Addressing Our Environmental Deficit

published on Sunday 27 July 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo


 In his address to Parliament last May, the President had stated: “The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.”

In December 2006, the National Sustainability Commission had drawn up the National Sustainable Development Strategy. Having been approved by Cabinet, it is appropriate that the pre-budget document just published ignites the debate on its implementation. The strategy is a blueprint for action representing a holistic perspective as to how this country should be administered. Its eventual handling will in due course give a clear indication of the government’s real views on sustainable development.

Malta’s energy policy is undoubtedly up for an upheaval. Due to the absence of strategic planning over the years, Malta is one of the few countries without any significant alternative energy generated. Other countries identified their vulnerability because of fuel oil dependency years ago and took action. Denmark has since built up its wind energy industry from scratch since the oil crises in the 1970s and is now a world leader. In 2005 Denmark generated 18.5 per cent of its electrical energy needs through wind.

The pre-budget document identifies near shore wind technology as the next step forward, contributing 95MW of wind energy or seven per cent of Malta’s projected electricity demand in 2010. The shortfall in meeting the EU target of having 10 per cent of electricity demand met by alternative energy is planned to be met with wind turbines at other exposed land sites and industrial estates, including those to be identified within the framework of the eco-Gozo project.

The pre-budget document focuses on macro-generation and does not give sufficient weight to micro-generation of energy, both with small wind turbines as well as with photovoltaic panels. It must be borne in mind that micro-generation if adequately motivated could add up to a substantial amount of energy generated through alternative technology. In addition to residential application (not flats or maisonettes!), schools and public buildings could be ideal sites for the micro-generation of energy. Moreover, one can consider fitting micro-turbines to the structures of the hundreds of disused windmills (water pumps) that pepper the countryside. These windmills were strategically located by our ancestors in wind-prone areas and are now an integral part of the Maltese countryside.

The pre-budget document rightly refers to energy generated through waste. It speaks of the generation of electricity using animal waste through biogas in a facility to be constructed in the north of the island. This is a long overdue initiative. However, I believe that it is badly conceived. The lessons that should have been learnt following the Sant’ Antnin debacle seem to have been forgotten.

The point at issue is whether one facility covering the whole island is sufficient or desirable. Would it be a good idea to transport animal manure across the whole island to a facility in the north?

One point resulting from the public debate relative to the Sant’ Antnin waste recycling plant was the applicability of the proximity principle. The required plant should be sited as close as possible to the source of the waste being processed. This had led to the Sant ‘Antnin projected operation itself being scaled down to deal with one third of the islands’ waste. The rest, it was stated, should be processed on other sites (possibly two) that have not yet been identified! These other sites should be used for the production of biogas too and they should be identified in a location as close as possible to those areas that have the largest number of animal farms in order to minimise the movement of animal waste. Knowing that a number of these farms are sited very close to each other should make matters easier for our waste management planners.

Bad planning brings out another sore point, which was not discussed in the pre-budget document: namely the management of our water resources. Groundwater (a ‘free’ source of freshwater) still accounts for 40 per cent of our potable water supply. Groundwater accounts for the greater part of the water used by agriculture, the construction sector, landscaping activities and various other industrial and commercial concerns, including some hotels which are supplied by bowsers. However, as a result of over-extraction, the quality of the water in the aquifer is becoming saltier by the day and will become useless within our lifetime.

Yet, illegal extraction of ground water continues unabated and the authority responsible for the sustainable use of this precious resource (the Malta Resources Authority) persists in not taking any concrete action. The recent increase in the surcharge on mains water will inevitably result in a rush to drill more boreholes and extract more groundwater, with the consequence that our aquifer will die an earlier death.

Within this context, the construction of wastewater treatment plants treating urban wastewater and discharging it directly into the sea assumes an alarming relevance. A country whose natural water resources are not sufficient for its use ought to manage its water resources in a much better way. It certainly ought not to permit the illegal extraction of water or the discharge of treated water into the sea. The siting of the wastewater treatment plants in Malta and Gozo is such that discharging treated water into the sea is a foregone conclusion. This decision, undoubtedly arrived at based on the original siting of the sewage outfalls, ignores the possibilities to reuse the treated water, either as a second-class source or (with additional treatment) as potable water. Other developed countries, notably Singapore, produce an ever-increasing percentage of their potable water in this manner. This issue is ignored in the pre-budget report.

All this could easily have been prevented with a proper water management planning strategy, which, instead of large-scale plants for wastewater treatment, could have identified a number of smaller sites along the sewer route on the islands for the construction of small packaged wastewater treatment plants. These would have provided ample treated effluent where and when required for agricultural use, landscaping and other uses not requiring water of potable quality – at little or no distribution costs. The widespread availability of this water would have substituted the need to extract groundwater and facilitated the required enforcement action on its illegal extraction.

The total costs would have been substantially less. By costs I do not just mean economic ones but also the ecological cost of losing a strategic resource (the aquifer), which loss will have to be borne by future generations.

As indicated in the public hearings carried out by Minister Tonio Fenech, the pre-budget document deals with the sustainability of localities, rightly linking this issue to the proposed reform of local councils. It refers to the need for localities to draw up a Local Sustainable Development Strategy. In environmental management, we normally consider this within the Local Agenda 21 process currently espoused by thousands of localities around the globe: think global act local.

The sustainable localities proposal is undoubtedly well intentioned, and if adequately planned and applied can lead to positive results. The difficulty that will arise is that of economies of scale. Our localities vary substantially in size: from the largest – Birkirkara, to the smallest – San Lawrenz in Gozo. I believe that the best manner to apply Local Agenda 21 in Malta would be on a regional level. It would entail the setting up an additional level of local government that could be made up of all the local councils in the region. One possibility for the identification of regions would be to follow the boundaries of the seven local plans. These regions could be the channel for drawing up a Local Agenda 21 in conformity with national policy and strategies, which allow ample room for adequate planning. The proposed Conference on Local Sustainable Development would be a good start.

The basic point at issue in all deliberations is to view the economy as a tool at the service of the eco-system rather than as master of all. Adopting sustainable development as a policy instrument is no easy task. It entails taking a holistic view of public administration and its consequences. It signifies that national policy and administrative action need to have a continuous long-term view.

Economic policy generally takes on board social policy. It now needs to ensure that it is subservient to the eco-system because at the end of the day the eco-system is the source of our being. It is only at this point that we will be in a position to settle our country’s accumulated environmental deficit!

Controversial waste plant denied planning approval


published Saturday 12 July 2008


THE COUNTRY’S leading racehorse trainer Aidan O’Brien said yesterday he was “over the moon” following An Bord Pleanála’s decision to refuse planning permission for a waste treatment plant close to his Ballydoyle Racing Stables and the Coolmore Stud in south Tipperary.

Mr O’Brien said the proposed development “would have destroyed Ballydoyle . . . closed us down and ruined all the land in terms of raising horses”.

A joint venture company, Green Organics Energy Ltd (GOE), had sought approval for the facility at Castleblake near the village of Rosegreen on a site which had traditionally been used for rendering animals.

The €100 million plant was intended to process waste from meat factories as well as household organic “brown-bin” waste. GOE planned to process the waste using a system known as anaerobic digestion to generate “green” electricity for the national grid and biodiesel for cars.

An Bord Pleanála, while acknowledging “the desirability of providing such facilities”, rejected the proposal claiming that it would be “prejudicial to the viability of the equine industry in this area”.

The planning authority noted that it is “the policy of the Government to support the equine sector” and the proposed development would be located “in an area of national importance for the bloodstock industry”.

Mr O’Brien said: “We are delighted here at Ballydoyle with this decision. I want to pay tribute to the many individuals and organisations throughout this community for their hard work in campaigning against this development.”

A spokeswoman for GOE said the company “has not had sight of the decision and will be reviewing it in detail when it is available.”

The decision and the inspector’s report have been posted on the Bord Pleanála website.

The venture was backed by three Irish companies, Dawn Meats, Bioverda (a unit of conglomerate NTR) and Avglade, a holding company controlled by Tipperary businessman Louis Ronan.

The proposal was the subject of a 12-day public hearing conducted by An Bord Pleanála in Clonmel last February which heard statements from expert witnesses and attracted large crowds including many employees of both Ballydoyle Stables and Coolmore Stud. The hearing was told that John Magnier’s Coolmore Group – one of the industry’s most successful operations – could be forced to relocate away from Co Tipperary if the plant received approval.

In his testimony, Aidan O’Brien claimed the proposal “would be a disaster” and negatively impact on the health of horses at Ballydoyle.

Former attorney general Rory Brady SC, who led the legal team for GOE, said the case was “fundamentally a clash between modernity and a fear of change”.

Paul Barrett, the project’s manager, claimed that such facilities were necessary “if Ireland is to succeed in meeting our commitments under the Kyoto Protocol”. He claimed the proposed plant would “displace up to 250,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per annum from fossil fuels, provide green electricity for 40,000 houses . . . and biofuel to fuel 32,000 cars per year.” The company said that the plant was essential for the Irish meat processing industry which is currently obliged to export waste for incineration.

Yesterday, Maurice Moloney of Coolmore Stud described the decision as “a great result for common sense” and expressed “a heartfelt thank you” to “the people of south Tipperary”.

The decision was also welcomed by local community activist group South Tipperary for Clean Industry. Spokesman Douglas Butler said: “This refusal will protect the environment and our well-established equine industry.”

The proposal had been opposed by politicians of all parties in Co Tipperary. Dr Martin Mansergh, a Fianna Fáil TD for the constituency, had told the hearing: “If we have to have dirty industry in this country, then a better place needs to be found for it, well away from human habitation and acutely environmentally sensitive activities.

Island generates sustainable future

Published in The Financial Times 15 April 2008

By Andrew Bolger, Scotland Correspondent


Cutting edge initiatives may not generally be associated with the Orkney Islands, whose sleepy pace of life tends to attract more holiday makers than policy makers.

But Westray, the largest of Orkney’s northern isles, is attempting something never before tried in the UK. In just four years it aims to become the first community to produce the equivalent of all of its energy needs from renewable sources.

Developing renewable energy is a key object of the Westray Development Trust, which was created in 1998 in an attempt to stem the brain drain from the island.

Now, while its population still stands at a meagre 600, the number is rising and the trust feels the island “has turned the corner”, according to William McEwen, one of the trust’s founders.

Sandy McEwen, who with her husband has refurbished several historic buildings on the island, is in no doubt that the commitment to sustainability is luring newcomers and helping to safeguard Westray’s future. “We are attracting creative people – painters and jewellery makers – and protection of the environment is very important to them,” she said.

A maths teacher at the island’s high school, Mr McEwen has created Orkney Bio-Fuels, which makes bio-diesel from used cooking oil collected from hotels, pubs, restaurants and chip shops. As well as supplying the islanders with cheap green fuel, the venture makes a modest income for the trust – enough, it is hoped, to hire a full-time employee.

Another idea of Mr Mc-Ewen’s is an electric taxi for Westray’s elderly and disabled residents. It is about to enter service after receiving funding from ScottishPower and the government. Wind turbines will charge the pollution-free vehicle’s battery.

A care centre for the island’s elderly has wind turbines and a ground source heat pump. A youth centre is partly heated by a 2.5kilowatt wind turbine since it opened eight years ago.

Lorna Brown, a youth development worker, said: “It’s great that our young people use electricity generated from the wind at their own youth centre. They are growing up with renewables and that can only be good for the long-term future of our island.”

Westray-based company Heat and Power aims to be the first company in Scotland to turn cattle slurry into fuel for cars. Colin Risbridger, the chartered engineer behind the initiative, is working on using silage and cattle waste. “Who knows? We could see every farm becoming either a filling station or a power station in the future,” he said.

The Big Question: Why is the world so slow to produce environmentally-friendly cars?


published in the UK Independent


By Sean O’Grady
Thursday, 17 April 2008


Why are we asking this now?

Because Britain’s first hydrogen filling station opens today at the University of Birmingham. Researchers there will be assessing alternative fuel vehicles in search of greener motoring.

Is hydrogen the answer?

The hydrogen fuel cell is revolutionary. It supersedes the internal combustion engine and does away with fossil fuels. So there are vested interests involved. That said, it isn’t so much a question of conspiracy as cost. Some of the world’s leading energy and motor companies are developing alternatives to the conventional car. If the world wants hydrogen it will have to invest in it, scrapping existing technology, factories, refineries, infrastructure and know-how. That means consumers would have to pay for the leap forward. Will they? Besides, not everyone is convinced about the hydrogen fuel cell.

What’s so good about hydrogen?

Hydrogen is green at the point of use. Hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles emit no carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide or carcinogenic particles. All that emerges from the exhaust is water vapour. The hydrogen fuel, stored in pressurised tanks, is used to create a chemical reaction using catalysts. That is converted into electric power and drives a motor which moves the vehicle along. It is quiet, and performance is acceptable for many purposes; in any case it is early days yet. After all, we’ve had a long time to get from Karl Benz’s 1886 Patent Motorwagen (top speed: 11mph) to today’s Formula 1 wonders.

Do hydrogen fuel cells work?

Yes. Buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells have been judged “really successful” by Transport for London. Californian and South Korean authorities have tested fleets of Honda and Hyundai fuel cell cars satisfactorily. Mercedes-Benz and General Motors are two other companies who’ve produced running everyday fuel-cell models (Mercedes A-Class and a Vauxhall Zafira, respectively). The Honda FCX Clarity, a “proper” executive fuel-cell car, will be available for lease in the United States this summer.

So what’s the snag?

The greenness of hydrogen does depend on how much energy is inefficiently expended in generating it and moving it around. If, at one extreme, a much more efficient method of making hydrogen could be discovered, and if the energy used in it s manufacture and transport was sustainable (like from a power station using solar energy), then it might well be the greenest option. At worst there isn’t much advance on fossil fuels. Storing hydrogen requires pressurisation or cooling, which can be troublesome. Hydrogen also tends to vaporise, so there can be losses in transit. Some, with the tragedy of the Hindenburg airship in mind, wonder whether this highly combustible fuel can ever be safe.

How about just using hydrogen as fuel?

Simply replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen in a conventional internal combustion engine can be done. BMW’s Hydrogen 7 is almost as quiet and refined as its petrol-powered cousin. However, it needs a huge tank for the (unpressurised) hydrogen, and that tank of fuel can evaporate in as little as 10 days.

Are biofuels any use?

Biofuel versions of Saabs and Fords can be bought now, though there are few filling stations. This technology is also controversial. In theory, biofuels are carbon neutral, as the carbon dioxide used in producing them is “absorbed” by the plants grown to make create the biofuel. So-called first generation biofuels do suffer from drawbacks. First, they can displace food crops. Biofuels, even their best friends would agree, have had some effect on rising food prices. The EU wants to see monitoring systems to assure consumers that biofuels are not damaging the environment or food supplies, but those safeguards are yet to be implemented . Second, they can reduce biodiversity, as witnessed in the Indonesian rain forest, where palm oil crops for biodiesel have done much damage.

Third, critics point to the energy expended in producing and transporting the biofuels, the artificial fertilisers used, the western subsidies to grow them in Europe and the US, and so on. More defensible are second, third and fourth generation biofuels, which become progressively greener, though none are commercially available. The next stage will be to find ways to use the waste product of crops rather than the nutritionally valuable seeds and grains in biofuel production. One day, the scientists promise “carbon positive” biofuels – enzymes that can save the planet.

Why aren’t there more hybrids?

Toyota’s Prius leads the field, although Honda and Ford and General Motors in America are also on the scene. Using power wasted, for example in braking, and recycling that via an electric motor to supplement a petrol engine is a clever one. But many manufacturers say small, efficient diesels engines are just as effective and a lot cheaper to make, with no problematic batteries to dispose of. Japanese and US makers tend to favour petrol/electric hybrids because their main markets have very little appetite for diesel; European makes such as Mercedes and Peugeot are more traditionally committed to diesel. “Plug-in hybrids”, where energy direct from the mains can add to the cars’ range, are a step forward.

What happened to the electric car?

Nothing especially, though GM did can one of its more promising projects on the grounds of cost. However, the motor-show concept Chevrolet Volt (a “plug-in” hybrid) promises much, and GM are committed to making it. Electric cars can be extremely green, but again much crucially depends on how their power is generated. They used to be slow and fragile; mainstream makers are working on that. The Modec van is a fine example of a practical vehicle.

What can I do now?

Drive more carefully; downsize; use public transport more. There’s an argument for keeping an old car on the road for longer, thus saving the resources and energy used in producing a new one. A Morris Minor Traveller even uses renewable ash in its bodywork. The car makers are doing their bit, too. Modern cars are much greener than their predecessors (see chart). Ford and Volkswagen are tuning existing models to return exceptional economy and low emissions, the VW Polo “Bluemotion” being an outstanding example. But manufacturers such as VW and Citroë*do tend to price their green or diesel cars on the high side compared to the equivalent petrol models.

Will cars be greener any time soon?


* All new cars are greener than their ancestors, so it is a process of evolution

* Small diesels are the way forward at the moment, and there are plenty on sale now

* Everyone is downsizing anyway. That might be the immediate means of cutting vehicle emissions


* The car makers and oil companies will try to protect their old ‘brown’ technologies

* Consumers aren’t demanding them loudly enough, giving makers no incentive to crank up production

* ‘Green’ technologies aren’t as clean as they say. A real solution has not arrived yet

Banks & the Environment ………… in Miami

Article below was published on last Sunday


Bank meeting embroiled in ‘green’ debate

As the Inter-American Development Bank gears up to support biofuel and renewable energy efforts, environmental critics claim the lending agency is backing too many unsustainable energy projects.

Inter-American Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno touted the lending agency’s efforts to support green fuels and energy conservation on Saturday. But environmental groups accused the bank of pumping billions of dollars into projects that harm the environment.

During a series of seminars on climate change, renewable energy and biofuels during the IDB’s annual meeting at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Moreno outlined the bank’s energy and climate change efforts, including the Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Initiative launched a year ago.

”[It is] the focus of the IDB’s efforts to respond to these key challenges of our age and assist our partner countries in dealing effectively with the issues they raise,” Moreno said during the second day of the meeting, which is expected to draw 6,000 Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. finance officials, business executives, bankers and members of nongovernmental organizations.

But Amazon Watch, Friends of the Earth and the Bank Information Center, which also are participating in the annual meeting, questioned the bank’s support for highway and energy projects that they said will contribute to deforestation, harm indigenous communities and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

In Peru, the bank has approved a $400 million loan to the Camisea gas project, which cuts through a biodiverse region of the Peruvian Amazon. In Colombia, the Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Initiative has announced its backing of the Cerrejon coal mine, which Friends of the Earth says is highly polluting.

”The policies of the Inter-American Development Bank cannot be double-faced,” said Silvia Molina of the Bank Information Center.

At midday, about 20 demonstrators gathered outside the convention center and launched a balloon holding a banner that read ”Investing in Agrofuels is Dirty Business, ” a play on the organization’s initials IADB.

Jodie Van Horn of Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco said the IDB needs to quit pushing biofuel projects that are draining Latin America to feed U.S. energy consumption.

”We’re concerned about this mad rush into a false solution called agrofuels,” she said. Instead, the IDB should focus its efforts on truly renewable sources of energy and encouraging conservation, she said. “We want to see some real reforms.”

During seminars organized by the bank Saturday, experts pointed out that climate change threatens the region with extreme weather events, has driven farmers from land degraded by drought and could threaten plants and animals with extinction as well as endanger coral reefs in the Caribbean.

”There is no silver bullet, but we do have multiple actions” said Mario Molina, a Mexican who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry. He proposed that the IDB help organize a network in Latin America and the Caribbean to promote best practices in biofuels, renewable energy and energy conservation.

Kenrick Leslie, executive director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize, said the Caribbean region was particularly vulnerable. ”The Caribbean is just barely coping with the current situation,” Leslie said.

When the main meetings of the IDB get under way on Monday and Tuesday, the focus is expected to shift to the regional economy and finances.