Tackling urban pollution. Do we need a new regime of incentives?

Prof. Adrian Muscat

The greatest part of urban air pollution on our islands is due to tailpipe emissions from vehicles on the road.  Air-borne pollution is one of the top reasons cited by commuters when dismissing walking or cycling as an alternative mode, the other reason being physical safety on the road. This is a pity, since walking or cycling will not only have a positive effect on the air quality, but will also improve our general wellbeing, physical fitness and social life, in other words our quality of life. How we can cut down pollution from private cars?

The average age of private passenger cars in Malta is more than thirteen years, only forty-one percent of the cars are less than ten years old, and seventeen percent are more than twenty years old.  We therefore have too many cars running on old technology petrol and diesel engines, rendering walking or cycling an unpleasant and unhealthy experience, especially so during the busy periods of the day.  On the other hand, having such a high percentage of old technology cars provides us with a unique opportunity to modernize our fleet and even do better than latest technology fossil fuel driven cars.

Without doubt we have to seriously consider electrically driven cars, which are now coming of age, most myths as well as truths being dispelled, explained or mitigated.  Top of the list is whether electrical cars contribute to air pollution as much as their fossil fuel equivalent, followed by the effect on the environment throughout the vehicle’s life-cycle and last but not least, battery safety on the road as well as whilst it being charged.

In Malta we produce electricity from oil (and soon natural gas) rather than coal.  Therefore, if we had to use electric cars the net result in emissions in our geographical region will be much less following a switch to electrical cars.  The problem seems to be in getting people to purchase electric cars.  The incentives in force right now do not seem to be enough, neither the noble act of replacing one’s car with the electrical equivalent, especially by those who can easily and readily afford to.  It is clear that we need new policies whose effect is to modernize the fleet and contribute to the solution to other problems as a by-product.  In other words we need mechanisms that enable higher income families and individuals to replace their current petrol or diesel cars with the electrical equivalent whilst lower income families replace their old technology cars with the cars given up by the former.  If such fleet modernization had to happen more     people are encouraged to walk and cycle, which in turn results in a drop in inter-town traffic congestion, as well as a better quality of life within the village and town itself.  It will also knock Malta off the first place in European obesity. Eventually, we realize that after all we do not need to personally own all the cars we currently do and we better spend some of our mobility budget in shared transport services.