The Malta Independent 3 March 2024, Sunday
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Europe must recognise realities of islands like ours when drafting laws, policies – Josianne Cutajar

Sunday, 17 September 2023, 10:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

Last month the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres referred to the phenomenon of ‘global boiling’ stating that this age is well and truly with us. What is your opinion on this concept and do you believe that we are doing enough on a European level to fight the climate crisis?

In the last few months the Mediterranean has suffered through record temperatures. There were countries that had fires, and in our country there was an effect on the energy infrastructure with underground cables melting due to the continuous heat. We need to recognise that the effects of climate change are already with us, and so we need to act rapidly in order to see that these effects can be mitigated and addressed.

There are impacts when it comes to tourism as well: the fact that temperatures are very high, that there are fires, floods… it is creating worry among tourists who may think twice about coming to the Mediterranean.

We need to think of how these realities can affect us and, locally, how we are going to strengthen our energy distribution system – I was satisfied to hear the Prime Minister announce increased investment in this area. 

When we speak about resilience, however, I don’t want to speak only about the energy sector, but we must also look at resilience in transport and buildings. These sectors are all worthy of discussion, because climate change and natural disasters relate to them too.

The concept of ‘resilience’ is one which has been mentioned a lot due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and one which you too have mentioned as part of your work. Can you explain more about this concept and its importance in light of the climate emergency?

The effects of climate change are already with us. You have other elements too, but we have to be forward-thinking. If today our country is being hit by heatwaves and high temperatures, and we are speaking of strengthening electricity distribution, let us also look beyond our shores and see what is affecting other countries and what we can do from now on to meet these potential future challenges.

Let’s speak about rising sea levels for instance – let’s see what we can do in the immediate, but also think about how it may affect us in the future so we can build up resilience. We need to think how to use technology to strengthen our resilience: technology can help us to reduce the effects of climate change with certain monitoring systems for air pollution, as can other facilities such as the shore-to-ship projects for example.

At EU level, to strengthen this resilience, we are implementing a number of new laws related to the Green Deal and Fit for 55. What I always strive for is the importance of seeing to it that certain essential services continue to be offered, whilst having common targets and obligations that we can work towards so that as a Union, and as a country, we can deal with the effects of climate change and keep moving forward in terms of industry and tourism, in a sustainable manner which doesn’t leave anyone behind.

As part of your work in the Committee for Industry, Technology and Energy, you have been engaged by the Socialists & Democrats group to negotiate a certification framework for the elimination of carbon from the atmosphere. How will this help address the effects of climate change?

For the EU’s legislative efforts on reducing air pollution to have credibility, there has to be a certain level of certification. If an activity is being declared by a company as being innovative and is reducing carbon emissions, then we must give them peace of mind and recognition through a certification which shows their efforts.

I was honoured to work on this and introduce amendments for recognition when it comes to reduction of pollution within the blue economy; an area we can take advantage of as an island state.

Something else which I emphasised was that our fishermen and farmers should be helped to move towards these types of activities, recognising that farmers and fishermen from an island like Malta need additional assistance, skills and facilities to help them.

What are your thoughts on the one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to island politics and how the EU prepares its climate policies?

This has been the fulcrum of my work ever since I was elected as the first Gozitan and the youngest person elected from the Maltese islands. It was my mission to work actively within the European Parliament to ensure that the EU better recognises the realities of islands like Malta and Gozo. I do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach and the EU has a tendency to introduce common regulations and rarely give any attention to the realities of islands and small Member States like ours.

Unfortunately, we saw this even when it came to environmental laws and the Fit for 55 package. Among the new laws, the European Commission allowed leeway to remote islands, which are known as outermost regions. It’s true that they have more challenges than other islands, but you cannot then ignore the realities and inherent challenges of islands like ours.

It was my mission, together with my team, to put forward amendments in the Regional Development Committee and the Committee for Industry & Energy to introduce changes in this regard.

For example we put forward a full report focusing on islands in the European Parliament (Report on EU islands and cohesion policy) where we emphasised their potential and particular challenges. We also spoke of the need to help businesses coming from islands like ours, which have additional challenges, such as increased expenses when importing essential products and goods.

Not only did I negotiate this report on behalf of the S&D, I also sought to introduce several important elements such as islands mainstreaming wherein the European Commission has to, especially with important proposals like Fit for 55, take note of realities of islands like ours when proposing policies and legislation. 

FuelEU Maritime, which relates to cleaner fuels in the maritime sector, is another law I worked upon to introduce favourable provisions to islands. The amendments I pushed forward state that in the case of islands like Gozo, where you have residents dependent on a ferry journey to get to the mainland and back, need specific recognition. While we need to move towards more sustainable fuels, the reality is that if the price does not remain affordable, then many people will suffer. We managed to secure more time in the case of islands like Gozo for the switch to be made, which will give better peace of mind.

The NetZero Industry Act is another law we are working on at the moment, where I am pushing provisions to ensure better assistance when it comes to sustainable maritime and aviation fuels. These provisions are especially important for islands like ours, which are dependent on maritime and aviation transport.

We need more sustainable fuels to reach our targets, but there must be incentives for operators to invest, as the market isn’t ready yet – and that worries me. If the market is not ready to take the plunge, I don’t want to see our citizens having to carry the burden of the market being forced to make this switch.

Your contribution in the transport and connectivity sector has been constant, especially due to your unique perspective as someone coming from Gozo, which suffers from double insularity. Can you elaborate on your work in this sector?

In the Committee on Transport and Tourism I always emphasise that we are coming from islands and that we need the EU to recognise that we depend on sea and air transport, and therefore we need additional assistance.

We speak of freedom of movement, but this fundamental right cannot be exercised fully if there aren’t adequate routes to get to the continent and if airfares aren’t affordable.

It is unacceptable that someone coming from our islands has to face high prices. This is likewise for those of us who work abroad but also for tourists: why should they face these sometimes uncontrollably expensive prices?

You have an element which does not depend just on politicians, but from the private sector, and that’s why I am pushing for a full discussion on what can be done to make these prices more affordable for everyone.

I am also conscious of the fact that environmental obligations, such as cleaner fuels, will also have an impact, and that’s why I insist that operators and investors have to be helped and the market has to be prepared. If these fuels are not readily available and affordable, the consumer will be the one impacted the most.

What role can Malta and other island nations have in international and European negotiations when it comes to climate?

Malta has six MEPs, but we can still be of influence. In the European Parliament we can push amendments, which I do continuously, to reflect the realities of our islands and the characteristics that we have.

Those on the continent don’t always understand us and you need a lot of perseverance in order to explain our realities. Do we always manage? Not always, but we do our best to collaborate to get there.

To do so we are also in constant contact with the Maltese Permanent Representation as well as the Maltese representatives in the Council where ministers and attaches also discuss and put forward amendments reflecting national interests.

The point is that even though we are small, we can still have an effect. We need to work together and use our limited resources to influence EU policy effectively. As EU members it is up to us to do the best we can to make that impact.

My mission for the rest of the mandate is to continue putting forward Malta and Gozo’s realities, emphasise that we need to be ambitious to make the necessary environmental and digital changes, to become more resilient; but to also, while making the necessary switch, be aided so as islanders we can take inspiration from current developments and be at the forefront of innovations.

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