The music of the night

Satellite photos clearly indicate the extent of light pollution in Malta: it is comparable to that in most urban areas in the European continent. As a result, the music of the night is made inaudible. The night is being “impeded from unfurling its splendour”, as the Phantom of the Opera repeatedly emphasises in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece.

Some years back, during the budget debate, a project related to intelligent street lighting was launched. When implemented, such a project would be an effective contribution to the reduction of light pollution all over the Maltese islands. Unfortunately, we have not heard of any substantial progress on the matter since late 2013, when the project was first announced.

Excessive artificial lighting used during the night is not only an inefficient use of energy, and the consequential contribution to additional carbon emissions which can be avoided, it is also a disturbance of nocturnal animal life and potentially injurious to human health.

Way back in 2007, Birdlife in Malta had published a study on the impact of night lighting on seabirds and nocturnal migrant species. The study is entitled Light Pollution and its effects on Yelkouan Shearwaters in Malta; causes and solutions. The context of the study is the EU Life project site at l-Aħrax in Mellieħa, in the area known as l-Irdum tal-Madonna, the site of a seabird colony.

The observations made and the solutions proposed in the study could easily form the basis for an action plan applicable to all of the Maltese islands to address light pollution because, in Malta, this is a serious problem not just for shearwaters but also in terms of carbon emissions and our quality of life.

As a result of Malta’s high population density, nocturnal light pollution has a considerable impact on both urban and rural areas all over the Maltese Islands. Ecologically, it has an impact on birds, moths and bats but it also has a considerable impact on animal behaviour in general. Beyond wildlife, light pollution creates glare which is a road safety issue and has an impact on drivers, pedestrians and cyclists and is known to play a considerable part in nocturnal traffic accidents.

The Dwejra light pollution case decided by the Environment and Planning Revision Tribunal on the 27 June is a rare case when a sensible decision was taken by the Planning Control Commission only for it to be reversed on appeal: normally it is the other way round! In fact, the Planning Control Commission had refused the original application on the basis that the Dwejra area is an area of ecological importance. Unfortunately, the Tribunal treated the issue of light pollution very lightly and was insensitive to its ecological impacts.

The coming together of fifteen environmental NGOs to crowd-fund the fight on appeal in Court is a good step forward. Protecting Natura 2000 sites is a tough fight but it needs to go on. Appealing against the scandalous decision of the Environment and Planning Revision Tribunal should, however, only be a first step. It should be realised that the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) has powers and authority under the provisions of the EU Habitats Directive that it does not make sufficient use of. The ERA should assert itself and enforce the rules, bulldozing through the Planning Authority whenever this is necessary.

It would be much better if the Hon. Minister for the Environment insists that the ERA manages areas of ecological importance appropriately. Obviously, he must ensure that adequate resources are provided.

This Dwejra case is a specific example of where the ERA can have the final word. Will it?

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 7 July 2019

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