If we are to rely on technology to fix things…

Prof. Maria Attard

So a colleague of mine wrote about the need to educate people about air pollution.  He wrote this in relation to our very old car fleet and the very high cost associated with air pollution, especially in terms of public health where well over 200 deaths a year in Malta are attributed to such pollution (WHO reports).

It was interesting to note that one of the comments on social media criticized the article for promoting an agenda for the selling of new cars.

This comment sparked a mix of (negative) feelings and thoughts as I see policy in the field of transport dwindling and sustainable mobility aspirations disappear.

Throughout history policy makers have always tried to take the easy way out of difficult ‘political’ decisions, especially related to transport.  Technology has been the easy solution. Compare for example, how easy it is to throw a lot of money into the development of the electric car versus restricting vehicular access in sensitive areas or city centres.  The electric car is an interesting example because it has been around for a very long time and has yet to provide the claimed solution to the problem of emissions and air pollution in cities!  And whilst technology tries endlessly to solve the problems it causes, it provides policy makers with a good excuse not to action other, more important policies and measures which are far more effective in the short and medium term.

In an attempt to solve the emissions problem, technology has come up with means of reducing the emissions of vehicles, but has it solved the problem?  No, because we just went for larger engines and more and longer car commutes.  This downward spiral has not been reversed in any way through a technology, but rather through hard and soft measures which encourage people to use their car better.

Now, if we are to rely on technology to fix things, since we are evidently not making the strong but very necessary decisions to manage car use, then we need to ensure we use that technology.  And like that, the advances in emission standards of vehicles would have an impact on the pollution levels in our urban areas and the overall contribution to air quality targets and climate change obligations.

And I agree with my colleague that education is key. But also policies that reduce the dependence on old technologies (old diesel cars are probably the worst) and work towards those that encourage more efficient vehicles that emit less.  In this manner, and by tackling one of the aspects related to the transport problem (because there is no one single solution), we achieve progress.

Malta’s average fleet age has continued to deteriorate and it is now evident that we will not be reaching our climate change targets, as well as air quality thresholds in our urban areas.  Pollution will increase, as will the impact on public health and overall well-being.

So if we are to rely on technology to fix things, then let’s make sure we maximize the use of that technology to help us solve part of the problem.

  • Marcus Schuetz

    I like the quote of the anthropologist Jeremy Bossevain, that Malta has a “Bicycle society with a Cadillac mentality”. The Maltese vehicle fleet reminds me of what we had in East Germany, just after the reunification. It was the chance for shady West German used car dealers, to sell old crap to the East – which was there seen as prestigious, as of its brands and sizes. I think this is also how Malta became the UK’s scrapyard. This phase did not last long. So, you maybe right that education does the trick. But I went to the faculty car park of Malta University recently and counted engine types and had a closer look at the exhaust pipes. Assuming that our faculty should be kind of educated, it at least does not reflect in technical choices when it comes to pollution.