A climate change emergency and a new Malta

Now that government has 'discovered’ climate change, it should walk the talk. The climate emergency declared in 2019 should be translated into a concrete action plan for a new Malta

On 22 October 2019, the Maltese parliament unanimously declared a climate emergency. On a motion presented by the Opposition, later amended by the government following negotiations between then environment minister Jose Herrera and his counterpart Jason Azzopardi, MPs voted to call on the government to take new measures in response to climate change. 

In one of its more specific points, the motion also bound the government to declare a cut-off date for the importation of cars with internal combustion engines by mid-2020. 

But let us put aside for the moment the fact that Malta has not formally announced a cut-off date for cars that run on combustion engines and that the only date that exists is the one announced by the European Commission for 2035. 

We did get the parliamentary committee on the environment to include climate change as part of its title and remit, as dictated by the 2019 motion. But in the current legislature, this committee chaired by Labour MP Deo Debattista met only three times in March 2023 to discuss crematoria and the declassification of sites in the public domain. No meetings were held on climate change, its impact and possible mitigation and adaptation measures, despite the supposed emergency declared in 2019. 

It is only now that the emergency declared in 2019 is being translated into something more concrete with Environment Ministry Miriam Dalli telling the social partners on Friday that an authority will be set up to monitor and coordinate climate action. 

But the irony of the situation cannot go unnoticed. Climate change became the buzzword over the past week when the Prime Minister used it to justify the raft of power outages that plagued Malta and Gozo during one of the worst heatwaves this country has experienced. 

Climate change is real, and its effects have long started to be felt. The prolonged heatwave was just one disruptive manifestation of it. 

However, what Abela failed to admit is that the lack of investment in the electricity distribution network over the past decade of Labour rule - €90 million were set aside only last year - was also a contributing factor. The heatwave did create problems, but it also exposed our weaknesses. Now, the government has pledged an immediate doubling in the investment into the distribution network. 

This leader is not about the power outages and the disruption they caused to thousands of families and businesses – we cover this amply in today’s edition with expert opinion on the financial cost the outages had on the country. 

Instead, this leader is about Malta’s lack of preparedness in the face of the climate change phenomenon. There are two aspects to deal with: Malta’s actions to reduce its carbon footprint and an action plan that outlines measures that enable Malta to mitigate or adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

The electricity debacle of the past two weeks falls squarely in the latter scenario. With Malta’s climate getting hotter and prolonged heatwaves expected to be more frequent, is our electricity distribution network up to scratch to deal with this phenomenon? 

Are plans being drawn up to increase shaded areas in Malta’s built environment? 

In this respect, Project Green should ditch its vanity projects such as the music concerts at Mosta’s Ġnien l-Għarusa – there are other government agencies capable of organising these – and step up a gear on the big projects announced during the election campaign for the creation of public open spaces above main roads in town centres. 

These projects could serve to increase shaded spaces in built-up environments, thus lowering surface temperatures and providing new spaces for people to enjoy. 

Is the Civil Protection equipped with large, air-conditioned tents in the case of severe power outages in summer to serve as temporary night-time shelters? These could have served as a nighttime refuge for the vulnerable in those areas hardest hit by the power outages over the past two weeks. 

Are there official projections of what a rise in seawater level could mean for low lying localities like Birżebbuġa, Marsaskala, Msida and Marsaxlokk? And if so, are there plans on how to handle such a phenomenon and invest in new infrastructure? 

How will rising sea levels impact Malta’s ground water supply and if so, how will this be mitigated? 

Is a changed climate likely to impact our tourism offering and if so, how?  

Will changing climate patterns bring new diseases and exacerbate certain illnesses over others, or change influenza patterns? How will the country deal with this? 

These are just a few of the pertinent questions we hope will be addressed by this new authority. 

But there is also the aspect concerning what the country can do to cut down on its carbon footprint and create a better environment for all. 

To be clear, what Malta does in this respect has little impact on the global scene when compared to the carbon belching economies of the US and China. But just the same, Malta, as part of the EU, must play its part – the planet is ours as well. 

In doing so, government must ensure that changes are socially just, otherwise there will be pushback against green initiatives like has been the case in Germany with the push to have households replace traditional heating systems with the more energy efficient but vastly more expensive heat pumps. 

The electrification of Malta’s car fleet will contribute to cleaner air, but it also means that people unable to meet the stiff price of new electric cars will be left out of the change. 

Buses are now free, a positive move indeed, but new incentives to encourage people to use them and other public transport services such as cabs and ferry boats should be introduced, providing an alternative to the private car. 

Government must provide generous subsidies to households and businesses wanting to invest in insulation and energy saving measures, especially when retrofitting buildings. Once again, the elderly, the vulnerable, families with children and small businesses, should be helped to be part of this change. 

Now that government has 'discovered’ climate change, it should walk the talk. The climate emergency declared in 2019 should be translated into a concrete action plan for a new Malta.