Climate change also threatens democracy itself

The strategy casts a sobering light on Malta’s challenge to reduce carbon emissions as required by the EU’s overarching goal of carbon neutrality, while still sustaining economic growth

As distinguished British naturalist Sir David Attenborough put it, this week’s Glasgow summit is “our last chance to make the necessary changes” to save the planet.

But are the politicians attending COP26 just “pretending to take our future seriously”, as Greta Thunberg accused them of doing while addressing protestors? 

COP has in the past been criticised as a piece of political theatre, where world leaders can get together and make it seem as if real progress is being made on the climate crisis: all under the auspices of corporate sponsors and lobbyists, including from the fossil fuel industry, while at the same time emissions continue to increase steadily over a long period. 

But it is also true that it is absolutely necessary to have an international process for reaching agreements on how to respond to climate change. At present, COP is the only existing structure in which this can happen.

So even if it has not been greatly effective up to this point, the aim of activists and campaigners should really be to influence the process (and their own governments) in order to make it so; rather than to shut it down, or ignore it, out of frustration and disillusionment.

With some exceptions like Brazil’s Bolsonaro, and former US Present Donald Trump, most world leaders - including most EU leaders - like to project themselves as climate warriors who are working hard to save the planet.

But so far, they are clearly failing.  Politicians - even local ones - tend to make grandiose commitments on carbon neutrality by 2050: fully knowing that by that time, they will no longer be in office themselves; and others will be struggling with the commitments and targets which they are busy setting today.  

Meanwhile, more than half the world’s countries have submitted enhanced plans on cutting emissions; but many of those pledges are not supported by planned cuts in this decade; and added together, they fall well short of the agreed objective, to keep global warming to a limit of 1.5C.

Clearly, the political will to do more is lacking — even in the world’s richest countries: which have pledged to offer $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, but now say they won’t meet that target until 2023. Without that cash, some developing countries will be unwilling to budge on emissions.

The European Union has long sought to play a leadership role in the international climate change negotiations. As part of the European Green Deal, it increased its emission reduction target from at least 40% to net 55% by 2030, in comparison to 1990 levels. But will individual member states manage to implement these ambitious targets?

One may argue that Malta is small, and its contribution to global warming minimal.  But as a small island state with a water scarcity problem, we could also be among those nations most severely impacted. Moreover, Malta - like other EU countries - still struggles to reconcile a model hinging on endless economic growth, with the limitations posed by climate and the natural environment.  

For instance: Malta’s Low Carbon Energy Strategy foresees total electricity demand, including the shift to electric cars, to increase by 33% between 2020-2030; and a further 23% between 2030 and 2040.

The strategy casts a sobering light on Malta’s challenge to reduce carbon emissions as required by the EU’s overarching goal of carbon neutrality, while still sustaining economic growth.

Malta’s major reduction in carbon emissions will take place between 2030 and 2040, when emissions from the gas-powered plants will decrease from the current 2,300 kilotonnes of carbon, to 1,700 in 2030, and less than 500 in 2050.

But emissions from the natural gas plants will grow from 2020 to 2030, as utilization increases.  Based on projected price developments in the Sicilian electricity market, it is also expected that a larger share of energy demand will be met by electricity imports through a second interconnector, which is expected to become the main energy source after 2040.

This could be complemented by additional renewable energy sources, such as offshore wind farms, while reducing the use of gas plants.

In reality, however, climate change is not just about controlling emissions from cars and power stations.  It is also about addressing carbon trapped in consumer products - including imported foodstuffs - and in buildings.  Yet Malta’s building stock is also expected to rise by 20% by 2050.

Nonetheless, we must ensure that the commitments made by politicians today, will be kept and implemented by politicians in 2030 and 2040.  That will be the greatest challenge for democracy itself: especially amidst new challenges like rising energy prices, which may well increase the temptation to postpone the climate emergency altogether.  

But this may well spell the end of democracy as we know it.  For European democracy, in particular, may not even survive an emergency which – by its own nature – ‘justifies’ authoritarian technocratic solutions: especially in a context of social unrest and migration from the global south.  

These are among the most pressing challenges in the near future: and it will take more than empty political rhetoric to overcome them.