COPping it out

Malta’s renewable energy efforts so far are well short of what is needed. In the meantime, the government has been spending hundreds of millions on subsidies for petrol, diesel, and gas.

On 8th February, the media reported that, for the first time, global warming had exceeded 1.5oC across an entire year.  Temperatures have kept rising at a concerning pace, data from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service from the past year shows.

In 2015 world leaders promised to try to limit the long-term temperature rise to 1.5oC, widely seen as crucial to help avoid the most damaging impacts. This first year-long breach doesn’t break that landmark ‘Paris agreement’, but it surely brings the world closer to doing so in the long-term.

Thousands died last year due to extreme heat, floods, storms, and wildfires linked to climate change and nearly 2 billion people are currently impacted by drought. The Panama Canal is drying up, the oceans have never been hotter in recorded history, and glaciers in both the Arctic and Antarctic are melting at unprecedented rates.

“To go over [1.5oC of warming] on an annual average is significant,” says Prof. Liz Bentley, chief executive of the UK’s Royal Meteorological Society. “It’s another step in the wrong direction. But we know what we’ve got to do.”

A key symbol of international efforts to tackle climate change has been that of limiting long-term warming to 1.5oC above “pre-industrial” levels   ̶   before humans started burning large amounts of fossil fuels.  A landmark UN report in 2018 said that the risks from climate change   ̶   such as intense heatwaves, rising sea-levels, and loss of wildlife   ̶   were much higher at 2oC of warming than at 1.5oC.

A step forward or a failure?

Malta’s Energy Minister Miriam Dalli hailed the compromise deal reached at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28) in Dubai in December for a “transition away” from fossil fuels as “a step forward”.   Most other people, including myself, would call it a failure.  COP 28 did not include a commitment to a phase-out of fossil fuels.  One participant called it a “tragedy for the planet and our future” while another said it was the “dream outcome” for the fossil fuel industry.

The stronger term “phase-out” had been backed by 130 of the 198 countries negotiating in Dubai but was blocked by petrostates, including Saudi Arabia.  So the participants opted for an agreement containing many loopholes and which did not match the severity of the climate emergency.  Prof. Michael Mann, a climatologist and geophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, says that “to ‘transition away from fossil fuels’ was weak tea at best. It’s like promising your doctor that you will ‘transition away from doughnuts’ after being diagnosed with diabetes.”

An editorial in Nature said the failure over the phase-out was more than a missed opportunity; it was “dangerous” and ran “counter to the core goals laid down in the 2015 Paris climate agreement”.  The editorial quite rightly asserted that the climate doesn’t care who emits greenhouse gases.  Sir David King, the chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group and a former UK chief scientific adviser, said the wording of the deal was feeble.  

What our Energy Minister and her colleagues in the EU want us to believe is that small nods and winks will do the trick.  But there is a chasm between the stark reality of the emission cuts needed and the action proposed to deliver those reductions.  The COP28 text recognises there is a need for “deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” to stay in line with 1.5oC.  But it then lists a whole bunch of efforts that don’t have a chance of achieving that.

Most scientists have struggled to say something positive about the COP 28 outcome.  Prof. Mike Berners-Lee, an expert on carbon foot-printing at Lancaster University, says: “COP 28 is the fossil fuel industry’s dream outcome, because it looks like progress, but it isn’t.” Dr James Dyke, an associate professor in earth system dynamics at the University of Exeter, says: “COP 28 needed to deliver an unambiguous statement …  it has numerous caveats and loopholes that risks rendering it meaningless.”

My killer quote could well be that from Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States group, whose speech at the closing of COP 28 won a standing ovation from delegates: “It is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do.”

Minister Dalli herself told the Press that “from the very beginning, Malta, together with the other countries of the European Union and even the small states, always insisted that we could not exceed an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius in temperatures.” So, I would have distanced myself from the EU welcome of the COP deal.

One more lie

As far as I am concerned, it is one more lie to add to all the other lies told so often that those who utter them begin to believe them: the lie that rich countries care about climate justice. The lie that human rights are separate from climate justice. The lie that the US, Canada, Australia, Norway, and the UK are high in ambition, and it’s developing countries that are lacking it.

The reality is that rich countries worked overtime to try to get a hollow headline on fossil fuels out of this COP.  Resembling emperors with no clothes, the US and the EU not only point-blank refused to discuss cutting their own emissions in line with both fairness and science, but their agreement on “fossil fuel phase-out” has more loopholes than a block of Swiss cheese.  By the way, the COP 28 communiqué is non-binding.

Climate talks are not only about carbon but about the global economy, about those who benefit from a rigged economy wanting to continue to benefit, even as it takes humanity to the edge of catastrophe.  The rich countries refused once again to acknowledge historical responsibility, or redistribution, or the remaking of a financial system of debt, tax, and trade that has been rigged to keep developing countries locked into exploiting resources simply to fill the coffers of rich countries.  And no self-respecting ex-colony should share in their joy.

What did COP28 deliver?

OK, I do not want to sound like a petulant kid.  COP 28 did deliver something, in the form of the loss and damage fund to help developing vulnerable countries cope with the effects of climate change. The pledges made so far   ̶   $429m and well below the damages in developing countries that are estimated at $400 billion annually   ̶   are a drop in the ocean.  Again, another sop from governments who would never accept responsibility for the damage they have caused.

In a sign of incremental progress, the new agreement also calls for a tripling of renewable energy and a doubling of energy efficiency by 2030.  Energy security poses a challenge in the climate change dilemma. The capacity of renewable energy production alone is not sufficient to bear the entire burden, and it is unfortunately too early to rely solely on renewable energy.

To meet deadlines, the decision to use natural gas as a transitional fuel has been agreed upon. Although natural gas is not entirely clean, it is still a cleaner alternative compared to fossil fuels.  Despite some expressing concerns, the use of natural gas as a transitional fuel was agreed in Dubai.  This is important, given that liquified natural gas (LNG) accounts for 80% of Malta’s electricity generation versus 12% by other fossil fuels.  Renewable energy, including solar and bioenergy, are a mere 8% of energy production.

Malta’s renewable energy efforts

In fact, Malta ranked last among EU member states in renewable energy usage in 2018, moving down two places from third last in 2017, according to Eurostat.  EU countries have been set different targets and last year these were reached by 11 Member States.  In 2022, Malta was still 1.2% short of its 2020 target, which is to generate 11.5% of energy through renewables   ̶    that is already a concession from the EU’s target to obtain 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 and at least 32% by 2030. 

In my opinion, Malta’s renewable energy efforts so far are well short of what is needed.  Two years ago, the government announced a scheme to invest up to a maximum of €74m in renewables over a period of 20 years.  In the meantime, the government has been spending hundreds of millions on subsidies for petrol, diesel and gas.

In August last year, the government released a National Policy for the Deployment of Offshore Renewable Energy (NPOR) with the objective of providing a framework for offshore renewable energy projects and infrastructure within Malta’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 25 nautical miles.

Preliminary studies have been carried out, including 33-year modelled wind resource data, to determine the potential for offshore wind energy.  On this basis, as well as following an evaluation of competing uses within Malta’s territorial sea and EEZ, the NPOR identified six principal sites for the development of offshore renewable energy projects, with the intention of guiding prospective project developers towards the most appropriate sites.

The new plan speaks of research and innovation, but the Maltese public research budget in all sectors is notoriously low at 0.68% of GDP in 2020 (for comparison: Ireland 1.23%, Finland 2.94%, Cyprus 0.82%).  And what can be more risible and pathetic than one of the measures to combat climate change mentioned in the plan is the … wait for it … building and expansion of new roads!

According to Charles Yousif, secretary general at the Malta Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energies Association, there are two factors that are plunging Malta to the bottom when it comes to its share of electricity from renewable sources.  The first is the rapid population growth over the last few years, resulting in higher demand for electricity.  The second is that the focus over the last few years has been on energy supply and production, whereas energy consumption has been neglected.

“The renewable energy projects have not been able to catch up with the fast rate of those demographic changes,” says Dr Yousif.  It shows.  Compared to our 10.3% achievement, several EU member states have left us at the starting block   ̶  Austria (73%), Sweden (66%), Denmark (62%), Latvia (53%) and Portugal (52%).

Of course, you might argue: those countries are big and the competition for land use is not as cutthroat as it is in Malta.  My reply to that is that where there’s a will, there’s a way.  For example, why is it that we have the Malta Development Bank, whose remit includes large infrastructural projects, but it has yet to be involved in any?  Energy production is certainly a strategic development project, requires extensive financing, is difficult to finance through pure commercial loans, and can best be achieved by a public-private partnership   ̶   all characteristics of development banking. 

Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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