Malta’s transport policy driving against climate change direction

Road traffic, which contributes a very large share to the island’s greenhouse gas emissions, continues to increase rather than decrease. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Road traffic, which contributes a very large share to the island’s greenhouse gas emissions, continues to increase rather than decrease. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Maria Attard tells Joseph Grech traffic is this country’s biggest challenge in terms of the island’s greenhouse gas contribution to global warming.

The government’s current plans to widen existing roads and build new ones to cater for the ever-increasing number of cars on Maltese roads seems to jar with Malta’s commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and meet the country’s maximum emission targets.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement, to which Malta is a signatory, seeks to hold rising temperatures to “well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels” while “pursuing efforts” towards the more ambitious limit of 1.5ºC. It aims to do so by ending the fossil fuel era in the second half of the century by shifting the world economy to cleaner energies such as wind and solar power.

Representatives of almost 200 countries, including Malta, have just finished a two-week meeting in Bonn, Germany, where they started to draft a ‘rule book’ to implement the Paris climate deal.

Asked to what extent Malta could contribute towards this global aim, Maria Attard, director of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta, said: “Malta can do a lot towards mitigating climate change by being a leader, as it was after all, historically in global discussions on climate change.

“Malta could be leading by example with the introduction of measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the various sectors. We could, or should, use our size to our advantage and plan, coordinate and regulate better the different sectors to achieve sustainability.”­

While Malta’s conversion of its power stations to gas should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2), other contributors of these gases in the atmosphere include transport, industrial plants and households.

Prof. Attard is worried that Malta is not doing enough to reduce its other greenhouse gas emissions: “We need to dramatically increase our efforts if we are to meet the deadlines.”

She says that Malta’s biggest challenge as an island remains transport, which still contributes a very large share of the island’s greenhouse gas emissions and continues to increase rather than decrease.

“We are doing too little to stop or curtail emissions from transport. This will have an impact on our ability to meet our emissions targets,” she said.

She added that besides the transport sector, long-term strategies and well-thought-out plans identifying specific measures, their cost and timing are needed for various other sectors such as energy, agriculture, industry and land cover.

Malta could be leading by example. We should use our size to our advantage and plan, coordinate and regulate better the different sectors to achieve sustainability

On the latter point, Malta’s booming construction is working diametrically against Malta curbing its greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, “the more we convert land to green, the more CO2 is ab­sorb­ed from the atmosphere. Therefore, trees and green areas become critical,” Prof. Attard said.

Many scientists believe the Paris agreement’s 1.5 ºC limit is already slipping out of reach due to insufficient action by governments to cut emissions. If this is the case, what actions does Malta need to take to prepare for, and adapt to, warmer climate in future? A lot, according to Prof. Attard.

“There is an urgent need to update Malta’s adaptation strategy. We are very aware of the effects climate change will have on our islands, but very little has been done in terms of subject-specific studies to estimate the extent of impact, its cost (to the economy), the risks associated with a do-nothing scenario and the potential adaptation required to adapt to, for example, raising temperatures.”

She continued by firing a series of questions to which, she said, we unfortunately do not have many answers: what is the current status with regard to sustainable buildings?; how many people in Malta live in buildings that can adequately retain heat and remain cool?; what measures are being taken to reduce dependence on air-conditioning, if temperatures are to increase?

With regard to flooding, did the National Flood Relief Project take into consideration the foreseen increase in flash flooding? What percentage of the water being captured by the infrastructure is being channelled to replenish Malta’s heavily depleted groundwater?

Over the past few years, land reclamation has occasionally and controversially been high on the local political agenda; however, ironically, due to global warming, Malta is more likely to lose land due to a rise in the sea level. Notwithstanding this, Prof. Attard is not aware of any studies calculating how much land is going to be lost.

“I could go on with questions. However, first we need to know more about the risks and then develop a strategy that ensures a sustainable good quality of life for us and our children,” Prof. Attard said.

Possible future climate change effects

Climate change is expected to impact Malta in several ways:

1. Water supply: This may be reduced due to drought and less water reaching the water table due to flash flooding and storms – more water will be lost to sea.

2. Human health: Higher temperatures and deteriorating water and food resources may adversely affect human health, especially that of the elderly and vulnerable populations. There may also be higher incidence of forced migration and natural disasters, such as storm surges.

3. Tourism: Very high temperatures and negative changes to Malta’s coastline and natural landscape may make the islands less attractive, leading to fewer tourist arrivals and a negative knock-on economic impact.

4. Agriculture and fisheries: Productivity in these sectors may suffer due to drought, higher sea water temperatures and introduction of new species.

5. Biodiversity: Vulnerable native species of animals and plants may become extinct or endangered.

6. Urban environments and transport infrastructures: To remain sustainable, buildings will have to adapted to ensure people can still live comfortably in them. Transport infrastructures will also need to withstand longer hours of sun and more flooding episodes.

Malta’s changing climate

There have been several observed changes in Malta’s climate over the past few decades. These include:

1. The number of days per year with thunderstorms during Malta’s rainy season has increased by nine since 1950.

2. The rising trend in the daily maximum rainfall between 1923 and 2000 corroborates the existence of convective rainfall, since this type of rainfall is typically of short duration and often heavy.

3. These has been increase in the daily maximum rainfall notwithstanding the fact that, over a full year, the absolute number of days with rainfall in the 1 to 50mm range is decreasing.

4. The recorded decrease in the mean annual cloud cover over Malta since 1965 amounts to −0.3 oktas1.

5. There has been a reduction in the duration of bright sunshine by an average of 0.6 hours per day since 1923.

Source: Malta’s official communications to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

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