li minflok ma jiftħu kompletament l-iskejjel jiftħu bil-mod biex jerġgħu jibdew jistabilixxu kuntatt (anke jekk wieħed minimu) mal-istudenti u jkun possibli li tkun imħarsa is-saħħa ta’ kulħadd.

Is-soluzzjoni hi li nimxu b’mod gradwali, bil-mod, pass pass. L-istudenti vulnerabbli u dawk fl-etajiet li għandhom dipendenti mill-għalliema għandhom ikunu minn tal-ewwel li jerġgħu jibdew l-iskola għax huma l-iktar li għandhom bżonn!

Dan hu l-unika mod li bih nistgħu naslu. Aħjar pass żgħir il-quddiem, b’kuntatt minimu flok bil-bibien magħluqin.

ippubblikat fuq Illum: il-Ħadd 20 ta’ Settembru 2020

Covid detection and school opening

The conflicting messages in early summer issued by Maltese holders of political office that Covid-19 was under control are partly responsible for the current state of play. Specifically, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Tourism are on record as having publicly stated that matters were under control and that we could now “enjoy summer”.

It is this irresponsible attitude that led to the fast track relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions when a more common-sense approach would have indicated a much slower pace.

One does understand that the economic operators feeling the pinch were lobbying continuously the Tourism authorities. However, when government gave way, it sent the worst possible message: that the restrictions were not required. When the Prime Minister announced an amnesty relative to  fines imposed, he made matters worse.

This is the current state of play: at the end of summer the rate of Covid-19 infections is unfortunately the highest ever in the Maltese islands. The 106 cases identified on Wednesday is a red light warning us that controls in place are not adequate. They need to be tightened up and enforced.

As a result of the Covid-19 restrictions the economy has contracted. The government subsidies and handouts helped substantially to reduce the negative impacts.

The road back to “some version of normal” will be slow and painful. It will definitely take a considerable time, depending on the sector under consideration. It requires caution, patience and a sense of responsibility.

The current Covid-19 agenda is considering whether and when it will be possible to re-open our educational institutions.  This is primarily in the interests of our students as well as of parents whose painfully constructed work/life balance has been destabilised. It is also in the interest of protecting everyone’s health: that of students, teachers, as well as those responsible for the administration of the educational institutions.

There are a multitude of valid arguments as to why all educational institutions should re-open the soonest even though the state authorities were very late in issuing the behaviour protocols, further fuelling unnecessary uncertainty.

It is first and foremost in the interest of most students, young and old, that formal education gets going the soonest. Online learning, while being useful and having many merits, is no substitute for direct face to face contact between student and teacher, especially in the initial stages of education.

In the case of vulnerable students direct contact with the educator is essential. These are the Covid-19 education victims: their future, already in the fringes, has been severely damaged. There is a real risk of the system losing track of them completely thereby impairing severely their future.

Opening schools is also in the interest of working parents. Their active involvement at their place of work is being hampered as long as schools remain closed. Where can they leave their children? Grandparents are out of the question as they are vulnerable too!  Single parents are definitely worse off with closed schools as even their very livelihood is put into question. 

Telework is not necessarily always a solution, even though it is helpful.

The explosive increase in the number of detected Covid-19 cases during this week does not help matters. Coupled with the late availability of the school behavioural protocols this is creating considerable doubt in all stakeholders as to whether the authorities can handle the return back to school.

It may be reasonable to explore whether instead of an across the board return to school, a staggered approach can be implemented with the vulnerable and the dependent students being given priority. This could be the only realistic way forward.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 20 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