The Malta Independent 14 July 2024, Sunday
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Malta could miss its 2030 targets unless effective action is taken, expert warns

Kieran Farrugia Sunday, 22 August 2021, 08:00 Last update: about 4 years ago

Climate change is a global issue that has been amongst humankind for quite a while now. In Malta, the occurrence of climate change has had an everlasting effect which could lead to devastation according to Institute of Climate Change Director Maria Attard. She speaks to Kieran Farrugia.

Malta has been in a state of climate emergency since 2019. What can we do to mitigate any severe climate change issues?

Malta has an obligation to mitigate climate change impacts through the reduction of emissions.

These obligations and targets are internationally agreed at the European level, and we report progress as signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Our targets and progress are documented online.

Malta missed its 2020 targets and is also likely to miss its 2030 targets unless effective actions are taken to reduce emissions from the two main sectors – transport and buildings. Transport is the main contributor to Maltas emissions and the focus on car-oriented policies have resulted in a steady increase in Greenhouse Gas Emissions from this sector since the 1990s.

Several measures can be implemented.

Malta should improve the quality of the current vehicle fleet – we have a very old car fleet which contributes to more emissions. We need sustainable electrification of the fleet using alternative energy sources to fuel electric vehicles, and not just transfer the burning of fossil fuels from cars to a power station (that is undoubtedly NOT going to reduce carbon emissions from transport).

We need to prioritise environmentally friendly transport modes, primarily walking and cycling in urban areas, and then public transport over space for cars.

Basically, rebuilding the pedestrian walkways in town centres for people to be able to walk safely and connect primary land uses within urban areas with safe walking and cycling infrastructure, for example, schools, health centres, main public offices and shopping areas, churches and so on.

Bus priority is critical in dense urban areas to ensure efficient services. The implementation of a Bus Rapid Transit system for main corridors would be an easy, cheap, and short-term solution to the introduction of the long-awaited mass transit system.

We need to introduce parking management, low emission zones and pedestrian areas to manage car dependence and use.

These are just the most obvious. Of course, depending on the town and specificities of the location, there could be many other initiatives taken at the local level to reduce the need for the use of the car, and shift as many do work, leisure, school and shopping trips to active modes and public transport.

 

Given the future global warming situation, how can an increase in afforestations project mitigate its impact?

Whilst afforestation helps to absorb some of the carbon emissions produced by anthropogenic activities, it is very clear now that afforestation alone will not resolve the problem. The potential of planting trees, in my opinion, is more linked to public and mental health issues emanating from the lack of greenery, especially in our urban areas. Apart from reducing carbon concentrations in urban areas, trees provide shade and make our streets and public areas more pleasant.

A study conducted at the Institute last year concluded on the importance of greenery to mental wellbeing and one which supports and encourages active travel. Sterile and poorly designed urban areas are not conducive to a good quality of life and produce more emissions because people use their cars more.

Afforestation beyond the urban areas is of course a welcome site and one to be encouraged. But, as I said, this cannot be the only measure that will resolve the issues with emissions. Also, the impacts of this heatwave on the current forested areas are a warning sign of the challenges of afforestation projects in the future... especially when less rain is forecasted.

 

What can the Maltese government do, in terms of pursuing a different strategy, in an existing situation where Malta is the country covered most by artificial land?

Singapore is more than 80% built up and I am sure there are other places that have similar land cover patterns in the world. Malta has over 33% built up and one of the main problems is not only availability of natural areas but the ability of the land to take on forests – with lesser rain expected as an outcome of climate change in the coming decades, Malta will soon become an arid country which will increase the process of desertification.

We also have a big problem with soil loss. The lack of maintenance of rubble walls and the removal of fields (especially related to road widening projects) is further limiting our potential of fertile areas which we can turn into green areas.

Flash flooding and more surface changes to roads only helps to expedite the process of soil loss as the ground is able to absorb and retain less and less water and soil. Keep in mind that Malta also has one of the largest densities of road networks in Europe.

Agriculture will of course be heavily impacted, even though there are already several effects farmers are experiencing because of policies related to ground water replenishment and over extraction e.g., soil salinisation, and in general, lack of rain.

The protection of natural areas must be ensured through the development of long-term management strategies that not only protect but bring together the sectors to ensure long term sustainability (soil, water, agriculture, etc).

 

Only 1% of Malta is forest land. While considering that this is a concern for naturals areas in the country, could this factor increase the burden for more carbon emissions in the atmosphere?

The way that emissions are calculated also include the land cover, and the potential of the land cover which is "forest" to absorb anthropogenic CO2 emissions. With such a small percentage of forest Malta can claim very little in terms of CO2 reduction. And increase in forest cover would help to reduce the total emissions reported.

Then again, following up from the previous question, Malta's limited land, water and soil resources put severe limitations on how much we can make use of land cover as a means of reducing CO2.

 

Is overdevelopment a big problem considering the high consumption levels?

The issues are two-fold here. Overdevelopment, defined as development over and above what is needed, is wrong. So how many of the properties that have been constructed are currently or have been consistently vacant?

A few years ago, we heard the figures of 50K-70K vacant dwellings – which means that any development beyond that could be considered overdevelopment. I am one to favour mixed land use and a relatively high population density – over low density and low land use mix. In the most sustainable city centres, the mix of high density and land uses make places interesting and walkable. Urban sprawl, low density development, no land use mix lead to waste of land resources and the reliance on cars. This is a well-known phenomenon in urban geography.

Consumption is another issue. High consumption levels are what has probably caused all sorts of problems in the environment, with our waste management and so on. High levels of commodification and high levels of consumption have made us reliant on too many things which we throw away and replace easily. And this happens from food packages, to gadgets, to clothing, to tech, to any sector really.

The resurgence of repair stores in many cities abroad is trying to change this culture of overconsumption in an attempt to reduce waste, but also to rekindle values related to our impact on earth. Older generations were keen not to throw away things, primarily driven by financial concerns, but also because they knew that things dont just magically disappear when thrown out. Of course, today we have (or should have) greater awareness of the impacts of high consumption – plastic in the oceans, in our foods, mountains of rubbish – but we still struggle to include principles of circularity in many of the policies we make.

A quick example: do we really have a plan for the disposal of car batteries when we switch all our vehicles to electric? Is this part of the electrification plans?

 

What kind of immediate measures need to be taken to prevent any severe consequences both internationally and locally?

It is clear now that climate change is here to stay. There are immediate actions which we need to take on two fronts.

The first: Mitigation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to try and reduce global warming. It is clear from the latest IPCC report, but also from previous research, that we do not know what will happen to the earth if the temperature increases beyond 3 or 4 degrees Celsius. Current human activity and emissions are pointing us towards that level of global warming, hence why the emergency.

It is evident from what is happening today, but also from the predictions of the IPCC, that human survival on earth will become more difficult with the increase in temperature. And the models are showing us what we have to face in terms of temperatures, rain, and sea level rise. But beyond 3 and 4 degrees, there is little that can be predicted in terms of impacts. Beyond certain tipping points (melting of the ice caps, deforestation in the Amazon, bleaching of the worlds coral reefs etc.) which will change forever the earth as we know it, means that it will not be possible to predict storms, or their severity and which places will be safe or not. So, the continued and urgent emission reduction efforts by every country, including Malta, is a must to minimise this possibility.

The second: Since climate change is here to stay, we need to start taking actions to adapt. This heatwave, but also the severe storms we have experienced over the last few years, will become more frequent. We need to adapt our houses, so we reduce the need for air conditioning (which in itself causes GHGs). We need to upgrade our infrastructure and roads to be able to absorb more rain and construct new infrastructure along the coastal areas which will be affected by sea level rise (predicted at less than a meter in the Mediterranean so far). We need to increase green and open spaces within our urban areas to support walking and cycling in hotter conditions – allow for a breeze to pass through. We need to invest in renewable energy sources to reduce our dependence on fuels. 

 

What little things can people do to help do their part?

There are many little things that people can do to help on their part. This is not just for governments to do alone.

Walk more and use your car less. Shop local and reduce the need to travel. Consume responsibly – reduce food waste and general waste. Capture as much water as possible for reuse in the house.

Review (think), reduce, reuse, recycle – apply these four concepts when you buy something, and it will help you with your levels of consumption.

Switch off unnecessary lights, air conditioners when not in the room, and check your solar panels (if you have any) to ensure you are maximising the use of energy in the household.

Separate waste so we can benefit from waste management strategies that in themselves reduce climate change effects.

More importantly, demand change from your local politicians. We are now approaching an election – make sure that climate change is at the top of your demands to politicians when they ask, what would you like? Demand cleaner air, more walkable spaces, more green areas – basically shift the demands from that which you think will make you financially richer to those that will make you and those around you, happier and healthier. In the process you will be ensuring that future generations will (might) have something to look forward to.

 

Generally speaking, the temperature is to increase in 2100. What can we do to mitigate these issues?

There is little we can do to mitigate this as climate change will not be stopped. What we have to stop is the amount of temperature increase – and the only way to do that is to make lifestyle changes for each one of us by adopting some, if not all, of the little things previously mentioned and by having politicians that can rise above populism and act for the common good – take bold decisions which will have positive impacts on the many, rather than the few. We need to stop greenwashing and finding excuses, sometimes because we are too small, or because we dont have this or that... I dont believe it.

I strongly believe each one of us, and our governments, can adapt to new situations and grab the bull by the horns, because we realise the urgency and want to be a good example for others to follow.

What COVID-19 has shown us is that people are indeed able to change, in a fast way, and adapt to new situations. Many of the barriers we used to identify before are now gone because of the pandemic, and this should be the main lesson we learn – that for the common good and for the good of the earth, we need and should change.

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