Is Malta a laggard in fighting climate change?

Without any doubt, apart from nuclear power, the use of green hydrogen is the best option today for the de-carbonisation of the energy system, yet risks associated with this nascent technology must never be underestimated


A new year just started and the government is hell bent to remind us of a bright future – once our small nation is fully inoculated against Covid-19 and assure us that come the month of May, and the sun starts shining over the blue sea. Normality (of a kind) will be restored.

Little do we hear about serious measures needed to fight against climate change. This may be understandable since the spreading of the coronavirus and the related economic slowdown might overshadow climate change as a priority - for both decision-makers and citizens.

Even worse, the disease is now restricting control over free movement outside our bubble of acquaintances and perhaps government could use this as an excuse to postpone structural reforms in changing to renewable energy. Our collective obligation as part of the 27 EU members is to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 - this is a long-term goal of the Green Deal.

In 2019, Malta was at the bottom of the table in terms of the share of electricity coming from renewable energy. Eurostat reveals we are much of a laggard compared to others since we only generated 8% when compared to the average 34% of the EU. Also at the lower end of the scale in securing a share of electricity from renewable sources were Cyprus (8%) and Luxembourg (10%). When considering that the cost of electricity from photovoltaic cells is cheaper than that generated by Enemalta when burning fossil fuel (LNG), one starts to question why we have spent millions on a distribution network for electricity bought from a monopoly producer run exclusively on LNG. It is true that converting our turbines from burning coal and later heavy fuel oil to LNG was a step forward but the only real advantage now in terms of reduced emissions, is the use of the electricity inter-connector.

Malta’s present electricity production consists of a mix of BWSC plant, two older relief plants and Electrogas utility – mostly run on LNG and the use of the electricity interconnector operated by Enemalta plc in coordination with the transmission system operator in Italy, Terna. According to this arrangement, the local electricity system is being treated as a virtual consumption and production point connected to the Italian transmission grid.

The interconnector is claimed to have reduced our cost of electricity and emissions when compared with other sources of power generation. In an ambitious sign of bravado, we pledged to become a climate-neutral island by 2050 – an admirable objective suggested by the European Green Deal. Obviously, apart from the travails of new debt added on last year (now reaching 62% of GDP) to supplement the wages of 100,000 workers in a generous furlough scheme, yet most will agree that once the pandemic is over, we must put some money aside to help reduce emissions.

The savage storms of late and the long humid summers we face are not early signs of climate change. The spectre of rising waters in the Mediterranean is a harbinger of floods that may eventually cause damage to households in low lying areas such as Sliema, Gzira and Marsa. Imagine the irreparable damage to our beaches and the drag on the hospitality sector.

In the past, various governments have promised us the start of a concerted drive for the use of renewable energy. This is now deja vu. Politicians have been telling us of its many potential benefits, including a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the diversification of energy supplies and a reduced dependency on volatile fossil fuel markets. However, so far, our collective measures have succeeded to reach a mere 8% of our energy generation from renewable resources.

The trophy goes to Austria which in 2019 had more than 79% of electricity consumed generated from renewable sources. By sheer contrast, the Dutch government has announced a new package of measures to lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions - in order to comply with a court ruling. This refers to a case started in 2013, by the non-profit Dutch environmental foundation Urgenda, on behalf of around 900 citizens. It sued the state for the government’s failure to take responsibility for the Netherlands’ contribution to the climate crisis. The legal process took its time and seven years later, the Supreme Court ruled that current climate Dutch policies were inadequate - forcing the government to reduce national emissions by at least 25% compared to that achieved till 1990 - by the end of 2020. This shows how serious is the responsibility of member states which postpone taking action until it is too late (as is the case in Malta).

An obvious solution is for the private sector running Electrogas (a private company) to convert its LNG plant to run on hydrogen (which is a challenge). Electrogas is presently a monopoly providing electricity to the state utility. Be that as it may, it comes as no surprise, that the EU strategy continues to stress the need for significant support for research and innovation at an international level, both for technology development and cross-border trading, particularly for an ambitious plan to start reducing use of LNG to be replaced by hydrogen fuel cells.

Without any doubt, apart from nuclear power, the use of green hydrogen is the best option today for the de-carbonisation of the energy system, yet risks associated with this nascent technology must never be underestimated. One cannot label hydrogen as a panacea as there exist challenges to translate its revolutionary concept into a commercial reality setting proper regulation for the global market of hydrogen trading.

Another cause for action in fighting climate change is reducing methane emissions. This is one of the priority initiatives in the Green Deal focusing on the EU’s methane strategy. The EU has an important role in ensuring methane emission reductions at global level. While the EU member states contribute only to 5% of global methane emissions, they can still use their bargaining power as the largest global importer of fossil fuels.

To quote an example, one finds that in the energy sector, methane leaks from fossil fuel production sites, transmission systems, ships and distribution systems. Typically, when flared (burnt), carbon dioxide is released and methane can still escape during flaring as a result of incomplete combustion.

The EU strategy will continue to stress on reducing methane emissions in the energy, agriculture and waste sectors, as these areas account for almost the entirety of methane emissions. Green Deal also highlights the need for international collaboration, including through engagement with third countries and multilateral initiatives. Needless to mention, satellite technology is key to identifying these hotspots and guiding methane leak detection and repair on the ground.

In conclusion, Malta needs to tighten its belt a notch or two higher to start seriously rebalancing its high fossil fuel energy mix and thus give its fair share in combating climate change.

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