We are doing the opposite of what is needed | Maria Attard

Malta is now firmly set to miss its international carbon emission reduction targets, as established by the Kyoto Protocol, in 2020. Prof. MARIA ATTARD, head of the University’s Climate Change and Sustainability, contends that our short-term approach not only fails to address the root problem… but may even make it worse

Prof. Maria Attard (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Prof. Maria Attard (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

Malta seems to be experiencing unusual weather patterns of late; suffice it to mention the recent northeasterly gale that caused an estimated nine million euro in damages. Are we looking directly at a symptom of climate change in action… and if so, what other meteorological surprises should we be bracing ourselves for? 

Whether or not you can talk of that individual storm as an example of climate change… the fact is that we do have scientific evidence that the weather is definitely going to change. If there were any doubts about the reality of climate change, five or 10 years ago – and yes, there were many doubts: because the science wasn’t fully developed back then – we have now found out that, especially through the recent IPCC reports, we have gone beyond a certain point in the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. A future change in climate is, therefore, practically inevitable. So much so, that even the discourse has changed: where, before, we used to talk about ‘mitigating’ or ‘trying to stop’ climate change… now, from a political point of view, the discussion has shifted from ‘mitigation’ to ‘adaptation’. The aim is now to try to develop systems, in various sectors, to cope with the change. As to what to expect in future: there are various global projections. To put it in simple terms: once the temperature starts to rise in certain parts of the world, which triggers off particular weather events – such as the ‘El Nino’ current, which moves from the south to the north – then automatically, there are going to be changes. El Nino affects the weather patterns in Europe. Ireland recently had its first tornado in centuries, for instance. So, we are seeing changes, not necessarily in the sense that these weather anomalies have never happened before… but because their frequency is increasing. I remember, as a child, seeing ‘water tornadoes’ very occasionally. But not almost every year, as is happening now. Likewise, we are getting more rain in summer than before. Again, this is not, in itself, unique or unprecedented. We have had storms in the middle of July or August in the past. But now we’re seeing a change in rainfall patterns, which might affect those systems – especially in sectors such as agriculture – which are accustomed to this sort of thing with a lot less frequency.

You recently authored a research paper, published in the Journal of The Malta Chamber of Science, which outlined the major implications for Malta. Could you give an overview of how the country will be impacted in the long term?

There are two major factors that will have a direct impact on our islands. One is a global rise in sea-levels, estimated at between 0.7 and 1 metre… which I should stress is high, for Malta. The study you mentioned also featured maps to indicate the areas that will be hardest hit. Some coastal areas will be severely affected: the Sliema and Ghallis coastlines, for instance, with major implications for the road network, traffic and so on. Apart from the issue of submerged areas, there is also the threat of increased salinity levels of the soil. This is already a problem, as we have over-extracted from the water table anyway. As the sea-level rises, we can expect the salinity to increase. The second major implication concerns an increase in flash-flooding. But not because we’ll be getting more rain; in fact, the annual precipitation will most likely be less – we might even go from ‘semi-arid’ to ‘arid’ – but the rainfall will come down in more concentrated bursts, over shorter periods of time. From now we can safely predict that this will cause floods; it will cause loss of soil… with serious implications for agriculture, among other things… and quite frankly, we’re not doing very much to mitigate any of this. We are actually doing the opposite, by widening the roads, or putting more concrete over the fields… so that instead of rain being captured and retained by the soil, we are providing it with shiny flat surfaces, to ensure that it all rushes straight into the sea.

So, if I’m understanding correctly: while the rest of the world has gone from ‘mitigation’ to ‘adaptation’… in Malta, we never tried to mitigate, and we’re not even trying to adapt…

Well, it’s not as though other countries have done all that much to adapt either. There are examples of countries and cities which have taken positive, direct action; but they are few and far between. To be honest, Malta is not all that very different from other countries: and especially from cities, which – owing to our size and logistics – make for a better comparison. But still: we are not doing very much to adapt to these new realities, no. You would think that – in a semi-arid country, where water is in short supply – we would naturally want to protect our only natural water table. Even for purely practical reasons: if something happens to our energy supply – which is all imported – and we can no longer rely on our Reverse Osmosis plants… it is the water table that will save us. Yet we have invested in very expensive technology; and we have become over-reliant on this technology, when there is no guarantee that it will save us in the long term. Because in Malta, like most other countries, the political approach has always been to offer a short-term solution based on technology. In a sense it is inevitable, as governments think mainly in terms of only five years. It is easy to sell a technological solution that will only postpone the problem for future generations to solve. It is a lot harder for politicians to tell the people, “Listen, we have to take serious decisions today, because otherwise, in 50 years’ time, there might no longer be a Malta to save…”

Yet all along there was a lot we could have done – if not to mitigate climate change, just to improve the environment for its own sake – but never did. Alternative energy, for instance. There was once talk of deep-sea wind-farms, which fizzled out into nothing. Why do you think we have failed to ever take this issue seriously?

I think… and it’s not an easy thing to say… I think the main problem is that we have always struggled, as a nation, to come up with a vision. We never really came up with a vision of where we want to go as a country, and who we want to be. To be fair, in the past there were other, more pressing challenges. We used to struggle economically: the post-war years, in particular, were very difficult times. But come the 1990s, we started to see an increase in GDP, which has continued ever since. For such a small island, that’s quite a success, in itself. So the model of choice has always been economic growth…  and because governments only have five years to prove themselves, the issue has always been: who can deliver economic growth the fastest? Right now, for instance, our chosen economic model is the easiest, fastest, and least sustainable one of all. Construction. We also actively pursue a policy to encourage population growth, because we think… [pause] Sometimes, I get the feeling that we only ever think on Sunday morning. We wake up on Sunday, think what is good for that day only… and stop there. And to me, that is scary. You can’t sit and wait to see what will happen on Sunday morning, to know what your next major policy decision will be...

We are doing the opposite of what’s needed Prof. Maria Attard

Could you give a few concrete (excuse the pun) examples of ways in which we are not thinking far enough head?

There are almost too many to choose from. Take the policy to turn Gozo into an ‘electric car’ island, for instance. How is that even possible… when we are also digging a tunnel to maximise the number of motorised cars that can drive to Gozo? There is no consistency there. It’s like looking at a jigsaw puzzle, where none of the pieces seems to fit. Another example is planning permits for development in flood-prone areas. That same study referred to earlier also projects that a substantial part of Manoel Island will be submerged by rising sea levels in future. Was any thought given to that, when deciding on the Manoel Island project? The same goes for other coastal and low-lying areas. Take the storm we experienced last month, for example. Luckily, no one died… but there was a huge cost in terms of damage – which I think hasn’t been fully calculated yet – and if we are to expect similar storms on a yearly basis, we should be looking to mitigate the impacts from now. The cumulative cost of regular extreme weather events is likely to be huge. Yet we are not even thinking about any of that…

I can see the concern with the lack of pre-planning; but let’s be blunt about the situation. Apart from ‘thinking’… what can actually be done about rising sea-levels and changing weather patterns?

The most immediate answer is that we can, and should, be funding more research into climate change. But I disagree that nothing can be done about it at all. One thing that needs to be done is for a country – any country, and Malta could be the one – to develop a system that successfully adapts to the predicted changes. Malta is comparable to any medium-sized city... so a system that works here, could work in other cities, too. So, Malta can lead by example on this issue: as, let’s face it, we have done it before. There is an irony in all this: Malta actually led the international discussion on climate change, when it first started. We have been discussing climate change for the past 40 years; and we have been talking about sustainability for much longer. Malta was involved in these discussions from the beginning. So we do know what we should be doing… yet we’re not doing it.

But what difference can Malta really make with regard to CO2 emissions? Our power stations surely can’t contribute any significant amount… we don’t have the sort of heavy industry of the kind that exists elsewhere. What else is there that we can even take action about?

There are a few other areas. Our shipping emissions, for instance, are not calculated in Malta’s official emissions rate… and this is wrong. But in other areas, it is true that our contribution doesn’t amount to much, by international standards. This, however, doesn’t mean we should not be striving to reduce our carbon emissions anyway. It is something we should be doing for the sake of air quality, and also to meet our international obligations. We’ve already missed our previous targets, and now we are set to miss the 2020 targets… by a lot. But to answer you specifically on the areas we have to look into: traditionally, our two main sources of CO2 emissions have always been energy generation, and transport. Now that energy production has shifted from oil to gas… the focus automatically shifts to transport. But that has to be qualified: the real underlying problem is not ‘transport’ in general… it is cars. And what are we doing? We are providing more infrastructure, only for cars. Not for anything or anyone else. Not for cyclists; not for pedestrians, who want to lead more active, healthier lifestyle; not for those who make a conscious decision to use public transport. Only for cars. Meanwhile, we don’t enforce existing bus lanes; and in some cases, we’ve even removed the few we had. So we’re removing the infrastructure for all of that… and we are replacing it only with more space for cars. To me, that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for the Environment Minister to be constantly defending the Transport Minister, on the basis of ‘electoral promises’. Of course, if you promised to build more roads, that is what you have to do, if elected. But should they have made those promises in the first place? It’s counter to the common good. And that is what a politician’s primary function should be: to identify the common good, and take policy decisions to achieve it. Our politicians are not doing this…

Yet when confronted by activists making similar arguments, both the Transport and Environment Ministers defended government’s road-building policy by pointing towards a reduction in traffic as a result of recent roadworks project…

But that’s just a short-term view. There is simply no way anyone will convince me that, by widening the roads, there will be less congestion in the longer term. On the contrary, there will be more congestion… because there will be more cars. We will also lose more soil – and agriculture with it – because our nice, shiny new roads also make precious rainwater run off into the sea. And it will have an impact on both urban and rural spaces. Meanwhile our population is increasing… so the demand for mobility is also rising in step. Our response is to simply supply more infrastructure to meet the growing demand. [Pause] There’s no end to that, though, is there? As the population grows, and the economy grows with it… the demand will always be higher than the supply. As more people become financially comfortable, they will want to do more activities; and if their only means of transport is the car… you can build as many new roads as you like, as wide as possible, too. They will only get clogged up with more cars. And there are other issues. We are also removing trees to make more space for roads and carparks. And yes, we’re replanting more trees to compensate… in places like Comino, or Majjistral Park. [Pause] So in practice, what we are really doing is removing those trees from areas where the CO2 concentration is highest… and placing them where it is the lowest. Sorry, but we need those trees where people breathe; and we need them to provide shade cover where people live, because summers are going to get longer and hotter. But when you go through the checklist of everything we know we should be doing… you will find that we are, in fact, doing the opposite. And if you ask me, it’s not just science that is telling us this. It’s also common sense.