Climate change: tourism will not be spared

The era of €10 air fares is over, warned Michael O’Leary, Ryanair boss. This follows the news in the past weeks that within the European Union, in order to implement the Green Deal, aviation must do its part by internalising its environmental costs. That is, environmental costs must be incorporated in the price of air fares. This is a direct and practical application of the polluter pays principle.

Aviation has been a free rider for quite some time, being exempted from shouldering the impacts of the emissions which it generates. The holiday is now over and as a direct result the tourism industry must take stock of the situation. Like all other economic sectors, it must factor in its costings the environmental impacts which it generates.

The polluter pays principle is a basic environmental principle which forms an integral part of the EU acquis: it guides EU policy. Since 2004 it also forms an integral part of Malta’s environmental legislation and consequently it should also guide the formulation of Maltese policy.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding the approval by Parliament of a motion declaring recognition of the climate emergency, this declaration is still a paper declaration. The necessary policies required to face this emergency have never been discussed, approved and acted upon. It is disappointing that a prime mover behind the climate emergency motion is now equating the required action to address aviation’s climate change impacts as being contrary to the national interest. He has no idea on the matter!

Let us be clear:  as an archipelago in the centre of the Mediterranean, the Maltese islands will be severely impacted by the next stages of climate change impacts, that is the rise in sea level. The coastal areas will be hard hit, possibly they will be wiped out or substantially reduced, depending on the extent of the sea level rise. This is also applicable for all the coastal infrastructure, which includes practically all tourism facilities.

It is in Malta’s national interest that the 2015 Paris climate goals are adhered to and implemented at the earliest. Seeking exemptions is not on.  Obviously there will be considerable impacts. The impacts of acting to address climate change will, however, be substantially less if we act than if we continue avoiding our responsibilities. 

Over the years technology will undoubtedly improve, possibly reducing the burden. The second European Aviation Environment Report drawn up in 2019 by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Environment Agency (EEA) and Eurocontrol points out that within the European area, the average fuel consumption of commercial flights has decreased by 24% over the period 2005-2017. However, over the same time frame there has been a 60% increase in the kilometres flown by commercial flights!

This statistic frames the issue: technology is driving down the emissions per passenger kilometre, however the number of passenger kilometres has been on an exponential increase as more people are travelling by air.

Currently there is an ongoing debate regarding a tax on aviation fuel. This is one of the essential measures needed to enable the reduction of 55% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and beyond.

This initiative is aimed to ensure that the price of an air flight includes all costs, including the environmental costs caused by the resulting emissions.

This can be carried out either by a tax on air travel or else through the use of alternative means of transport, as a result of which the tax can be avoided legally, with the resultant decrease of the environmental impacts. In mainland Europe, the use of trains is many a time a good alternative for air travel, not just due to its efficiency, but also in generating less environmental impacts. In the case of Malta and other islands, the potential use of alternatives is very limited. This leads to an inevitable increase in the cost of air travel and the consequential decrease in air travelling, both incoming and outgoing.

Although there may eventually be some reasonable concessions for those who live on isolated islands, tourism cannot keep avoiding its own environmental impacts: this is what social and environmental justice demands! It is in Malta’s interest that the environmental impacts of tourism, particularly mass tourism, is contained before it is too late. The aviation industry must be prodded through economic means, such as environmental taxation, to restructure itself.

Let us all remember that like all islands, Malta, together with coastal communities, will be the first to suffer some of the worsts repercussions of climate change: the increase in sea level. Tourism will not be spared. The climate will not consider our special situation or our economic considerations – nature does not discriminate: it will roll over us as it did elsewhere!

Tourism is at a crossroad. It needs to urgently adapt to the impacts of climate change. This is tourism’s future, not tax exemptions.

Carmel Cacopardo
ADPD Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 14 August 2022