Between 1990 and 2007, we have seen a startling increase in global greenhouse gas emissions. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the Mediterranean have increased, along with the atmospheric variations, and this is giving us colder winters and higher humidity in summers. All lines of evidence taken together make it an unambiguous conclusion that the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations is human-induced, and is predominantly a result of fossil fuel burning.
It’s time to start reducing such emissions in order to mitigate the effect of climate change. The ambitious target is that by 2020, EU members will obtain 20 per cent of their total energy consumption requirements with renewable energy sources. What is renewable energy? The answer is that it includes wind, solar, hydro-electric and tidal power as well as geothermal energy and biomass. Malta has so far been a laggard in this regard – only a number of small steps have so far been taken. On the other hand, from studies published by the EU, one notes that Germany leads the pack as a country which has invested the highest amount in this sector, claiming to be the world’s first major renewable energy economy (in 2010, investments totalled €26 billion). According to official figures, some 370,000 people in Germany were employed in the renewable energy sector in 2010, and it is no surprise to discover that most companies benefiting from this sector are small and medium-sized companies.
It is a fact that greenhouse gases, when controlled, can serve a useful purpose –that is, to absorb infrared radiation from the sun and re-emit it in all directions. Without this natural greenhouse effect, primarily resulting in the creation of water vapour and resultant carbon dioxide, which functions like a shield to protect the Earth’s surface, the mean surface temperature would be intolerable. Thanks to this shield, we enjoy a habitable average temperature. We also have the issue of sea level rise. It is estimated that over this century, we will encounter sea-level rise of between 0.18m and 0.69m. In the case of Malta, this is an issue of major concern, since severe climate change may cause parts of the island to become submerged under water. The east coast will be particularly hit, especially low-lying areas such as Sliema, Gzira and Msida, among others. It goes without saying that sea-level rise will have a significant impact on our economy.
It begs the question why Malta, with good exposure to rays of the sun all year round, has still not succeeded in increasing electricity production to EU levels from use of photovoltaic panels. There are concerns that the quantity of solar panels needed to harvest such energy is massive and considering the island is so small (so far, around 27 per cent is built-up) experts claim that to achieve the desired power, we only need an area equal to seven percentage of land to advance electricity the supply. Given that the country receives about 550,000GWH of solar energy annually, experts claim we only need to capture less than one percent of such energy to power our systems.
Recently research in new technology has been making giant steps, by testing new prototypes made of highly conductive materials such as silicon. In turn, they use ingenious ways to capture the energy of the sun and convert it to electricity through an inverter. Simply fitting more panels on rooftops seems easy, but the demographic and geographic characteristics of the island create issues of spatial planning. But rejoice, as it is not all doom and gloom.
Having started from zero in 1995 there has been a huge leap in the number of rooftop installations to date. Official statistics indicate that PV has grown at an average yearly rate of 35 per cent from 1995 to 2005 (1,8 kW to 40 kW) and of 63 per cent between 2005 and 2010. The easy answer to the green energy conundrum is – the possible we do now, miracles can wait. But it is crucial that each individual get involved in this process, and that every government and private sector does something tangible to reduce the impact of climate change. Only then can we protect our environment, society and economy, and only when collectively we get involved can we safeguard a better and safe planet for future generations.