In November this year, in Glasgow, world leaders will attend the most important international climate meeting since the signing of the landmark Paris agreement five years ago.
In Paris, the world’s leaders had made a commitment to hold global temperature rises to no more than two degrees centigrade (2ºC), and preferably to below 1.5ºC. But the national pledges made then on curbing greenhouse gases fell woefully short of what is required to stay below 2ºC. Since 2015, the world’s carbon output has risen by four per cent.
Most people alive today will witness the escalating effects of climate change. The outlook for the future is grim.
The world has warmed by one degree since pre-industrial times. The preponderance of scientific opinion considers that if the world’s carbon emissions stay on their ‘business-as-usual’ course, the planet will warm by 2ºC as soon as early-2030, 3ºC around mid-century and 4ºC by 2075 or thereabouts.
If reinforcing effects from thawing permafrost in the Arctic or collapsing tropical rainforests occur, then the world could be in for rises of 5ºC or 6ºC by the end of this century.
In a book by Mark Lynam, Our Final Warning – in which he draws together the conclusions of hundreds of scientific papers and reports – he describes, degree by degree, the detailed impact of climate change as the world warms.
The 1ºC increase we have already experienced has led to fires in the Arctic, rain at the North Pole and droughts in areas of Africa and the Middle East. Between 1.5ºC and 2ºC of warming, the western Antarctic and Greenland ice-sheets will be destabilised, leading to rising sea levels that would put over 100 ‘mega-cities’ (those with over 10 million inhabitants) at risk of flooding.
At 2ºC, almost all coral reefs will be dead. The Amazon rainforest will begin to dry out and be transformed into a grassy plain without trees. In one to three summers, there will be no ice on top of the Arctic Sea. The loss of the rainforest’s carbon sink effect, in combination with the Arctic’s sun-reflecting shield, will accelerate the earth’s warming, speeding the planet towards 3ºC.
This will lead to chronic worldwide food shortages because for much of the time it will be too hot in south Asia to work in the fields, and US harvests of wheat and soy could decline by up to two-thirds. ‘Desertification’ will occur throughout southern Europe.
At 4ºC, much of the tropics will be uninhabitable, forcing mass migration. At least a sixth of species may be heading for extinction. At 5ºC, half the world will be suffering heat shock. Coastal-dwellers, threatened by about three metres of sea-level rise by 2100, will have fled or will be cowering behind protective sea walls. 6ºC will probably result in the extinction of the human species.
Despite these prognoses, the world still has a chance to avoid the horrors beyond 2ºC, because for the next 20 to 30 years, the speed of global warming will be driven by how much carbon we emit.
It means that the survival of almost everything we cherish, from the food on our plates to the animal species and natural world around us, depends on what world governments do in the next five or six electoral cycles.
Malta must take these steps and incur costs now to avoid the risk of very severe consequences- Martin Scicluna
What should Malta do to help avert this global catastrophe? First, at the strategic level, it has a part to play in contributing positively to the European Green Deal. This means helping to transform the EU from a high- to a low-carbon economy by achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and a 50 per cent to 55 per cent cut in emissions (compared with 1990 levels) by 2030. Malta’s record on reducing carbon emissions is poor. It has consistently lagged behind in meeting its renewable energy targets. Radical action will be needed to meet the Green Deal targets.
Second, it is not too dramatic to state that if global warming continues on its upward path, Malta within the next two to three decades will be largely unrecognisable from the island we know today.
Global warming will lead to more extreme and unsettled weather patterns, with prolonged Saharan-style heatwaves, more intense rainy periods, and longer, dryer spells.
The escalating rise in temperature will be accompanied by severe water shortages as rainfall is drastically reduced by some 12 per cent, with the aquifer already in a critical state.
The predicted sea level rise could transform the landscape and affect towns in coastal low-lying areas, an impact which would be compounded by strong winds and storm surges.
Lack of water and moisture in the soil and rising sea levels will lead to increased salinity. Crop yields will be diminished and desertification of the Maltese countryside will become unstoppable. The effects on our natural landscapes, flora and fauna will be devastating.
The government should implement policies now to address the creeping impacts of climate change. What is at stake is economic, but also puts cultural heritage in jeopardy and social sustainability at severe risk.
A long-term adaptation and mitigation plan to cope with the effects should start now as part of post-COVID planning.
This should include identifying the areas that will be prone to sea flooding and building appropriate flood defences; pursuing a water policy framework to ensure the survival of the mean sea level aquifer; and developing comprehensive mitigation and adaptability plans to protect our historic cultural heritage.
The temptation to postpone these long-term infrastructure projects must be resisted. Malta must take these steps and incur costs now to avoid the risk of very severe consequences in the future.
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