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Although considerable improvements have been made over the past years in the air quality, traffic still remains one of Malta’s major pollutant. OUTLOOK speaks with newly appointed Director for Environment Protection Dr. Petra Bianchi about facing up to this challenge.

“It is a tough climb to ensure that our natural environment is protected. On the one hand, we must look at the long term, viewing the environmental picture through a wide-angle lens. Yet everyone is naturally also eager to see short-term, immediate results.” Dr Bianchi points out.

“My recent move from the non-governmental to the governmental sector is a shift in gear, but the road is still the same one. The shift gives me more tools to work with, coupled with a great deal more responsibility.

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Never has it been clearer to me that we are all in this together – the regulators, the operators, the lobbyists and the general public all play a central role in the aim to achieve a cleaner, sustainable and more beautiful country for us to live in.”

There is no doubt that many established practices and habits must change if the community is to achieve its environmental goals. Road traffic, the emissions from vehicular traffic and exhaust fumes generated by cars, buses, lorries, vans and trucks pounding along the tarmac everywhere, is one of the chief contributors to air pollution in Malta.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority has four monitoring stations set up to measure air quality in different types of sites around the island. The air pollution in some of our most traffic congested areas is considerable. The results are constantly uploaded on the Mepa website and are there for everyone to see. 

With cars on Maltese roads are around 15 years old on average, which is high by the standards of developed countries, Dr Bianchi questions whether “given that the engines of new vehicles are cleaner than old engines, are people in Malta willing and able to change their cars or vans to address this issue? Are they willing to switch to smaller, more efficient vehicles? Maybe, but probably not enough in the short term.”

She continues “One bit of good news is that we will soon have a new fleet of buses once the public transport reform takes place later this year. Having said that, I recently spent an afternoon with a foreign visitor who seemed disappointed at the thought of losing the old Maltese buses. They have become part of the Maltese ‘character’, to the point that they feature on fridge magnets, key chains and all kinds of souvenirs.”

“Yet the charm of the old bus fades when considering our urgent need to have a more efficient and cleaner bus service. I hope that some of the old models will be preserved as vintage buses, but by and large we will be better off with new buses on our roads. It is hardly a solution to the overall problem, but it is a valid step nonetheless.”

Parking requirements are part of the traffic problem, and are becoming increasingly acute and difficult to manage, as well as being a regular source of complaints from residents. At times this can be a double-edged sword. People complain when traffic increases in their area of work or residence, yet others complain about attempts to decrease traffic in the historic streets of Valletta.

Dr Bianchi points out that “Both positions have merit and can be argued persuasively. On the one hand, we want to enable social progress, yet avoid the increase in traffic that new projects often generate. On the other hand, we want to reduce vehicle emissions yet avoid a negative impact on mobility and social or economic needs.”

These issues have been discussed time and again, as for example in Mepa’s Air Quality Plan that was published last year. Proposed measures include changes to traffic patterns to reduce congestion in certain areas, and promoting cleaner vehicle technologies – both of which are at the heart of the public transport reform.

The plan also encourages the diversion of heavy duty vehicles away from town centres, the introduction of more pedestrian zones, incentives for more fuel efficient vehicles, and improving the infrastructure to encourage bicycle usage, among many other proposals.  Some weeks ago, Mepa approved plans for the extension of the park and ride facility in Floriana.

Dr Bianchi concludes “Traffic is of course not the only source of air pollution, but it is a big player and hard to solve. It puts pressure on our environment, and must undoubtedly remain a main focus for improvements over the years to come.”