Sociologist, activist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Friday, December 11, 2009

Copenhagen is Calling

Michael Briguglio

The Times Friday, 11th December 2009

So, December 12 shall be a big day for the world's efforts to combat climate change. Or shall it? Speculation is rife that no big deal shall be achieved, certainly not enough to really attain what is necessary to avoid the big threats humanity is facing.

If one looks at the findings of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), one would immediately notice how small islands have much to lose with climate change in terms of sea-level rise and coastal hazards, which threaten vital infrastructures, settlements and facilities that support people's livelihoods.

For example, with half a metre sea-level rise, Malta would lose a considerable proportion of beaches and this would, in turn, adversely affect the tourist industry, with a ripple effect on income and employment. Agriculture could also be adversely impacted with climate change, given that this industry is so dependent on weather conditions.

In the case of Malta, global warming is also likely to lead to other problems such as those associated with health. One example in this regard is the influx of insects that survive in the tropics, which could find it possible to live in new temperature zones, resulting in new health problems.

In preparation for the Copenhagen summit, the UK-based Green Economics Institute held a conference in Oxford, discussing various dimensions of climate change and proposals for mitigation (such as reduction of greenhouse gases) and adaptation (including shifting towards more sustainable lifestyles).

One of the speakers, Graciela Chichilnisky, well-known in climate change circles for her expertise, explained that solar power is the energy of the future if we are truly to confront climate change.

She explained that a properly-functioning carbon market will basically mean that fossil fuels - which are major polluters - have to become expensive (reflecting the damage they cause) whereas clean solar energy has to become cheaper.

As things stand now, she explained, the technology associated with the use of solar energy is not developed enough to economically meet the world's needs but its usage should be accelerated so that, in the long run, more and more of this energy is used. This is particularly important when one notes that global demand for energy is likely to increase in the coming years, especially in developing countries such as China and India. It is, therefore, imperative that energy investment in such countries, as well as in Africa and South America, is as clean as possible because, otherwise, the impact on climate change will be catastrophic.

Ms Chichilnisky added that countries such as Japan are making great success out of feed-in tariff systems, where producers of solar energy - including households - make economic gains out of transferring their surplus energy to energy providers.

As a small island state with a voice in the European Union, Malta should really speak up for bold policies against climate change. Our emissions are minimal but, as a small island, the impact on climate change will be one of the highest, given our relatively large coastal area in comparison to the land mass.

If we expect other countries to take bold measures against climate change, we surely must set an example. There is much to say on Malta's need to synthesise ecological, economic and social factors. I shall refer to solar energy by way of example.

The government's incentives on solar water heaters are too restrictive and have been further restricted in the last Budget. This is surely a far-cry from the need to install 50,000 solar water heaters, as recently concluded by Maltese scientists speaking at a Friends of the Earth conference.

Our planning laws and regulations do not help matters, either. As things stand, people living in apartments with penthouses are being denied the right to install solar water heaters. Others are being discouraged from installing such heaters particularly due to Mepa's poor track record on building height policy. Why install a solar water heater when the building next door can go up higher than permitted by local plans?

In addition, Enemalta lacks credibility and government policy regarding energy generation is, to say the least, baffling. The choice of "dirty" energy at the Delimara power station is a case in point. The same can be said for the lack of action to introduce a feed-in-tariff system. Yet again, sustainable development is being used mainly as a buzzword and not as the basis for a clear policy framework.

Shall Malta hear the call of Copenhagen and, small as it is, set an example in addressing climate change issues? Fortunately, we form part of the EU, which is taking a lead in this regard, and, as a group, EU members states will be in the forefront of mitigation and adaptation measures. But as a single country, I fear we often pay lip-service to these issues and, when it comes to implementation and enforcement, we, as a nation, falter.

Unfortunately, our bigger political parties often have a short-term horizon and climate change issues have longer-term aspect impacts. This may be one reason why such issues are often put on the back-burner in Maltese politics.

If we seriously wish to address these issues, we should mainstream sustainable development and climate change in our national plans and policies and take all the steps necessary to implement and enforce measures that are conducive to a better and more sustainable quality of live.

The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.

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