Pollution control measures: vague, cowardly and business as usual – Ralph Cassar

On behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika last week I commented that the National Air Pollution Control Programme (NAPCP) document on which there was a public consultation exercise, fails set out – black on white and unequivocally – measures which measurably reduce dangerous emissions from vehicles, namely NOx (nitrogen oxides).

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) chose to reply and “to point out that air pollution remains one of its major concerns and that it is not its intention to minimise the issue. ERA has always been consistent in stating that the major source of air pollution in urban areas is road traffic. This is confirmed by data emanating from the real time monitoring stations managed by the Authority.”

It is heartening to see that ERA employees, technical and scientific staff, at least are very aware of the sources of pollution and the need to control them.

However, I am also aware of the fact that while ERA staff, based on science and technical know-how, do propose measures to reduce pollution from vehicles in urban areas such as low emission zones, the ministers from the Gonzi era to the recent Muscat Cabinet, repeatedly water down the proposed measures such as to make them ineffective.

It is a well-known fact that transport minister Ian Borg and also former PM Joseph Muscat see reducing vehicle access to polluted areas as a vote-loser. They pathetically label any pollution charges as ‘taxes’, ignoring the serious health effects of pollution. It would be interesting to know whether Robert Abela and Aaron Farrugia think it is high time that pollution is tackled head-on. If we want to look at it from the economic point of view, a healthier population makes economic sense, and means a less crowded hospital and lower medicine bills.

It is true that there have been decreases in the amounts of some pollutants because of the improvements in power generation such as the shift to gas. AD has always supported a shift to gas as a transition fuel on the path to a zero-carbon economy. Of course the shady dealing with a corrupt foreign government and promises of €5,000 a day to a government minister and the PM’s head of secretariat, shifted the discussion from energy to graft and corruption. However, any suggestions that urban air quality has improved because of the changes in energy generation is not science; it’s just government propaganda.

The decrease in the amounts of some pollutants has not had such a great impact on urban air quality, because in urban areas it is road transport which needs to be tackled.

Here’s what the NACP says. On page 44, table 2 says that in the scenario “with measures” Malta will emit a total of 4.9 kilotons of NOx when the limits are only 2kt. With so called “additional measures” proposed in the draft action plan emissions go down marginally to 4.5kt (page 68).

Let’s remember that the main effects of NOx is the increased likelihood of respiratory problems, especially in children and older people. NOx inflames the lining of the lungs, and it can reduce immunity to lung infections. This can cause problems such as bronchitis. This pollutant can also cause more frequent and more intense asthma attacks. This NOx comes from the combustion of fuels at street level.

The reform of the public transport system has also achieved results, but this is clearly not enough. Malta Public Transport’s electric bus pilot project is also laudable. Much more needs to be done by government, however. This includes the aforementioned low emission zones in urban areas, making streets safer, and putting in place safe travel corridors for bicycles and pedelecs. Instead of encouraging micro-mobility solutions, government introduced ridiculous regulations on micro-scooters!

Another short- to medium-term measure would be implementing a Bus Rapid Transit system, with lanes in our roads reserved exclusively for buses. More and more areas should be pedestrianised and made off limits to vehicles. ERA can talk all it wants about buses, however the increase in vehicle registrations and the free-for-all on our roads cancels the small gains in sustainable transport.

The document for consultation states clearly that “more effort is needed to reach our 2030 targets” with respect to NOx. Quoting from the document on page 12: “Although NOx emissions from power generation have decreased by 91% between 2005 and 2017” – and here comes the clincher – “NOx emissions from the road transport sector have not reduced. While there are several sustainable measures that are being implemented in the road transport sector, this effort is masked by the daily increase in newly registered vehicles on the road, making this sector a major contributor to NOx emissions.”

The two scenarios modelled in the document are the following (pg 12):

The “With Measures” scenario: “The measures included in the ‘With Measures’ (WM) scenario consist of the use of cleaner fuels in the power generation and transport sector, the public transport reform, sustainable mobility measures, roadside checks and roadworthiness testing, grants and schemes in the road transport sector, energy efficiency grants and a number of good practice measures in the agricultural sector.”

The “With Additional Measures” scenario: “The measures included in the ‘With additional Measures’ (WaM) scenario build on the WMs scenario, with additional measures mostly focused on road transport. These include free school transport, the study related to the introduction of a low emission zone in the hub, additional sustainable mobility measures, electric buses in Gozo, road infrastructure measures, public transport quality corridors and the improvement of ferry landing places. The WaM scenario also includes measures in other sectors such as a permitting regime for emission sources not yet regulated by EU legislation…”

I reiterate Alternattiva Demokratika’s observations that not enough is being done or proposed to be done to reduce dangerous NOx from road transport. The document itself says so.

“Notwithstanding the above-mentioned measures, projected data for the WaM scenario shows that more effort needs to be employed for Malta to be able to reach its NOx ceiling for 2030.”

Note the difference between this and the wording used for the other pollutants:

“Emission projections for SO2, NH3 and PM2.5 demonstrate compliance with 2020 and 2030 ceilings, while emission projections for NMVOC result in a non-compliance with the 2020 ceilings…”

It is crystal clear that either ERA or their political masters are not ready to implement effective measures to bring about a better air quality for all – for families, children and vulnerable people.

I suspect that it is, in fact, the ‘political masters’ and ministers who are putting spokes in the wheels of progress in this area. Ministers want plans to include just a vague promise of inducing “a long-term (especially commuter) behavioural change of how people get to-and-from congested areas, which would lead to cleaner air throughout the Maltese Islands.”

Vague, wishy-washy and cowardly, instead of real leadership. This is what people should be voting for: well-being and quality of life, not the business-as-usual and runaway economy that puts us at risk.

Ralph Cassar
Published in The Maltatoday – Wednesday 5 February 2020