Sustaining mobilisation: what will it take?

You can’t watch Blue Planet and not feel a pang of guilt for the plastic straw in your drink. But what does it truly take to mobilise people and encourage more sustainable behaviour? Kirsty Callan talks to Dr Vincent Caruana.

We’re finally living in a world where environmentalism is a sexy topic. Everywhere you look, it’s vegan-this, plastic-free-that. And it’s wonderful. Public awareness of the impact we are having on our planet is on the rise, and yet, according to Eurostat, Malta still registered the European Union’s highest increase in carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in 2017.Researcher Dr Vincent Caruana (Centre for Environmental Education and Research, University of Malta [UM]), believes the crises we are facing can be summed up in one double challenge: the eradication of poverty and the preservation of the environment. By simplifying the issue, it is turned into a single problem rather than many overwhelming issues, highlighting the interconnectedness of the challenges we face, be they social, economic, or environmental.

Taking Nepal and Bangladesh as examples, both have suffered devastating floods. Some point to large-scale deforestation by logging companies and agricultural businesses, as well as locals using the forests’ resources. Some environmentalists point to the population and blame them, saying that the increasing use of the forest by locals places burdens on the region’s resources, suggesting that their activities are the current major source of environmental problems. But that creates a scenario where the victims of poverty are blamed for trying to alleviate their own poverty. Meanwhile, the reality is that the wealthiest one-fifth of humanity consumes so much more than the rest of the world, leaving the rest hungry.

Dr Vincent Caruana

Who is most to blame for these problems? International institutions such as the United Nations, national governments, transnational corporations, or consumers?

In his classes, Caruana runs his students through a similar thought experiment. Who is most to blame for these problems? International institutions such as the United Nations, national governments, transnational corporations, or consumers? Some argue that it is greedy transnational corporations, out to make a quick buck while ignoring environmental impacts. Some retort, saying that corporations are bound by economy to maximise profits. Others would point their fingers at the consumers who choose to buy from dirty companies instead of the most ethically sourced. ‘Of course, there is no correct answer,’ Caruana states. ‘There is no single solution. We need thousands of solutions working in parallel. Literally. The interconnectedness of it all requires both governments and civil society to commit time and effort.’

  GETTING TO THE CRUX 

Caruana’s doctoral research identifies the influences that lead people to engage in responsible sustainable behaviour and hones in on ways to sensitise and mobilise sustained civic action.

Caruana is quick to note that there are a plethora of barriers—social, economic, and political—which prevent people moving towards sustainability. What surprised him was that more personal barriers, such as frustration, hopelessness, and dealing with disappointments, also pose a problem. ‘This is a significant point, considering that environmental circles are oft en concerned with reaching out towards the unconverted rather than supporting the converted,’ he explains. In other words, we have to continue to motivate those who are already on the right path to ensure they don’t become demoralised.

Looking to understand how people can take control of processes that affect their lives, Caruana conducted four case studies. Among them were an intentional community in Malta and a Fair-Trade network in Egypt. ‘The power of case studies lies in their ability to reframe and critically challenge core beliefs that are now taken for granted, like how a municipality, church organisation, and a trade organisation ought to act,’ he says.

Caruana believes that education on sustainable development (ESD) lies at the heart of it all—and he is not alone. In 2015, representatives from 193 countries gathered in New York to sign off on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the opening ceremony of the summit, Ban Ki-moon referred to the the Agenda outlined as ‘a to-do list for people and planet’. One goal focuses on education, which includes the aim to ‘ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development by 2030.’

In Malta, ESD is established as a cross-curricular theme within the National Curriculum Framework. However, ‘in practice, it is still in the process of being concretely translated across schools and within subjects,’ Caruana notes. He also highlights the need for adults to be educated too, so that this cultural shift can truly happen; however, he is quick to follow up the notion with its own weakness. For years, adult ESD has remained ‘locked within ideologies which have caused many of our contemporary environmental problems.’ We need a complete overhaul of our outlook. Increased emphasis on recycling is a positive; however, what would be better is if we could reduce the amount of waste we are creating in the first place. This is but one example. ‘As long as ESD remains stuck within the same thinking that is creating the double challenge, there can be little progress,’ says Caruana.

  CLEARING THE SLATE

Back in 2001, Caruana co-founded Malta’s Fair-Trade movement. ‘Faced with the continuous realisation of an unfair world trade system, and seeing first hand through my voluntary work how such a system creates poverty, my friends and I wanted to be proactive and part of a solution,’ he states. ‘The path forward was not chartered for us. We started off passionately, then with each step, we finally arrived to setting up a fair trade shop and an ongoing educational programme. Rather than complain, we have within us the power to create new solutions.’

This philosophy is at the core of what Caruana is doing now. ‘The current model needs to be challenged, and we do have the power within us to create new ways of thinking. We need a shift from thinking in terms of economic growth to growth in wellbeing,’ he says. Referring to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, Caruana says they had it right. ‘A country’s ability to develop more sustainably depends on the capacity of its people and institutions to understand complex environmental choices.’ We need real leaders, not token ones, who inspire, embrace and support citizens in their actions, and create new spaces for dialogue. ‘Both Civil Society Organisations and local institutions can be a positive force towards sustainable solutions at a local level.’

  GETTING TOUGH

This mission is a beastly mountain. The reality is that there are major hurdles standing in the way of a paradigm shift that would see Malta’s people acting more sustainably. Beyond personal barriers, Caruana’s research reveals the vulnerability of local processes: ‘In Malta, a change in government results in a change in priorities (and support).’ Every five years, the system is shaken by an election that brings with it new agendas and philosophies. ‘Stability in environmental issues and processes is essential,’ he notes. Caruana also points out the fragility of civil societies’ human resources.

The solution, Caruana suggests, is ‘to create stronger links between governments, politicians, organisations, and citizens, both for research and to build a network of adult educators.’ This was highlighted in his Fair Trade case study where success was highly dependent on the level and consistency of engagement at both a local level with producers and with their partners in the west.

It is clear that good leadership is key. To help address this issue, he has created an Erasmus+ project called PEERMENT with the aim of coming up with a new model of mentoring and peer-mentoring for ESD. It involves about 20 education specialists as teacher trainers and senior mentors and about 50 teacher mentees.

‘We have to invest in leadership,’ says Caruana. ‘We need to focus on social learning and empowering institutions and organisations to work together and become innovative co-creators of new ways of thinking. In an ever-changing world, this is a challenge for educators to embrace with passion and urgency.’

Circling back to the double challenge, it is clear that no one project will be able to comprehensively solve the issues we are facing as a global society. But ‘we have to stop waiting for permission,’ says Caruana. ‘The beauty of the emerging paradigm lies in the reality that we don’t need permission to change outmoded mind-sets that no longer serve us.’ And this will be crucial in the road ahead.

  Author: Kirsty Callan

Green heat, green power

At face value, renewable energy seems the smartest choice for a cleaner tomorrow. But when green energy cannot be stored, what do we do during scorching summer afternoons and cold winter nights? Cassi Camilleri speaks to Prof. Joseph Cilia and his team to find out more about the innovative solution they are developing.

The movement towards sustainability has been ramping up over decades. Now, it feels like it has reached fever pitch. Headlines are hogged by the latest scary statistic on air, land, or sea pollution. People are rallying, demanding that new measures be implemented to reduce waste and clean up our streets. Despite this call, real advances on these issues always manage to find themselves obstructed by seemingly ‘rational’ arguments.

For one, renewable energy isn’t as reliable and cheap as fossil fuels. Overhauling the status quo is expensive and requires significant effort, both of which make people frown. Solar power depends on the sun, wind power depends on wind, both of which are quite unpredictable. But while this is true, it shouldn’t even be considered an issue. We live in a country on the receiving end of 550,000 GWh of solar energy annually, while we need only 3,484 GWh to cover all energy consumption. Let that sink in.

Of course, I hear your concerns about the quantity of solar panels needed to harvest that energy—Malta is so small and built up. But in reality, only 28% of our island is built up, and just 7% of the remaining land would be required to meet the total energy demand. So yes. There are solutions to our energy woes. And those solutions need to be combined to create the best results.

Thanks to support from Abertax Kemtronics and MCST (Malta Council for Science and Technology), Prof. Joseph Cilia and his team of researchers (Department of Industrial Electrical Power Conversion, University of Malta [UM]) have found that houses with a normal-sized photovoltaic system can supply more than 100% of the total energy they need during summer. During winter, that figure falls to 50%. To manage this drop, energy can be supplied through other sources. Enter the Micro-CHP.

A small combined heat and power (CHP) machine provides seasonal energy in two forms: electrical and thermal. It consists of a standard internal combustion engine coupled with a generator that produces electrical energy. The thermal energy resulting from the engine and exhaust is then recovered using water heat exchangers and reused to heat the house and domestic water.

While similar systems already exist, most are geared towards industrial applications. The rest cost, on average, around €15,000—pricing a large cross-section of society out. The system Cilia and his team have developed makes use of a grid PV system, combined with battery energy storage, a heating and cooling heat pump load, a CHP machine, and LED lighting. It is also an easy-to-install, plug-and-play solution that fits into your current setup, as opposed to a complex installation that would force everything to change with it. By the end of it, the team’s CHP will cost the consumer around €8,000.

Their study of Maltese households showed that in a typical medium-sized household, energy needs vary substantially. The energy fluctuations for a typical Maltese household are usually about 500 kWhr between the summer and winter seasons. In this case, storing this energy in a battery is not feasible. What is feasible is simply making more efficient use of the LPG gas tank that most people already have and use at home. If one wants to be renewable, one can also use ethanol or methanol to operate the CHP, which, if used in combination with a heat pump, can easily reach an efficiency of 150% to 180% in heating mode.

Added to this, the team’s system is unique compared to others on the market. It is connected directly to the main electricity supply, tapping into it whenever the system needs support, while not using mains electricity when enough energy is being produced by the system itself.

The system is scalable due to the plug-and-play concept the system is based on. It can be upgraded as more and more savings are made on electricity bills. ‘The idea is to provide a cost-effective solution that even low-income households can afford,’ says Cilia. This can not only trigger a widespread use of energy generation and storage for domestic use, but also turn consumers into suppliers of their own energy needs. Gone are the days of being dependent on the grid.

 Author: Cassi Camilleri

Project A Smart Micro Combined Heat and Power System financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology, through the FUSION: R&I Technology Development Programme.

Hailing a new era for ocean literacy

Prof. Alan Deidun

The Maltese Islands, despite their miniscule terrestrial extent, have always managed to punch way above their weight when it comes to aquatic matters. Hosting the International Ocean Institute, the Islands also have a pivotal role in the formulation of the Law of the Sea through the Maltese representative to the United Nations, Arvid Pardo. The ‘father of the law of the sea’, as he is affectionately known, delivered a prophetic speech to the UN General Assembly on November 1st, 1967. He described the sea as ‘the common heritage of mankind’, a phrase which still resonates to this very day, and which is enshrined within Article 136 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Europe’s seas are currently being assessed more than ever for their potential, as Blue Growth (the long term strategy to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors as a whole) gains greater traction throughout the continent. We are plumbing our seas to greater depths in the search for elusive minerals, cures, genetic resources, energy sources, and a plethora of other untapped assets. In the race to unlock more of the ocean’s secrets, ocean literacy assumes a compelling role—to revise the paradigm of human impacts on our ocean so far. In fact, in the history of human exploitation of the ocean, we first exerted deleterious impacts on the ocean environment, only to become aware of those impacts and resort to ocean literacy to generate further awareness, control, and change.

The challenge now is to anticipate developments. A precautionary approach is needed to soften impacts when venturing into unchartered grounds. Some might label this utopic, I prefer to call it ‘foresight.’ For us to reach this stage, governments and institutions must invest heavily in ocean literacy to ensure more responsible use and treatment of that 70% of our planet. It is imperative for potential investors to have a grounding in ocean literacy principles, with the aim of paralleling the considerable success being had introducing ocean literacy concepts within school curricula and initiatives across Europe.

We are gearing up towards the International Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Proposed by UNESCO last June  at the Ocean Conference in New York, it will span from 2021 until 2030. The considerable number of abstracts submitted for the European Marine Scientists Educators Association (EMSEA) Malta conference, now approaching the 70 mark, is testimony to the profile that EMSEA has managed to achieve since its establishment a decade ago. It also confirms the status that ocean literacy now holds across the European continent and beyond. Let’s keep the momentum going!


Author: Prof. Alan Deidun
Read more here: http://www.emsea.eu/

Igniting a sun on Earth

Nuclear Fusion Sun Banner Image
The Sun is the most important source of energy for life on Earth. Powerful as it is, what would happen if humankind could create a miniature sun in a lab and harness its energy? This is the mission of Dr Ing. Nicholas Sammut, Dr Ing. Andrew Sammut, and Karl Buhagiar.

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When desalination is the only option left

The Water Services Corporation (WSC) has recently announced that it will construct a Seawater Reverse Osmosis Plant at Ħondoq ir-Rummien in Gozo. To the casual observer, having a reverse osmosis plant on the island might seem like a necessary and commendable way of ensuring an adequate and independent water supply. However, Gozo has been meeting its water demands efficiently through a groundwater polishing plant since 2005, importing just 20% of its water from the Ċirkewwa reverse osmosis plant, a facility that is not being used to capacity. So a pertinent question arises: why is a reverse osmosis plant being considered?

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The Bees and the Bats

JessicaEdwardsWhat do bats, bees, wasps and flies all have in common? They are providing humans with pasta sauce for free. These organisms all pollinate our fruit on a daily basis needed to fill the grocer with all the things we love.

For plants to reproduce, the most important step of the process is pollination. During pollination, pollen grains (the male cells needed for sexual reproduction) fertilise the female egg cell. This leads to seeds around which form the fruit and vegetables humans love to eat. The male and female cells are found on different parts of the flower, this is where pollinators like bees and bats come into play. They transfer pollen from one plant to another fertilising them.

Bees and other pollinators are needed for food security and economic resilience. These creatures help pollinate 87% of plant species that we use for food, material, feeding livestock, and medicine. They are essential for human diets since 70% of the world’s crops need pollinators. In Malta, crops such as tomatoes and green pepper would not grow. Bees and pollinators affect the economy, with a worldwide estimate of €153 billion. Pollinators encourage biodiversity; they pollinate crops and wild plants helping to keep the environment healthy.

The decline of bees has serious consequences for the world. So important that it was a main issue discussed by the Commonwealth countries during CHOGM (Malta, 2015) at an event organised by Friends of the Earth. Paul de Zylva (Friends of the Earth, UK) outlined the main causes as habitat loss due to urbanisation, pesticides, and climate change.

102485d6-6024-44e4-8d1c-b4f1509590b9So how do we save the bees ?

Politicians, researchers, and citizens must work together to reverse bee decline. Some actions are already being undertaken. Clive Harridge (secretary general of the Commonwealth association of planners) indicated that the UN member states must include 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) in their political policies, three of these address ecosystem threats. One of these (SDG 2) emphasises the need to end hunger by achieving food security and improved nutrition through sustainable agriculture. Another, (SDG 11) states the need to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. While a third (SDG 15) indicates needing to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation and biodiversity loss. Bees play a part in all of these goals.

Across the Commonwealth, national case studies are trying to understand the situation with pollinators to figure out how to save them. Ideas include areas where agriculture and wildlife are merged, creating habitats such as green roofs (green roofs are being built both at MCAST and the University of Malta), while some companies are even building bee hotels. Bee hotels are places where solitary bees can make nests and lay eggs without producing honey. These bees tend to be much less aggressive and thrive as long as there is enough wildlife for them to obtain food.

unnamedCitizen engagement is needed to encourage participation to collect data and evidence. By working with researchers and policymakers real change can be achieved to save bees. Considering Malta’s situation, lecturer Dr Mario Balzan (MCAST) said at the CHOGM event that studies he was involved in showed that wild flowers growing near tomatoes helped increase their yield. Insects living on these flowers helped pollinate the tomatoes and may have acted as natural pest controls. By planting flowers in gardens and balconies bee habitat would be expanded.

There are many reasons for bee decline from uncontrolled pesticide use to widespread infections. Only by researching the problem then creatively addressing these issues can bee decline be reversed. This will require all sectors of society from citizens to researchers and policy makers to work together to save the birds and the bats.

This article featured in the Sunday Times of Malta.

Spaces & places

Cities are constructed from spaces pulsing with energy. They rely heavily on culture and innovation, which act as their lifeblood. Cities are in constant flux as they would stagnate without change. The role of the city is to drive the whole country forward. When it comes to city growth, culture is pivotal, be it in the form of art or phenomena that impact culture, such as the economy, or widespread immigration. Word by Victoria Galea.

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