An eye-opening climate change country report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in March provides a needed reality check of what consequences Malta could be facing due to climate change in the not so distant future.
One of the most alarming projected consequences featured in the report is the rise in annual premature deaths due to long-term exposure to heat. While in 2010, the number of such deaths stood at 50, in 2050 it is predicted to rise up to 113.
According to the report, Malta’s percentage of hot days (‘heat stress’) is projected to increase substantially, from about 15% of all days on average between 1981 and 2010, to 80% by 2100 under a “high emissions scenario”, to 40% by the same year if emissions decrease rapidly. A high-emissions scenario refers to a situation in which society has failed to make the concerted efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“Indeed, annual premature deaths due to long-term exposure to heat are projected to increase in Malta as a result of climate change,” it warns.
Asked to comment on the findings in the report, the University of Malta’s Director of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development Professor Maria Attard emphasised to The Shift that urgent action is necessary.
“This is a strong warning which requires action from today, as we have already started experiencing these long periods of heatwaves. And with an increasingly ageing population and households living in energy poverty, the risks associated with heat stress will be considerable,” she warned.
The WHO country report explains that, besides fatalities, the health risks of heat stress also include illnesses such as dehydration, rash, cramps, heatstroke and heat exhaustion.
Among other effects, the report forecasts Malta’s temperature will rise by at most 3.7°C on average and by at least 1.2°C by the end of the century (2071–2100 compared with 1981–2010). With regards to annual rainfall, it is projected to decrease by about 25% on average under a high emissions scenario, although the uncertainty range is large (-46% to -2%). If emissions decrease rapidly, the forecast is for little change.
Meanwhile, under a high emissions scenario, there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of dry episodes and drought events, while if emissions decrease rapidly, there little change is expected, although year-to-year variability remains large, the report explains.
Not enough documentation locally
According to the climate change expert, the rise in temperatures would have “devastating” effects on the islands, and while these effects are well documented in other countries, there are “far too few” studies locally.
“This is a problem – the lack of investment in research on climate change locally is a major barrier to effective policy making and implementation,” Attard told The Shift.
“We cannot prevent climate change, what we can do is reduce our emissions to reduce the negative consequences envisaged and to try to avoid a global warming of over 2° (which would be catastrophic and for which much of the consequences are unknown),” she added.
‘Moderate’ climate change and health strategy implementation
When it comes to the government’s planning for health and climate change, WHO noted that the level of implementation by Malta has been “moderate,” and although there are health adaptation priorities identified in the government’s climate change strategy, there is no health budget allocated to the concern.
Attard told The Shift that she “concurs very much” with the WHO’s conclusion that Malta’s efforts in this area are “moderate”.
“This could be because indeed the climate adaptation strategy is not a health strategy per se. It took Malta a long time to develop the strategy and there is still a lot of research (and evidence) that is required to support a proper strategy in the health sector,” she said.
Going against its own strategy
In all of the areas in Malta for which air pollution data was available, air quality levels were worse than the WHO guideline value.
Attard explained that a number of factors contribute to air pollution in Malta, with the highest contributor being motorised traffic, congestion and our dependence on private motor vehicles.
“Road widening and grade separation in junctions have only provided more space for cars. And therefore, if the strategy was ever to curtail pollution from cars, this did not and will not happen in the short to medium term. Much of the infrastructure works went against the same transport strategy which the government published in 2016 in which is written that a strategy built on roads projects is not a sustainable one,” she noted.
She also explained that the promise that electric vehicles – which “seems to be the only strategy that the government has to solve air pollution” – will solve all problems “is not entirely true” and that electric vehicles still require electricity.
“Electrification increases the energy dependence of the islands (on its power station) – this is not related to health but there could be serious health consequences if, as a result of electrification of the transport system, people and households would have to suffer more cuts, especially during heatwaves when heat stress is greatest.”
Attard listed “easily available” solutions to decreasing air pollution in Malta, such as upgrades to walking and cycling infrastructure in town centres, investment and priority to public transport, and solutions such as a Bus Rapid Transit or tram.
Another “elephant in the room” highlighted by Attard that needs attention is Malta’s construction industry. Buildings “are increasingly contributing to emissions and pollution that have high global warming potential (for example HFCs – a type of gas). These are emitted from air conditioning units necessary to cool down buildings which have no insulation and suffer cold in winter and heat in summer,” she said.
“We desperately need a reform in the construction industry to adopt and implement sustainable building practices,” she said.
“Is anyone looking into them?”
WHO ends its country report by suggesting to Malta opportunities for action. These include strengthening the implementation of Malta’s plan, conducting adaptation assessments, strengthening and integrating early warning systems, assessing the health co-benefits of national climate mitigation policies and building climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable health care facilities.
“WHO is clear on what we need to do,” concluded the Climate Change professor, “but is anyone looking into them?”