‘Fighting climate change’ also means ‘changing the way we live’

Nobody goes on a diet because they enjoy making sacrifices. They do it to improve their health, and overall quality of life. Prof Simone Borg, academic and Malta’s ambassador for Climate Change, argues that it is the same with the fight to save our planet from rising temperatures 

Prof Simone Borg, academic and Malta’s ambassador for Climate Change
Prof Simone Borg, academic and Malta’s ambassador for Climate Change

Last week, the European Parliament finally reached an agreement on implementing part of the so-called ‘EU Green Deal’. However, the debate exposed deep political divisions over the EU’s carbon neutrality targets: and elsewhere, there appears to be a public backlash against some of those commitments. In Germany, for instance, there is resistance to the imposition of ‘solar heating pumps’, on the basis that households will face higher costs. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are being felt more strongly all over the European continent: with bushfires, heatwaves, floods, and so on. At a glance, it appears that Europe is losing the battle against climate change. Do you agree with that assessment, first of all?  

Well, let me put it this way. Europe definitely has a long way to go; but it is still the best-placed continent to deal with what is happening; as well as the best-prepared, and the most committed by far.  

In fact – just to put things into perspective – let's go back to where [climate change awareness] all started, way back in 1988. Because that was the time when various scientific reports first started showing that - because of fossil fuel consumption, for energy generation - the planet was witnessing an artificial injection of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases. These gases exist normally in the atmosphere; but because of human activity, through the burning of fossil fuels, there was a further increase of these greenhouse gases that are trapping more heat, and hence causing climate change. 

Those first reports, back in 1988, had already indicated what we know is happening, today: including heatwaves, extreme cold spells, and extreme weather event such as typhoons, hurricanes, etc. These, again, are all natural phenomena which were always known to happen, occasionally; but which we began to see happening more frequently, and with further intensity.  

This is, of course, true of Malta as well: where we have witnessed heatwaves in summer; floods in winter; and so on. 

So even back in 1988, there was already an awareness of what was happening. And there were also specific predictions: such as, for instance, that annual precipitation would decrease, particularly in the Mediterranean region... 

Well, that prediction has certainly come true, since then... 

Exactly. In the same year, however, it was Malta’s initiative to raise this issue at the United Nations General Assembly: in order to give the matter the right level of political awareness. Because it’s all well and good, to have ‘scientific reports’; but if they are just going to sit there, gathering dust on a shelf somewhere... nothing's going to happen. You can't effect change – political change, especially – without a political commitment to act. 

This was Malta’s suggestion; and it was widely accepted. In fact, there was unanimous approval of a decision, there and then, to start working on... well, let’s call it an ‘agreement’, at this stage: because it took a bit of time for it to actually be called a ‘treaty’.  

To simplify matters: let’s just say that it was immediately understood that this was a problem on a scale that humanity had never faced before. And it was a problem unlike any of the other environmental issues the world was used to facing, at the time: like, for instance, a particular source of pollution. 

Perhaps the closest equivalent, back in the 1980s, was the issue regarding the so-called ‘Hole in the Ozone Layer’. In fact, a few years before, there had been the success story of the Montreal Protocol: which resulted in an agreement to ban ozone-depleting substances. But that was one, single issue; and it was easy – well, ‘relatively’ easy - to tackle both the source of the problem itself; and also, to find and provide alternatives [to the banned substances].  

But with climate change, the situation was different. The reports were clearly indicative that harm was being caused: there were satellite images showing that river-deltas were shrinking; glaciers were melting; even the amount of carbon dioxide trapped in ice was clearly increasing over time. So the evidence was there, right from the start. But the question of how, and to what extent, this process was actually occurring; and especially, the ‘causal link’ between a particular action – in this case, ‘burning fossil fuels’ - and extreme weather events, around the world... such a direct linkage could not be traced, at the time. And that is a problem that we still face, today. 

In fact, the problem you describe is still what fuels so much of the climate skepticism, which is hampering a political solution right now... 

Yes. But in any case, this is where it all started. It took two years to conclude the first treaty, which signed during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. But the more the political process unfolded, the more complex it became. There was a realisation of how wide-ranging the kind of intervention actually needed to be... bearing in mind that we're talking about fossil fuels, which – in a nutshell – drive the entire world’s economy.  

Meanwhile, the only other readily-available alternative to fossil fuels, at the time, was nuclear energy: which was also considered to be highly risky, especially so soon after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.  

So the need to find alternatives, was definitely pointing towards renewable energy. But the process was very, very slow. Today, after so many years, we have the Paris Agreement; then there was the Kyoto Protocol - which was not a success, unfortunately; in the sense that, while Europe took it seriously, and started its own legal framework to combat climate change, it remained isolated. This was before the enlargement of 2004; and European Union still consisted of only around 12 states. Nonetheless, those 12 EU states did take some important decisions. They embarked on the emissions trading scheme, which brought about the idea that businesses – and particularly, power plants - could actually become more energy efficient, consume less, etc.  

But clearly, it was not enough. Had it been enough – and especially, had Europe acted at a faster pace - perhaps we wouldn't have the problem we have today, with regard to the Ukraine war: where Russia has a lot of leverage over Europe, because it is an importer of gas. 

On the subject of how ‘slow’ the political process has been: do you interpret that delay as a result of all the diplomatic difficulties, in getting countries to ever agree on a common position... or could it also be due to the technological difficulties, in actually replacing fossil fuels with ‘renewable energy’ (which cannot deliver as much energy, as quickly or reliably)? 

I would say it's a bit of both: because while renewables are definitely the answer, there will have to be an energy mix. One can also consider that even nuclear energy, for some countries, will be an option. And as long as it is safe and well-regulated, it could be accepted.  

But the major source of energy still has to come from renewables. And it is true, as you're saying, that, technologically, it is not always an easy option. Renewables have their drawbacks. Solar power, for instance, is only available during the day. Now we're talking about battery storage so that renewables can be controlled, in order to be accessible when necessary. If we want to have permanent access to power, in the way we do today - by just ‘switching it on or off’ - then you have to have some kind of intermediate phase. And that would be battery storage, whereby you can store solar or wind energy to be available whenever you need it.  

At the same time, however: technology has improved a great deal. We've seen this improvement over the past decades; and were it not for the pressure to become more energy efficient; and to switch to renewables, and so on... technology would not have improved. Because as they say, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. 

So what we’re seeing now is that - because of the ongoing drive; and particularly the drive within the EU – we now have a clear target to work towards. We call it ‘becoming a carbon neutral continent by 2050’ - the first carbon neutral continent - and that is actually implementing the Paris agreement to the letter, basically... 

How realistic is that target in practice, though? Already we are seeing that the political cost of implementing those measures is high. Climate change is arguably one of the issues – alongside immigration – that is toppling European governments, even as we speak, in places like Spain and the Netherlands.  Are you concerned by the fact that climate change skepticism is gaining the upper hand, in European politics? 

Maybe more than the ‘skepticism gaining the upper hand’, I think it’s a case that... let me put it this way. Personally, I think that most of the people in Europe - even in Malta – really are determined to fight climate change. We all say that we are very concerned about it. And we all want to work towards ‘neutralising’ it, as much as possible.  

But then, I also think that people don't always realise that, every time governments introduce a measure that can be socio-economically painful - sometimes even ‘behaviourally’ painful – well, that’s what ‘fighting climate change’ actually means. So there is this kind of ‘lost in translation’ effect: whereby the message is not being delivered well enough, perhaps. 

If I’m understanding you correctly: ‘everyone wants to fight climate change; but no one wants to actually make any sacrifices while fighting’. Correct? 

Well, I wouldn’t quite say ‘no one wants to make sacrifices’. There are, of course, people who do understand the message quite well. But otherwise, yes. ‘Fighting climate change’ implies accepting ‘behavioural change’, up to a certain extent. If, for instance, your definition of ‘quality of life’ means that you see it as a ‘plus’, to have to rely on your private car... then yes, that will bring about a kind of ‘discomfort’, in your life.  

But then again: if we really do want to fight climate change, this is the kind of behavioural change that one has to actually carry out, as much as possible: by using public transport, for instance; on even better, by walking more - although not in the current temperatures, of course – and in a few words, by becoming part of the mobility shift, because it keeps the planet healthyl and even helps to keep us healthy, too... 

At the end of the day, however, I think it’s all a question of understanding the basic message. It's very much like a diet, you know. After all: why do people go on diets? Why do we make sacrifices in what we eat? Is it because we want to ‘punish ourselves’? Or because we want to feel healthy, and look good... and possibly, even to extend our lives, by avoiding any of the health issues associated with being overweight? 

That, I think, is the best analogy: because it’s the same with climate change. Obviously, technology will be there to help make our behavioural changes more... comfortable, perhaps. Like, for example, making the appliances we use more energy efficient, or reducing our buildings into ‘zero emissions’ level, through using the right materials.  

But again, it comes down to the issue of how much will it cost to have a zero-emission building. And that is something that we have to be ready to pay for, at the end of the day. 

Naturally, this also raises other issues: such as, is everybody in a position to pay that price? Is everybody in the right socio-economic bracket, to even afford making such changes? Or is it going to be something that is only accessible to people with a certain a certain level of income, for instance?  

Ultimately, these are the issues that we talk about, when it comes to ‘climate justice’. In fact, if you look at what's happening in the countries you've mentioned [Germany, Spain, The Netherlands]... very often, it was a case that measures were introduced, either without the right kind of information given to the public... or else, they were introduced too quickly; without giving enough time for adjustment; and without providing the people with proper alternatives.  

Sometimes, for instance, you hear people say things like: “Okay, I would be willing to use my private car less, if I could rely on a mode of transport that makes me arrive on time; that is efficient, etc.” So some shift problems can be avoided, by simply providing an alternative first; or by providing the right level of support, to make the changes easier to bear. 

Once again, I feel that the diet analogy works best. It is one thing for people to decide to, say, ‘go vegetarian’, or ‘Vegan’... but that change cannot really happen, in practice, if people don’t also have access to the right sort of organic food; and if there are no restaurants offering Vegans and vegetarians with dedicated options, on their menus. 

Having that sort of support, and all the alternatives in place, will certainly help people make that switch more easily. If we don't have any of that, however: the transition will be a huge self-sacrifice. 

It’s the same with climate change. We all need to be willing to do our own bit, and make our own sacrifices... but we also need to be given all the necessary information; and above all, be provided with the necessary alternatives, and tools, to make the change happen. 

In fact, this has been my ‘motto’, so to speak, throughout more than 30 years of climate diplomacy. ‘Giving up is not an option’. Fighting Climate Change requires a collective effort, by everybody...