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Requiem for a tree - Kristian Zarb Adami

The number of green soldiers still standing in our capital city are few and far between. Photo: Serg Zastavkin/Shutterstock.com

The number of green soldiers still standing in our capital city are few and far between. Photo: Serg Zastavkin/Shutterstock.com

I had the great pleasure of attending a performance at the renovated Fort St Elmo on Wednesday, put up by the ever creative Teatru Anon. The premise of the play being the dying thoughts of the main character ‘Leli’, all peppered with his childhood memories projected on to the stunning backdrop of the fort.

While mesmerised by the imagery, my mind could not help but wander to the iconic surroundings steeped in history built over 400 years ago. What stuck out the most as I walked to the performance was the lack of greenery our capital displays – Mount Sceberras may have never been filled with luscious, jungle-like groves, but it is fair to say that the number of green soldiers still standing in our capital city are few and far between.

Valletta is not the only tree-less capital. The Vatican, I believe, does not have much foliage either, except for covering the private parts of some old testament protagonists. Despite this, the total number of trees in the world estimated from satellite imagery is approximately three trillion. For comparison, the computer I’m typing this article on has four gigabytes of memory, or the capacity to store four trillion numbers in memory at any one time.

So with all these trees around, why is there such an outcry at the culling of trees on our beloved island?

One of the reasons lies with our understanding of the role trees play in what is known as the carbon cycle: the recycling of a gas called carbon dioxide that is transformed into oxygen. Of course, there are other factors, including the disruption of ecosystems and, in my opinion, the aesthetic nature that greenery provides that are adversely affected by the removal of trees.

A medical friend of mine explained it to me in the following way: “Picture yourself at the beach. You take one big breath and immerse yourself in the sea. You hold on to that one breath and swim under water until your lungs are bursting and you’re overcome by a strong need to exhale and breathe again.”

…the genius of trees. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air and in turn replenish the air with the fresh oxygen we can’t live without

You need air, we all do... and we need that air to be enriched with oxygen and low in carbon dioxide. There’s no other way for us and that’s the genius of trees. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air and in turn replenish the air with the fresh oxygen we can’t live without.

The problem is that humans have become too efficient at producing carbon dioxide while trees have not evolved at the same speed as our technological development. To give you an idea, much to the chagrin of my partner, I drive an old Toyota Vitz to and from University averaging approximately 20km (10km from home to University and back plus some errands) per day, or 500km a month.

If you look at the odometer of your car and divide by the number of years you’ve owned the car, you will be able to work out just how many kilometres you drive in a year. This distance produces 1,000kg of carbon dioxide per year, which would require at least five fully grown trees to absorb the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.

Now, looking at the statistics of at least 30 new cars being added to our roads every day and assuming that each user will travel the same distance I do, this means we would need to plant at least five trees for every car being added, i.e. 150 new trees every day are required to offset the additional vehicles (never mind that we have to wait for them to grow to a fully developed tree).

In truth, the exact opposite is happening as we’re chopping down trees (albeit a small number in comparison with the tree population of the world) to accommodate more carbon-producing vehicles – recent Eurostat figures show Malta last year recorded the highest increase in carbon dioxide emissions in the EU.

Fortunately, scientists and engineers are now coming up with more carbon-neutral vehicles and governments are beginning to incentivise the use of zero emission vehicles and electric cars. However, this is clearly not enough and the take-up is slow – less than 0.5 per cent of the entire stock of cars in Malta are hybrid or electric.

The frightening rate at which cars are being added to our roads, coupled with the removal of the few shade-providing trees, has many more adverse side effects. The amount of time we spend in traffic inhaling noxious gases has increased, accompanied by soaring stress levels since a 10-minute journey has now turned into 30 minutes. This is leading to a poorer quality of life to the one a Mediterranean island like ours is capable of offering.

The solution? Buy a bicycle or an electric car if you must, plant more trees, build cycle lanes and encourage the use of road and car sharing.

Of course, if you had to ask me what the long-term solution looks like it would be an underground network of tunnels, carrying petrol-guzzling traffic and public transport down under, while keeping the surface road network for bicycles and electric cars with fruit-bearing trees on either side. 

But I think we’re a little bit beyond the next election’s manifestos of either party.

Kristian Zarb Adami is an astrophysics professor at the University of Malta and the University of Oxford.

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