Political discourse is nowadays peppered with the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” but often, unfortunately, their use is out of context and thereby transmits the wrong message.
So, let us first be clear as to what the terms really mean. Being in a state of sustainability means that our actions, attitudes and behaviour are such that future generations are not precluded from taking their own decisions. On the other hand, sustainable development is the path to be followed to achieve sustainability.
This is not just a matter of environmental concern. It is an intertwining of environmental, economic, social and cultural policy. It means that our actions must take the long view and be compatible with the forces of nature, the economy, human development and a respect for culture.
All this leads to a number of logical conclusions which form the basis of the politics of sustainable development. This was first outlined by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian social democrat prime minister and minister for the environment in her seminal 1987 report Our Common Future,drawn up for the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. In her report, Brundtland, made ample use of the conclusions of an earlier debate in the World Council of Churches in 1974.
In practical terms, the politics of sustainable development should lead to a number of concrete decisions, as a result of which modern-day living is simultaneously respectful of society, nature, the economy and the accumulated cultural heritage in its widest sense. Sustainable development is, in fact, a balanced approach to development. It is for this reason that, since the 1990s, when sustainable development first made it to Malta’s statute book, it was retained (on paper) as a direct political responsibility of the Prime Minister.
Sustainable development permeates all areas of policy and hence requires a senior politician in Cabinet to be in charge. Unfortunately, not even one of our prime ministers assumed direct political responsibility for the matter as, formally or informally, all of them delegated the matter to the Minister (or Parliamentary Secretary) responsible for the environment.
The Minister responsible for the environment cannot make much headway as he is dependent upon – and can in no way can he be expected to direct – his cabinet colleagues, most of whom are not really interested in sustainable development, anyway. A simple example will illustrate how all the talk on sustainable development by governments in Malta has been an exercise in managing hot air.
Consider the management of Malta’s road infrastructure, including public transport. This is clearly unsustainable and has been so for a long time. The public transport reform carried out under the direction of former Minister Austin Gatt was a public disservice as it made a bad situation even worse.
The management of Malta’s road infrastructure brings to the fore a number of issues, including mobility and air quality. Linked to these are traffic congestion, health impacts primarily due to poor air quality and the impact of the clogging of our roads on our economy through a substantial amount of time spent fuming at our steering wheels.
In May 2014, the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development of the University of Malta was commissioned by the European Union representation in Malta to carry out a study on the external costs of traffic and congestion in Malta. Among other things, this study, entitled The External Costs of Passenger and Commercial Vehicles Use in Malta, estimated that 1.7 per cent of Malta’s GDP is wiped out annually as a result of traffic congestion. This conclusion took into consideration both fuel wasted and time lost: approximately 52 hours per annum per commuter.
The study further emphasises that this estimate would rise to four per cent of the GDP if it also took into consideration traffic accidents, the impacts of air and noise pollution as well as the impact of greenhouse gases emitted. (For comparison purposes, it is pertinent to remember that the real Malta GDP growth for 2017 is projected at 3.5 per cent.)
This is just one example. There are many more.
The logic of sustainable development would have inevitably led to an efficient public transport system ages ago and a substantially reduced number of cars on our roads. It is what one would expect in a small country where practically everywhere is within a stone’s throw of everywhere else. Yet we get the complete opposite.
Once upon a time, the Cabinet had approved a National Strategy for Sustainable Development – yet Malta’s transport policy is still one which encourages more cars on the road.
published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 8 January 2017