The Malta Independent 14 July 2020, Tuesday

TMID Editorial: Air quality - A new normal?

Monday, 22 June 2020, 08:38 Last update: about 21 days ago

Air quality readings taken over the past four months seem to indicate that, despite the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, the air we’re breathing today remains relatively clean.

In fact, readings taken over the past few days, after many of us returned to work and bars and restaurants reopened, remain practically the same as the readings taken in mid-March, when the country was practically on lockdown.

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This might be a sign that things have changed, and that we are truly moving towards a new normal, but perhaps we should wait a bit longer, until economic activity returns to pre-pandemic levels. Air pollution levels could rise again in a few days’ time, when the airport re-opens and cruise liners start calling at the Grand Harbour again. School transport could also make a difference once educational facilities reopen in September.

But we truly hope that we have learnt from this pandemic and that we will truly shift towards a greener way of life. This is of utmost importance in a small and heavily populated country where respiratory disease is the biggest killer. We cannot afford to go back to our old ways where we are completely dependent on personal vehicles.

Many employers seem to have embraced the teleworking system and several businesses have indicated that such a concept is retained, at least partially.

The government has been investing heavily in road infrastructure, trying to cope with the increased demand – over the past months we have seen an average of 30 cars being added to the road network every day. But since shift towards public transport remains somewhat of a dream, the next best thing would be to allow people to work from home, thus eliminating the need for their daily commute to work.

But we should also seize the moment and introduce other ways of reducing traffic. An architect has recently advised that it would make more commercial and environmental sense to build a metro tunnel under the channel between Malta and Gozo, rather than a vehicular tunnel. Indeed, this is being proposed as part of a nationwide metro system. The €4 billion price tag may seem too exorbitant, but the architect, Konrad Xuereb, believes that the project will pay itself off in a much shorter timeframe than a car tunnel, and that the country would also save millions on healthcare, as a result of reduced emissions. While the call for proposals has been published and the government has already received four expressions of interest, we are still in time to amend the plans, Xuereb said. The government would do well to heed his advice which, it seems, has the backing of many among us.

There are, of course, other initiatives aimed at improving air quality in our urban areas. Just this Saturday, Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia and Parliamentary Secretary Alex Muscat announced a design and build competition for urban greening projects in Hamrun, Mosta and Qormi. Such projects are aimed at not only improving the visual aspect of our towns and villages but also creating new open areas that can serve as a green lung in our localities. Once the first projects are completed, the concept should be extended nationwide.

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