Record breaking temperatures, in many cases exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, fires raging across a multitude of countries and drought, is the current news all over Europe. The current heatwave was not unexpected.
The European Union’s Joint Research Station in a report published earlier this week, entitled Drought in Europe July 2022, reports that a substantial portion of EU territory is exposed to warning levels of drought, or even worse. This will soon be the new normal!
The current climate will severely impact agriculture all over Europe. The impact on crop yields will be substantial. In neighbouring Italy, we have witnessed on TV the level of the waters of the river Po being several metres lower than usual: its current capacity is 80 per cent down on what’s normal at this time of the year. Fifty per cent of Italian farms are at risk, devastated by drought and high temperatures.
All this is nothing new for Maltese agriculture. We have been there before, at times due to prolonged drought, at others as a result of havoc creating floods which are increasing in frequency.
The climate has been slowly changing over the years, reacting to the changing human behaviour. Nature has been reacting slowly, signalling time and again that it will not be subdued. Nature’s signals have been repeatedly ignored: as a result, we are now faced with a climate emergency.
The Climate Emergency is now a reality which is an integral part of our daily life. Addressing it would signify that we start taking note of nature’s signals and act accordingly. It stands to reason that this should be reflected in our country’s long-term policies. Specifically, one would expect that policies which are incompatible with responsible action to address climate change, are immediately addressed.
Malta has no heavy industry which contributes to climate change. Our major contributor to climate change is transport, specifically road transport and aviation.
The number of cars on the roads is continuously increasing. Road infrastructure improvements taken in hand are intended to increase the capacity of Maltese roads and consequently are and will continue to add to the problem. Traffic congestion is being shifted from one area to another. Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, there is clearly no political will to act and address the contribution of road transport towards climate change.
Electrification, on its own, will not solve the problem. It will rather shift emissions from our roads to the source of electricity used in charging our cars. The renewable energy we generate is not sufficient to cater for our needs, in particular if we have to also cater for a complete electrification of our car fleet.
Part of the problem will be exported to the Sicilian mainland through the submarine energy cables and will be serve to increase our energy dependency.
Electrification of our roads must be coupled with a drive to substantially reduce cars from our roads. The relative smallness of the Maltese islands makes it much easier than elsewhere to substitute our car dependency with an efficient public transport. Almost everywhere is within easy reach.
Come October public transport will be free of charge. This must be coupled with an effort to increase its efficiency and reliability. It is only when public transport is a suitable alternative that it makes sense for governments to start a campaign to substantially reduce cars from our roads.
Addressing the impacts of aviation is more complicated. The current debate on an aviation fuel tax, as pointed out by various political observers, will impact the peripheral islands within the EU in a disproportionate manner. At the end of the day some solution will have to be found to this aspect of the problem, without further delay.
The crux of the issue, however, is the impact of such an aviation fuel tax on tourism, not just tourism directed towards Malta but that directed to all areas within the EU. All of us accept the basic “polluter pays principle” which is enshrined not only in EU legislation but also in local laws and regulations. Even tourism should internalise its environmental costs. That is the purpose of the proposed aviation fuel tax.
It is time that the tourism industry starts its much-delayed restructuring. With the climate emergency on our doorstep there is no purpose in delaying any further.
Kindly keep in mind that islands and coastal communities will be the worst hit when the impacts of climate change increase substantially through a sea-level rise. Some islands, as well as a number of coastal communities, as a result, will simply cease to exist.
One cannot bargain with nature; you have to follow its instructions!
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 24 July 2022