Climate change will not wait for us to take action | Stefano Moncada

On paper, the climate change commitments undertaken by politicians – both in Malta and the EU – are a step in the right direction. But according to Dr STEFANO MONCADA, of the Malta University’s Islands and Small States Institute, we could (and should) be doing much better

Stefano Moncada (Photo: James Bianchi)
Stefano Moncada (Photo: James Bianchi)

Protesting outside COP26, activist Greta Thunberg accused world leaders of “pretending to take our future seriously”. Do you agree with the criticism that these summits only create the impression that progress is being made, while not enough is really being done on the ground?

I do, yes. There are different degrees of ‘agreement’, perhaps… but as to whether that statement is true or not, the evidence is all there. Important decisions to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and to remove their sources, have been postponed all too often in the past.  We have prolonged the agony of having to take such decisions for too long; although there have been important exceptions from time to time, such as the 2015 Paris agreement; and before that, the Kyoto protocol.

The problem, however, is that the reality of what scientists are now telling us, is not aligned with the policy actions that need to take place.  For instance, if you have a little crack in your ceiling, and water is seeping in… you have to take action immediately (assuming you have the resources) because you know, otherwise, that the problem will only get worse.

But so far, we seem to be ignoring this ‘little crack’… which is already getting wider and wider…

Commenting on the summit, MEP Roberta Metsola argued that “we can grow economies and simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, and that “countries do not have to choose between economic success and protecting the environment”. Prime Minister Robert Abela seems to share her optimism. Do you? Is it possible to have effective climate action, without making hard economic sacrifices?

Well… it’s going to be very expensive to achieve that balance. In theory, it can be done; but the cost will be very high, because you have to find the right resources not to ‘shock the system’ too much.

Unless there is government support to cushion the impact, it will be the people who end up having to pay the price; and this will naturally turn them against the politicians who took those decisions, and not vote them back into power. So to avoid that, any government will have to take costly decisions…

However, there are two other issues here. First of all, radical changes have already happened in the past. We have managed to come together, and take certain decisions to change things for the better. For example, when we banned the use of certain gases, the protect the ozone layer. Even in terms of protection of human rights – although of course, there have been wars and conflicts that were not in line with this – overall, as an international community, we have clearly taken great strides forward.

This is why I don’t agree with those who say, ‘It is too late to take a decision’. No: we have been successful in the past, and we can succeed again. But obviously, the longer we delay this process, the higher the cost will be, and the shorter the timeframe for us to do it in. Because climate change is not going to wait for us to decide. It is already knocking on our doors…

Having said this, the issue is itself a bit of a Catch-22 situation. In general, our economic system as a whole is… sick. It has to be changed. And, not unlike greenhouse gas emissions: the problem has to be dealt with at source.

Ours is an economic system which measures the economy only on the basis of income; and this is absurd, because we don’t live only on income... either as countries, or individuals. We have other things to measure by: health, education, social well-being, and so on. But unless these things really are measured, and given a value… will not be able to ‘change the system’.

So as things stand, economic growth – i.e., increasing income – remains the only objective that countries, and people, really aspire to. That is the context in which governments take their decisions: even because it affects their own re-election chances…

But from that perspective, the question becomes: what can we do, to both meet our climate change obligations, and also guarantee sustained economic growth? And do you think the changes being negotiated at COP26 – ex. to limit global warming to 1.5C – are sufficient?

In truth, there is quite a lot that can be done. Both the Prime Minister and Roberta Metsola were, I would say, correct in what they said… in the sense that, yes, it is possible for governments to support the economy through the transition period, in a way that will not shock the system too much. There will, of course, be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ - and as I said, it will be very expensive – but it can be done.

The important thing, however, is that we take the right stance today; and approach the challenge with the right roadmap. On this, I believe that both Malta and the EU are generally on the right track. But they haven’t understood the speed at which they have to implement these changes.

For instance: you asked me whether the 1.5C target is ‘sufficient’…. to be honest, it’s the only target we have left. We’ve already exceeded all the previous ones, set in 2015 and earlier. And we already know, from now, that this one won’t be met either: because there are too many countries that are off-track. And this means that, in reality, it will be more than 1.5C…

But even if we do succeed in reaching it, it will still not be enough: because what the science is telling us is that… we are cutting things very fine. The deadline is getting very tight. So unless we respond to this as an emergency – as a matter of life and death; including for profits and business – we will certainly be looking at an increase of two, or even more, degrees in the next 20, 30 or 40 years.

So no, I don’t think the decisions taken by COP have been brave enough to keep up with those targets. There are, however, many things that industrialised, and even developing, countries can be doing; and in some case, are already doing. The EU is, in fact, at the forefront of this: I think it set a very good example, overall, in cutting down emissions since the Kyoto protocol; and telling developing countries that: ‘If you cut [emissions], we will cut even more’. On the whole, I think that’s the right message.

But if you look more closely, there are some EU member states that are doing better than others…

That raises the question of where one EU member state – Malta – stands in all this. The Prime Minister gave a very upbeat, optimistic speech at COP26… but does Malta’s climate change strategy really live up to its own, ambitious targets?

Once again, I believe that we are on the right(ish) track here. Malta has adopted a low-carbon development strategy, which is a very good thing in itself; we have set very good targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions; and the change from Heavy Fuel Oil to LNG has also helped.

However… methane is also a greenhouse gas. And it’s a very noxious gas, too. I’m not a natural scientist, but the health effects of methane are more severe than CO2, even in lower quantities. So that’s one problem; and another is the fact that transitioning from gas, to something else, takes a long time.

Personally, I am not seeing this as a well spelt-out strategy for Malta, yet. Let me give you some examples which annoy me both as a scientist, and as a citizen. Ideally, the energy transition should happen by looking at renewable energy sources. What do we have here in Malta? Mostly photovoltaics (solar), and wind… but we are now also experimenting with the possibility of using the sea as a source of energy.

This is something we at ISSI are very proud to be working on; we are advancing very good research, and getting very good results. But we are still a little far away. So if we are looking at short-term solutions that could be implemented tomorrow… it has to be photovoltaics and wind power, for now.

Now: you would expect that a country with a low carbon development strategy would want to help this transition by making solar and wind power not only more available and accessible; but also cheaper. At the moment, however, the feed-in tariffs for those who install photovoltaic panels are too high. There should be more incentives – more subsidy; better support – for people to have a return on their investment, if we want them to invest in renewable energy.

Unfortunately, this is a gap we have here in Malta. And I also see a bit of a conflict: to me, it is clear that the feed-in tariffs for solar are not incentivized, because we are also selling gas. We don’t want competition, in this sector. And this is a contradiction, when our strategy requires a transition to renewables…

As for wind, this is a little tricky. Malta is a very small, very densely populated island; so there are intrinsic, logistical problems of where to put both solar and wind farms. Nobody wants to take up valuable agricultural or rural land; and with wind in particular, there is also the issue that turbines are not aesthetically pleasing.

However, if it is a necessity… if your house is on fire, for instance… you have to do something. And I don’t see any rush, or any incentives, to do what needs to be done, at the moment….

At the same time, however, Budget 2022 did claim to introduce certain incentives to help with that transition: though they were mostly limited to aspects such as electric cars. Do you see this as another case of politicians creating the impression that the right actions are being taken?

There is an issue with electric cars, too. It is important to introduce better incentives, yes… but I don’t think it is being addressed comprehensively. For instance: have we ever asked ourselves where the electricity to charge those vehicles will be coming from?  Or whether it is going to be sufficient?

Our colleagues at the UoM’s Institute for Renewable Energies have already told us that, if everyone in Malta is going to be driving electric cars… there will be a blackout every two days. We simply don’t produce, or distribute, enough power.

And this, too, is part of the issue I was talking about earlier. Sometimes there are important transitions that are not being properly thought-through for the long term….

So far, we have been talking about what can done in terms of global (or national) strategy. But as a small, vulnerable island state, Malta also has to mitigate the effects of climate change itself: some of which have already been felt; and others – like a predicted water shortages – are imminent. How well-prepared are we? And what sort of impact should we be bracing ourselves for?

Objectively, I would say that the strategies and plans, especially of the Ministry for Climate Change, are on the whole the right ones. They are involving scientists; they are making the right commitments; on paper, everything seems to be in place.

However, there are a lot of contradictions at the moment. For example: transportation has now become the number one polluter, in terms of CO2. But by building new roads, and widening existing ones – taking up land from agriculture, and removing soil and trees which absorb CO2: all of which, by the way, also has an impact – we are only encouraging more people to use cars; and that means encouraging more emissions.

Because even if there are now more incentives for electric cars: the reality, as we all know, is that the current situation is not really going to change for the foreseeable future.

In terms of water, I think we’ve made giant leaps forward with projects to reduce water-losses, and to make Reverse Osmosis more efficient.  However, if we don’t control certain agricultural practices, such as over-extraction from the water-table, or the use of fertilisers; if we don’t incentive the re-use of water, through certain technologies… if we keep on building excessively, so that valleys cannot process any more water, because they are too polluted, or over-developed…  it’s not going to be enough.

On the whole, then, there are things we could be doing, at the moment; but we don’t seem to be planning for what’s ahead. In all areas, we could be doing much better: by incentivizing the good, and disincentivizing the bad.

Let me illustrate that with a few figures: because to me, this is a little mind-boggling. Every year, globally, 5 trillion US dollars – almost 7% of the world’s GDP – are spent on subsidies for fossil fuels. In Europe, it’s €50 billion; in Malta, it’s €10 million.

Now: I understand that this goes towards helping paying our ARMS Ltd bills; and that it is an important social protection for those who are more in need.  But to ensure a proper transition between fossil fuels and renewable energy, there has to be an incentive. You have to make it a bit more expensive to use fossil fuels, and a bit cheaper to use solar or wind.

This is not happening sufficiently well, at the moment. So while the road ahead has been well-mapped out, on paper… in practice, we could be doing much better.