The COP26 conference in Glasgow has brought a renewed sense of urgency as nations from all corners of the globe, or most of it, grapple to address the biggest challenge of our lifetime, climate change. There is finally hope that after years of inertia and stalemated discussions will lead to tangible change as multiple evidence shows that our behaviour has impacted the planet to an almost irreversible extent. Adapt to survive, is the new mantra.

This is easier said than done. Economies and populations are still growing as is inter-connectivity between markets. As a result, demand for goods and services grows, pushing upwards the need for travel, using different modes of transport. It is estimated that by 2050, current global transport activity will double.

The Malta Employers’ Association is acutely aware of the intimate relationship between transport and climate change and the challenges that this creates for local firms. Therefore, the operations of every business sector require some form of transport input, be it a company that forms part of the sector itself, firms offering delivery of goods or those dealing with importation and exportation. This awareness was a key trigger in leading the MEA to join forces with a number of other local institutions in establishing the Foundation for Transport, to assist the industry players of the transport sector in Malta and Gozo to adapt to new skills and competencies.

Together with the Foundation, the MEA has organised a number of joint events such as webinars, surveys and television programmes, culminating in the SME National Forum 2021. These events were all aimed at understanding employers’ concerns, sharing information but also to provide a platform for discussion on the best way forward.

The going-green challenge provides entrepreneurs with big opportunities as new technologies, processes and business models become key fundamentals for business growth and success. Malta’s business landscape is dominated by small businesses, which constitute more than 90 per cent of all firms established on the island, contributing to over two-thirds of employment.

At the same time, however, the OECD estimates that SMEs contribute 60-70 per cent of industrial pollution in Europe. They also generate all kinds of waste, such as construction, food and plastic. They will therefore need to significantly transform not just the way they operate, but possibly even they conceive their business.

This means that given small firms’ collective economic and environmental significance, they can be – and should be - important drivers of inclusive and green growth.

In a recent conference organised by the Malta Employers Association as part of SME Week 2021, stakeholders from diverse industries and authorities, shared views on how small businesses can become drivers of the green transition. Discussions focused on diverse elements – including energy, mobility and planning, exploring the role of new digital technologies to help transform current processes in becoming energy and resource efficient.

Participants exchanged best practice and sought to find common ground for a way forward in Malta’s efforts to embrace the green revolution towards a more sustainable future for our country. While different ideas were floated, an underlying theme highlighted by a number of experts related to the need for an integration of policies which impact sustainability.

The challenge of green mobility

Transport is that sector which probably epitomises this need in the most evident manner. There is no doubt that transport and climate change go hand in hand, given that the sector is one of the largest contributors to emissions. Yet, it is not merely about investing in greener modes of transport. This requires a sustained investment in human capital but also needs to be aligned with employment policies, consumer behaviour, planned FDI and national policies on post-COVID 19 strategy.

Greener transport requires an extensive skills gap review with covers both existing mismatches and anticipates future needs. As Jeannette Axisa, Director General of the Foundation for Transport, remarked at the SME National Forum, a large number of employees in the transport sectors are industry-taught. The transition requires a new framework of qualification and recognition and validation with step-in levels of skills and competences assisting the acceleration of new technologies adoption.

The national employment strategy has to look at a wide employment spectrum, from semi-skilled to top jobs, focusing on digitisation, operational literacy and periodic re-certifications. Whether it is spray painters, panel beaters, first responders, safety investigators, towing-truck operators, damage assessors, but also experts in policy-making, compliance, commercial and aviation legal exports – all will need new training and continuous re-certification. “It is only through access to well-trained operators that the country can accelerate the take up of green technologies by public and commercial players,” as Dr Axisa explained.

At the same time, this will also ensure a just transition, ensuring that persons currently operating in jobs which are most at risks are given the necessary re-training to ensure that the recovery is not an uneven one.

In parallel, a significant investment in infrastructure is also required. Green adaptation in the maritime sector depends even more heavily on long-term investment given that ships, for example, have a significantly longer lifetime than cars. As speakers at the Forum pointed out, Malta needs important investment on port infrastructure, such as a bunkering facility for LNG vessels and the shore-to-ship power. Such investment is imperative for Maltese maritime businesses to offer the client on the international market a complete, professional and attractive proposition.

As Kevin J Borg, CEO of the Malta Maritime Forum mentioned, examples of breakthrough digital, technological advances and investments which are being made help improve efficiency in the sector, optimising traffic and operations in the industry.

As a practical example, he highlighted a recent investment in larger, energy-efficient, less noise-polluting cranes by Malta Freeport that allowed it to accommodate the new breed of LNG-powered mega-container ships such as CGA-CGM’s Jacques Saade – the largest LNG-powered vessel ever built and which began to operate on the Malta route soon after it was commissioned late in 2020. 2021 has proved to be a record year for orders of new ships on a global level – a development that bodes well for fleet modernization. Meanwhile, he explained, efforts in R&I were proceeding relentlessly with the aim of finding new engineering and digital solutions that would render the Maritime Industry carbon-neutral by 2050 because the industry itself was falling victim to the grave, climate change consequences such as altering sea and air temperatures, shifting sea levels and the frequency of extreme marine events like tropical storms and cyclones.

Also positively, another element coming out strongly during the SME National Forum was that local policymakers are keen on reducing the gap between those with ideas and corporate entities that have the resources to deliver the projects. In his address during the event, Economy and Industry Minister Silvio Schembri said that this is a crucial moment for businesses to look within and strategise. “It is a do or die moment. Business can choose the status quo or take the next step forward and re-invent themselves. We must make the right choices now, choices which will have an impact on generations to come.”

Malta Enterprise has developed a wide range of grants and incentives which assist businesses in this transition, including through energy audits and assistance in the drafting of business plans. In parallel, the Malta Development Bank is in the process of developing facilities which support businesses into making the necessary investments to facilitate their green transition, including the purchase of commercial EVs, among others.

It is also highly encouraging that the Maltese Government has taken the Commission’s cue and dedicated more than half of the budget granted to our country through the Recovery and Resilience Facility for green projects.

Sustainability as an opportunity

It is evident, however, that sustainability is not merely a challenge but an opportunity for further growth. As Malta seeks to push forward its green credentials in the context of post-pandemic regeneration, SMEs will be facing growing challenges and opportunities as they map their way forward. Consumers too are changing the way how they make their purchases, how they commute, how they invest, becoming more environmentally conscious day by day.

As they do, entrepreneurs have a unique opportunity to capitalize on such demand. There is a bigger expectation for environmentally and socially responsible products, services and business models. Studies have also shown that going green improves employees’ commitment to and pride in the firm, resulting in increased productivity.

Employers are thus major stakeholders in ensuring a better well-being. Through the creation of jobs, people can enjoy a better quality of life.

While some may be concerned that a focus on well-being will mean a contraction in economic activity, the MEA has been pushing strongly the agenda that if handled properly, the imperatives of economic growth and well-being can be reconciled. Ms Joanne Bondin, MEA President, stressed this point when addressing delegates at the National Forum insisting that without the planet, we will have no jobs. “We must learn to adapt, find the right balance and think long-term” Bondin explained, insisting that awareness, knowledge and technology are crucial elements in achieving the desired objectives a longer term, sustainable vision for our society.

The Malta Employers Association believes a collective solution to the unprecedented challenge that we face today is required. Government, authorities, industry, small firms and investors need to work together to truly make change happen. In this context, the MEA recalls the importance of avoiding a silo approach to reform and highlights the important role of the Foundation for Transport as a driver of discussion both on a local level, but also in terms of engagement with international stakeholders in order to build a strong relationship and create a dynamic network where research and innovation are key practices will ultimately lead to tangible results and improvements in the transport sector.

The greening of the economy is an issue that is now finding consensus among a large spectrum of our population. Yet, beyond all discussions on strategies, policies, grants and incentives, its success ultimately depends on will. As aptly put by Mr Joseph Farrugia, Director-General of the MEA, society needs to look beyond instant gratification and re-orient itself towards a more sustainable economy: “We owe it to our children so that they inherit a better society. We need to ensure that all stakeholders benefit from the green transition, leaving no one behind. All this implies a change in culture, and the earlier we have an acceptance of a newer way of life, it will be easier to bring about the changes that we desire.”

The Malta Employers’ Association operates meaindex.com to disseminate and share information on latest developments affecting employers and businesses, including schemes and incentives, serving as a single point of reference to all those in the business community.

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