Making Malta climate resilient

Climate change is arguably the most profound challenge ever faced by humans. These past weeks have shown us that climate change is not some future event – it is already here.

In the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, the equivalent of a year’s average rainfall has fallen in just three days, devastating it. In northern Europe, and especially in Germany, freak floods have killed at least 205 people across the continent. We can all remember the massive wildfires which ravaged Australia, Siberia, the Amazon and California quite recently. As we speak, Canada is now on fire. Climate change is a direct threat to our way of life and indeed, our continued existence as a species; it threatens the health and the long-term viability of many fragile, biodiverse ecosystems such as rainforests and coral reefs. The Earth is not ours to mercilessly pillage and plunder. We should seek to coexist harmoniously with the biosphere, ensure its sustained well-being and leave a vibrant, living planet for future generations.

The human race has been slow and reluctant to act in order to mitigate the destructive effects of unbridled climate change, and propaganda from fossil fuel companies has only made it worse. The IPCC has on several occasions issued dire warnings of a bleak future, unless we step up our action.

In a recently leaked report, the IPCC warns that we are dangerously close to catastrophic climate change, as positive feedback mechanisms are unleased, and climate chaos spirals out of control. We may expect frequent and devastating episodes of extreme weather such as droughts, extended and extreme heatwaves, leading to crop failure and famine. Coastal cities and entire island nations are threatened with annihilation by sea level rise as glaciers and polar ice-caps melt. Every time the science is revisited, it offers ever more dire warnings, revealing that we are in even more trouble than suspected.

It is a deep injustice that developing countries that have a small carbon footprint are those that will be forced to endure the worst effects of climate degradation. They are also the least equipped to adapt to a changing climate. Malta may be a small country and our overall contribution to climate altering emissions may be comparatively minuscule.

Nevertheless, we still need to honour our international commitments and our ethical obligations. In spite of our small size, our action may inspire other nations to follow suit. We may indeed lead by example, and our country is well suited to serve as a hub for ecological pilot projects which we may also benefit from. Furthermore, we must start thinking about how to make Malta climate resilient, to mitigate the damage that will be done to our country from climate change.

We approved the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 and pledged our commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. But how are we faring? Do we have a clear, unequivocal roadmap to achieving this, or are we merely paying lip-service? Are we on the right trajectory to reaching our climate goals? Are we preparing for what is to come?

Malta is a semi-arid land and is therefore very susceptible to changes in weather patterns. We are observing a gradual trend towards desertification, with an ever-diminishing rainfall pattern. Sea level rise threatens to obliterate much of our coastline and submerge low lying areas. Our precious water table may become contaminated with saline water as sea levels rise. We must urgently invest in safeguarding our aquifer and ensuring that we can depend upon it in the future, instead of exhausting it today. As Malta becomes drier, it will become crucial to have a meaningful supply of clean, fresh water, and to attempt to maintain our drying environment as best we can. Our agriculture is under threat not only in the present, but will be even more so in the future. Our infrastructure must be designed to take climate change into account, and must be used to capture rainwater, not channel it into the sea.

Building resilience must take place under a backdrop of responsibility. Private vehicles are not only a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but also of air pollution. Instead of reinforcing our public transport service, transforming it into a reliable and efficient means of commuting, the government has opted to deal a heavy blow to our climate action. Rather than reigning in our alarmingly unsustainable levels of traffic, a short-sighted policy of road widening was adopted. This may only encourage commuters to rely more heavily on their private vehicles, unnecessarily exacerbating the impact of the transport sector.

Our ubiquitous road widening projects have also encroached on swathes of agricultural land and spelled the demise of hundreds of trees – a natural carbon sink that helps eliminate greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Whilst promoting electric cars is a step in the right direction, this would merely be an exercise in greenwashing unless the energy used to power them is derived from a renewable source. We need to invest more heavily in renewable energy. Otherwise, we would be merely shifting the emissions to another location.

Acknowledging the climate emergency is an essential first step, but that alone will not stave off the catastrophe. We need decisive and tangible action. Political rhetoric and partisan bickering will not address this crisis. Action is long overdue. There is no time to lose. Malta must show climate leadership, and must begin building a country that is resilient to climate change.

Mark Zerafa
ADPD Deputy Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 25 July 2021