- Vincent Attard – President, Nature Trust Malta
- Lianne Mifsud – Executive Secretary, Local Councils Association Malta
- Professor Charmaine Gauci – Director General / Superintendent of Public Health
- Konrad Pulé – General Manager, Malta Public TransportThis conference titled
This conference titled “A breath of fresh air”, tackled the environmental impacts of Covid-19 in Malta. The one-hour session delved into the pandemic’s implications on air and maritime pollution in Malta. All four panellists, distinguished experts in their respective fields, agreed that Covid-19 had served as an “eye opener to humanity” in recognizing the severity of the climate crisis caused by rampant human consumption, not least by human behaviour relating commuting patterns.
A study by the Institute of Earth Systems found that a 70% drop in air pollution in March of 2020 can be attributed to reduced car traffic. This significant improvement in air quality resulted from the fact that social distancing measures were greatly encouraged. More specifically, thousands of employers and employees engaged in remote working and students participated in online learning. These factors contributed to reduced commuting during rush hour, leading to lower road congestion and subsequently reduced levels of air pollution. This presented a welcome contrast to a society plagued by a love of private car use.
A need for a cultural shift with regards to commuting patterns is exacerbated when comparing air pollution figures with European counterparts. In fact, Maltese people have recently been found to be between two to five times as likely to develop a respiratory illness than their Sicilian counterparts. Panellists agreed that the time is ripe for policy makers in Malta to take advantage of the opportunity that Covid-19 has presented, with a population more open to altering typical behavioural patterns in light of the pandemic.
On the downside, Covid-19 has also brought other environmental challenges to the fray. Continuous pressure from public health authorities to make use of face masks should also imply the responsible disposal of such consumables, as both Mr. Vincent Attard and Prof. Charmaine Gauci agreed. Vincent Attard pointed out that inappropriately disposed face masks have been an increasingly contributing factor threatening marine life, as well as leading to soil contamination. In fact, Vincent Attard went a step further, arguing that single-use plastics should be completely phased out. He stated that “all of us created the mountain [of waste]” and hence all citizens should actively contribute to minimise pollution and environmental degradation.
The discussion moved onto the results emanating from a Grant Thornton survey carried out in light of the restrictive measures imposed by public health authorities being lifted. Konrad Pule was encouraged by 10% of respondents stating that they are willing to make use of alternative modes of transport. He suggested that the way forward for Malta was a multi-modal shift to transport, where commuters could incorporate different modes of transport into their journey. This could imply a mix of mass transport, carpooling, and even sea travel to commute from one seaside locality to another. Vincent Attard agreed, recognising the need to mobilise the necessary capital infrastructure as well as "freeing up some space" in line with the transport initiatives in place, so as to have a more harmonious approach to mass transit that respects environmental obligations and quality of life.
Additionally, Local Councils work tirelessly to introduce safe pathways that typically represent ‘the last mile’. Lianne Mifsud highlighted several projects undertaken by such Local Councils whose objective is to exploit the relative closeness of certain localities while encouraging more sustainable and greener transportation methods. The panellists also stressed the importance of road safety such that it should act complementary to the required infrastructure.
Moreover, Prof. Charmaine Gauci emphasized the role of education with respect to cleaner modes of transport, as well as the need to educate our children since they are able to encourage a chain of events within the entire household, resulting in greener holistic behaviour.
Despite the positive effects on road transport which Covid-19 brought about, there were mixed opinions by panellists as to whether the return to the pre-pandemic unsustainable norm should be expected. Prof. Charmaine Gauci sustained the fact that “it is human nature to resist change” but the role of education should not be understated when it comes to battling adult behaviour which is not congruent with a harmonious environmental balance. Mr Attard also emphasised the increasing difficulty in altering the Maltese cultural behaviour, yet still maintained that a push towards a cultural change should be feasible if a communal approach was adopted to tackling unsustainable practices of human behaviour that cause harm to the environment.