If we needed any reminding of the dangers of car pollution to people’s health, this has been provided by a recent scientific study that has hit the headlines in the global media.

The study forms part of the Global Burden of Disease project and its findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It concluded that more than 5.5 million premature deaths are linked to air pollution every year.

The study argues that air quality is the leading environmental risk for human disease, and that the reduction of air pollution is “an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population”.

China and India account for half of these deaths, and the burning of coal is a main cause of this.

However, particulate matter is not only emitted from coal-fired power stations, but also from factories and cars. This is increasing cancers, heart diseases, strokes and lung infections.

In an earlier study, the World Health Organisation had also made similar findings. And pollution increase is also related to other global challenges such as climate change.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that statistics issued by the EU last year show that Malta had the largest increase in greenhouse gas emissions across the EU since 1990 and that the main culprit was transport.

One may say that newer forms of transport emit less particulate matter than older forms of transport, but the fact is that car usage is consistently increasing in Malta and that many old cars remain polluting our roads. And surveys in Malta are showing relatively high concern on issues related to transport, environment and air quality.

To date, next to nothing is being done to remove heavy polluters from Malta’s roads. Not everyone may be aware that such polluters may be reported through an SMS system to 5061 1899, where one simply writes the number plate of the car in question. Yet, the overall impact of this scheme leaves much to be desired.

Malta is full of heavy polluters, yet, enforcement is sub-minimal

A year ago, in an article I wrote for this newspaper I discussed the fact that in a two-year period, only 38 cars were removed from Malta’s roads by the transport authorities due to excessive pollution. One can easily count such a number of cars in this situation after five minutes in Regional Road.

In my article I had asked why was it that only 681 notifications were sent to car owners when Transport Malta received 22,182 reports of heavy polluters? I also asked whether detailed statistics be provided and what were the criteria for submission of notifications? So far, no reply has been forthcoming.

This issue was also raised in Parliament last week by MP Ryan Callus who asked Minister for Transport Joe Mizzi for updated figures in this regard. It transpired than in 2015, 13,000 SMS reports on polluting vehicles were sent in by the public, yet only 262 were called in for checking and only 32 failed to pass the test.

To me, this is bad environmental governance. It is crystal clear that Malta is full of heavy polluters, yet, enforcement is sub-minimal.

Culprits include certain vehicles used for the transport of tourists and schoolchildren, certain delivery vans, many construction trucks which are fit for scrapping, and many private cars, including some newer ones which ‘mysteriously’ emit black pollution.

To be fair, in government’s Budget for 2016, incentives were introduced to encourage the scrapping of old cars and the purchase of electric or hybrid cars. Yet such incentives, positive as they are, will never be universally significant, and can have little impact when transport authorities keep tolerating heavy polluters.

It should also be noted that Malta has one of the oldest car fleets in Europe. What is Mizzi waiting for to suggest cut-off dates for the removal of old polluting junks and to have on-the-road spot checks for excessive emissions?

The issue is made worse when one considers that Malta is still awaiting a proper, reliable and efficient public transport service, though the current service providers are being rewarded with expanding subsidies and other forms of government support.

Fragmented governance, next-to-inexistent enforcement and tokenistic measures are a far cry from what is required to protect people’s health and the environment.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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