The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) has published a draft National Strategy for the Environment for public consultation. The proposed strategy is not specific but generic in nature. It lists eight strategic goals which it proposes to address till 2050.
There is no problem with the listed goals. We have, in fact been there before with a multitude of strategies and well-meaning policies. The problems arise when seeking to implement the specific measures required to achieve the said goals. When push comes to shove 1001 difficulties arise as it becomes clear that there exists no political will to act decisively. This is quite contrary to the impression conveyed in the forward penned to the strategy by the ERA Chairman!
ERA seeks a long-term vision since it is well known that the reversal of environmental damage takes time. One should not expect immediate results in the quest to reverse the accumulated damage to the environment.
Protecting the environment involves reversing political decisions which have been the cause of considerable environmental damage. It involves changing attitudes and behaviour.
In the forward to the document released for public consultation ERA Chairman Victor Axiak states that: “Short-term sacrifices may need to be made for long-term benefits to be reaped by future generations.” It is a statement that anyone in his right senses would agree with. Such a statement should however have been followed by a list of measures which require action, ranging from short term to long-term ones.
The time for philosophising on the environment is long overdue. We all know what the problems are. We also know who and what has caused them. A countless number of reports, strategies, masterplans, and action plans have been produced over the years. Unfortunately, they have been repeatedly ignored. At times governments have acted in a manner which is directly in opposition to what has been proposed or even agreed to!
The currently proposed environment strategy, for example, philosophises on reducing our car dependence and advises on the need to reduce cars from our roads. Leafing through the National Transport Master Plan finalised six years ago one finds the same admonition. Instead of taking definite steps, government, directly as well as through its agencies and authorities followed a path leading in the opposite direction.
All studies carried out in Malta and abroad have repeatedly concluded that large scale road infrastructural improvement leads to more cars on the road. As was expected this is what is happening in Malta at the time being. Traffic congestion has worsened, as instead of addressing the cause of the problem the authorities addressed the effects. They sought to widen roads and introduce new ones instead of addressing the exponential increase of cars on the roads. The traffic situation is worse than ever notwithstanding the monies spent or rather wasted in these projects.
In addition, the authorities have spent years encouraging the construction of large fuel stations, comparable to supermarkets in size, gobbling up quite an amount of good agricultural land in the process. Now, they are telling us how important it is to protect agricultural land!
How can we improve the quality of our air if we keep increasing cars on our roads? Some would say that a solution is round the corner with the electrification of vehicles or with the use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel. This would only partly solve the problem. One must consider the source of electricity utilised or how the hydrogen (or other fuel) is produced.
We do not have enough renewable energy generated from local sources as the ignoramuses leading the country were (in the past) overjoyed at their successful EU negotiations to reduce the national target for the generation of renewable energy from 20 to 10 per cent of the electrical energy consumed. Now, when we desperately need more electricity which is reasonably priced, we are faced with a substantial deficit which is costing the national exchequer considerable expense.
We are faced with a national problem of car addiction as a result of the political neglect of public transport over the years. Having it free of charge as of this month was premature as the first step should have been to address its efficiency and reliability. Price was never an issue.
This lack of efficiency and reliability of public transport is essential to address with urgency as, once addressed, it will do more for environmental protection that all the philosophising on the environment over the years! An efficient public transport together with a substantial investment in alternative modes of transport would be quite beneficial for the environment.
This is one of the major problems we currently face. Clear advice was available, yet when it was possible to address the problem, government through its various authorities and agencies deliberately made it worse.
Similar arguments can be made about a multitude of other areas of environmental importance ranging from water to pesticides, from land use to biodiversity, from efforts to set up a circular economy to adequate environmental taxes which are appropriately designed.
The way transport policy has developed in a downhill direction is just one small example of many on the basis of which it is inevitable to conclude that there is no political will to address environmental issues seriously. The ERA public consultation is unfortunately another phase of an on-going greenwashing exercise.
published in the Malta Independent on Sunday: 23 October 2022
see also detailed submissions by ADPD to ERA here