Wanted: a transport policy which makes sense

Everywhere is within reach in the Maltese islands: distances are relatively small. It is, in addition, an established fact, documented in the Transport Masterplan, that 50 per cent of private car trips on our roads take less than fifteen minutes. Do we need to be dependent on private cars for such short distances?

Over the years public transport was neglected. In the absence of suitable public transport, and as a reaction thereto, a pattern of car dependency has inevitably developed. The resulting congested roads are a symptom of this fact rather than being, as suggested in Parliament earlier this week by a government backbencher, the direct consequence of an increase in the country’s standard of living.

There have been improvements in public transport in the last years: these are however insufficient. Having free public transport is a good but pre-mature initiative as public transport has yet to be efficient and reliable. The decision announced last week by Transport Minister to invest in cycle lanes, is welcome, even if it comes a little late in the day.

The heavy investment in road infrastructure over the years has been misdirected as it has focused on the effects instead of on the causes of traffic congestion. The financial resources utilised in the Marsa Road network, the Central Link and elsewhere, will, at the end of the day, prove to be monies down the drain as traffic congestion will build up once more. This is already evident even in these early days. Others have been there before us as is revealed by countless studies carried out all over the world on the link between traffic congestion and improvement of the road infrastructure.

It is only through the provision of alternative means of sustainable mobility that the problematic behavioural pattern we have developed over the years can be addressed. Moving away from car dependency will however be a very slow process if policy makers keep continuously sending conflicting signals.

Making it easier for the car user through more or better roads is no help in solving the problem. It will make matters worse. Likewise, the subsidisation of petrol and diesel is sending a clear message to all that car dependency is not even considered to be a problem.

Three specific factors are currently in play: traffic congestion, fuel cost and the transition to transport electrification. If properly managed, together they can help us move towards a state of sustainable mobility. The transition period is however necessarily painful unless it is properly managed.

Postponement in tackling traffic congestion properly will only make matters worse.

Improvement of road infrastructure has postponed the issue of tackling traffic congestion into the future. Fuel subsidies have added to the problem as they blatantly ignore it. Electrification, unless coupled with a reduction of cars on the road will add acute electricity dependency on foreign sources to our current problems. Energy sovereignty has been problematic for quite some time: it will get worse.

The second electricity interconnector with the Sicilian mainland will worsen our car dependency as a result of linking it with a dependency on electricity generated outside our shores. We know quite well what that signifies whenever the interconnector is out of service, whatever the cause!

We need to go beyond the rhetoric and act before it is too late. It is also possible to ensure that the vulnerable are adequately protected. This would mean that instead of having across-the-board subsidises, these would be focused on those who really need them. All those who have mobility problems should receive focused assistance to help them overcome the difficulties which could result from a modal shift in transport. We cannot however go on with subsidies for all: it is not sustainable, neither economically, nor environmentally or socially

Land use planning can also be of considerable help if it is focused on the actual needs of the whole community instead of being at the service of the developers. We need to ensure that each community is self-sufficient in respect of its basic needs. This will, on its own, decrease traffic generated by the search for such needs.

The climate change debate is a unique opportunity to rethink the way we plan our cities as one way in which to combat the climate crisis. The idea crystallised as ‘the 15-minute city’ by Carlos Moreno, an architect advising the Paris mayor, entails turning current urban planning on its head to ensure that all our basic needs are available within easy reach, not more than 15 minutes away.

Carlos Moreno speaks of a social circularity for living in our urban spaces based on six essential functions: to live in good housing, to work close by, to reach supplies and services easily, to access education, healthcare and cultural entitlement locally by low-carbon means. Can we reassess the nature and quality of our urban lifestyles within these parameters?

All we do is essentially linked. At the end of the day traffic congestion and the related car dependency are a product of our mode of behaviour.  Thinking outside the box, we can tackle it successfully, as a result unchaining ourselves from our car dependency, consequently adjusting to a better sustainable lifestyle.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 20 November 2022

Miljun euro kuljum f’sussidji

Is-susidji li qed jitħallsu mill-kaxxa ta’ Malta għall-petrol, dijżil u elettriku huma sostanzjali. Sa nofs Lulju anke d-dijżil użat minn inġenji kbar tal-baħar kien issussidjat! Permezz ta’ avviż legali, effettiv mid-29 ta’ Lulju il-Ministeru tal-Finanzi waqqaf dan is-sussidju, u għamel tajjeb.

Din il-bidla, bl-eliminazzjoni tas-sussidju tad-dijsil u petrol għal inġenji kbar tal-baħar kienet pass tajjeb il-quddiem biex ma jibqgħux jintużaw fondi pubbliċi fuq sussidji li la kienu meħtieġa u l-anqas ma kienu ġustifikabbli.

Is-sussidji li presentement huma użati għall-petrol, dijżil u l-elettriku jeċċedu l-miljun ewro kuljum. Fil-fatt huma qrib il-miljun u nofs euro (€1,500,000) kuljum.

Il-Prim Ministru, Robert Abela, f’dawn il-ġranet qal li mhux faċli li tillimita s-sussidji biex l-għajnuna ma tispiċċax għand min għandu l-mezzi, inkelli għand min jaħli. Naqblu perfettament li qatt mhu faċli tieħu dawn id-deċiżjonijiet. Speċjalment meta jkun meħtieġ li taqta’ l-benefiċċji lil min m’għandux ħtieġa għalihom!

Hu possibli li nikkunsidraw bis-serjetà t-tnaqqis tas-sussidji għall-petrol, dijżil u elettriku biex ikunu jistgħu jintużaw biss minn min jeħtieġhom. Dan it-tnaqqis jassigura li jkun hemm ferm iktar fondi għal dawk li verament għandhom bżonn. Miżura bħal din tnaqqas il-ħtieġa li tkun indirizzata l-ispiża għall-edukazzjoni jew għal xi qasam jew proġett ta’ utilità biex tagħmel tajjeb għas-sussidji.

It-tnaqqis fl-ispiża għall-edukazzjoni universitarja, kif qed jippjana li jagħmel il-Gvern bi tnaqqis fil-fondi għall-Università hu kastig indirizzat lejn il-ġenerazzjonijiet futuri.  Il-ġenerazzjonijiet futuri huma diġa mgħobbija bid-dejn pubbliku akkumulat, b’riżorsi naturali li kważi spiċċaw u b’wirt nazzjonali li qiegħed kontinwament taħt assedju. M’għandniex nagħmlu l-affarijiet agħar milli diġa huma!

Is-sussidji eżistenti jistgħu jonqsu iktar.

Is-sussidji fuq il-petrol u d-dijżil jistgħu jonqsu sakemm gradwalment jinġiebu fix-xejn.  Dan iwassal għal benefiċċju addizzjonali, ta’ inqas karozzi fit-toroq, u dan billi żieda fil-prezz tal-petrol u d-dijżil inevitabilment jikkawża ċaqlieqa lejn użu ikbar tat-transport pubbliku. Irridu fuq kollox niftakru li numru sostanzjali tal-vjaġġi li nagħmlu bil-karozzi privati huma għal distanzi qosra. Dan ġie emfasizzat ukoll mill-iStrateġija Nazzjonali tat-Trasport li tgħid li 50 fil-mija tal-vjaġġi bil-karozzi privati fil-gżejjer Maltin huma għal distanzi qosra li jieħdu inqas minn ħmistax-il minuta.

F’dawn iċ-ċirkustanzi, t-trasport pubbliku jista’ joffri alternattiva raġjonevoli. Iktar u iktar issa li minn Ottubru ser ikun bla ħlas! Jeħtieġ imma li jkun effiċjenti, jżomm il-ħin, dejjem, u jilħaq l-ikbar numru possibli ta’ lokalitajiet f’kull ħin. Dan għandu jinkludi servizz ridott imma effiċjenti matul il-lejl.

F’dawn iċ-ċirkustanzi, it-tnaqqis tas-sussidju fuq il-petrol u id-dijżil hi l-aħjar għażla li tista’ issir.

Imbagħad ikun jinħtieġ li jkunu indirizzati b’mod dirett l-impatti ta’ dawk is-setturi ekonomiċi dipendenti fuq il-petrol u d-dijżil. Dawn jeħtieġu għajnuna diretta u iffokata li tindirizza l-impatti ta’ din id-dipendenza.

Konsiderazzjonijiet simili għandhom japplikaw għas-sussidji li preżentement japplikaw għall-konsum tal-elettriku.

Il-konsum domestiku bażiku tal-elettriku għandu jibqa’ jkun issussidjat. Imma lil hinn minn dan il-konsum bażiku, anke hawn hu ġustifikat li tkun ikkunsidrata għajnuna iffukata u mfassla għas-setturi ekonomiċi differenti. Dan jagħmel ferm iktar sens milli jkun issussidjat il-konsum kollu bla limitu.

Għandha tibqa’ prijorità l-għajnuna li twassal għall-ġenerazzjoni u użu ikbar ta’ enerġija rinovabbli.  Hemm ħtieġa ta’ sforz ikbar biex tkun iġġenerata enerġija solari permezz ta’ użu iktar effiċjenti tal-bjut tal-bini pubbliku kif ukoll, fejn dan hu possibli, tal-ispazji miftuħa. Flimkien ma investiment ikbar fit-titjib meħtieġ fis-sistema tad-distribuzzjoni tal-elettriku dan jista’ jnaqqas l-impatt ta’ din il-kriżi enerġetika fuq il-pajjiż b’mod sostanzjali.

Li ngħinu li dawk li għandhom ħtieġa, tibqa’ prijorità. Imma l-għajnuna li tingħata għandha tkun waħda li tkun sostenibbli. In-nefqa ta’ miljun euro kuljum fuq sussidji (probabbilment ferm iktar) definittivament mhux sostenibbli.

Il-futur niffaċċjawh b’serenità permezz ta’ viżjoni sostenibbli. Dan jaqbel u hu fl-interess ta’ kulħadd. Kemm fl-interess tal-ġenerazzjonijiet preżenti kif ukoll fl-interess tal-ġenerazzjonijiet futuri. L-għażliet li għandna quddiemna mhumiex faċli. Hu biss jekk nagħrfu nidentifikaw il-prijoritajiet tagħna bil-għaqal li nistgħu nkunu f’posizzjoni li nħejju futur sostenibbli.

ippubblikat fuq Illum: 18 ta’ Settembru 2022

One Million euro every day

The subsidies being currently forked out by the public exchequer relative to the current price of fuel and electricity are substantial. Until mid-July subsidised fuel was also available for use by large seacraft. Through a legal notice effective on the 29 July the Finance Ministry tweaked the subsidy rules to stop this. This was a correct step to take.

This tweaking of fuel subsidy rules was a good step in diverting subsidies from being mis-used for non-essential purposes.  The subsidies currently applied to fuel and electricity exceed the sum of one million euro per day. In fact, they are getting closer to one and a half million euro (€1,500,000) per day.

Prime Minister Robert Abela is on record as stating that it is not easy to limit subsidies from being used by the wealthy and the wasteful. I agree that decision-taking is never easy. Especially when limiting access to benefits such that those who are not in need and the wasteful do not end up being subsidised by the state!

It is however possible to seriously consider limiting the fuel and electricity subsidies to be used only by those who need them. Such a limitation would ensure that more funds are available for those who really need them. It would reduce the need to curtail expenditure on education or other useful areas/projects to make good for the subsidies.

Reducing expenditure on university education, as government is planning to do through a reduction in its operational budget, penalises future generations. Future generations are already burdened with the accumulated national debt, with the depletion of natural resources and with the continuous ruining of our national heritage. We should not make matters worse than they already are.

Existing subsidies could be further tweaked.

Subsidies on petrol and diesel could be reduced until they are completely eliminated. This would have the additional benefit of less cars on the road as increased petrol/diesel prices would inevitably shift more of us to make more use of public transport. We should remember that a substantial amount of private car use can be avoided as it is for short distances. This has been clearly emphasised in the National Transport Master Plan which states that 50 per cent of car trips in the Maltese Islands are for short distances of less than fifteen minutes duration. Public Transport can offer the reasonable alternative in these circumstances, in particular being free of charge as from next month! It must however improve its reliability as well as its efficiency. It should also aim to reach as many localities as possible, including through an efficient night service.

In these circumstances reducing gradually and eventually removing subsidies on petrol/diesel could be the way forward.

The issue remains as to those economic areas which are dependent on petrol/diesel. In these cases, government should identify suitable focused aid which addresses the specific needs of the economic areas under consideration.

Similar considerations should apply to subsidies currently applicable to electricity.

Basic domestic use of electricity should remain subsidised. Beyond that, however, it would make sense to focus the required aid to industry and business in a focused manner, in tailor-made fashion. This would make much more sense than a blanket policy of subsidies across the board.

Increased emphasis on assistance to generate and make use of renewal energy should continue to be a priority. An increased effort must be made to generate more renewable energy through an efficient use of the roofs of public buildings as well as, wherever possible, adequate use of public open spaces. Coupled with an increased expenditure on improvements to the electricity distribution system this could reduce the impacts of this energy crisis on the Maltese taxpayer in a substantial manner.

Helping those in need is a priority. In should however be done in a sustainable manner! Spending more than one million euro per day on these subsidies is definitely not sustainable.

A sustainable vision is the way forward. It is in the interest of all. This is in the interest of both the present as well as future generations. The choices we need to make are tough. It is only if we get our priorities right that we can plot the way for a sustainable future.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 18 September 2022

Corruption: the institutions are not working

Reading through the media court reports on the Qormi murder earlier this week confirms that the Police in Malta can carry out crime investigations assiduously and bring them to their logical conclusions when they are left to carry out their work free from any pressures whatsoever.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said on Police investigations relative to corruption.

Last week, in my article (Phone call from the Ministry: TMIS 4 September 2022) I referred to the cryptic language used in the evidence delivered in Court by the Police Inspector in the car licence corruption case. This, I argued, is conveying the unmistakable message that holders of political office and their hangers-on are dealt with kids gloves by the police investigators, thereby facilitating the development of clientelism into corruption.

During the public protest held last Tuesday against corruption organised by the NGO Repubblika it was once more explained as to how the authorities (that is the Commissioner of Police and the Attorney General’s office) have failed to act on the conclusions of the report of the magisterial inquiry into the operations of Pilatus Bank.

Repubblika President, Robert Aquilina, quoting chapter and verse from the magisterial inquiry report, explained how the Courts have instructed the said authorities to take criminal action against various former officials of Pilatus Bank. However only one former official was arraigned. All the others whom the inquiring magistrate pointed out have not been arraigned to account for their actions.

This has led to the unprecedented step of NGO Repubblika challenging the police authorities and the Attorney General in Court for failing to carrying out their duties. The authorities, are not functioning, Robert Aquilina rightfully claimed!

To substantiate his claim, he presented the relevant extracts from the report of the magisterial inquiry on the operations of Pilatus Bank.

To add insult to injury, the magistrate examining the challenge in Court, instead of requesting the police and the Attorney General to explain their “ifs” and “whys” turned on the NGO leadership in order to identify how the magisterial inquiry report came into their possession. Instead of shielding citizens seeking justice, unfortunately, the magistrate is shielding those who are sending out the clear message that, after all, crime pays, if you have friends located in the right places.

Instead of acting against the corrupt the courts are acting against those who are vigilant enough to note that the institutions are failing to carry out their basic duties.

This is the basic message being conveyed. The institutions are not working as they are not taking the necessary action to ensure that justice is done and that our society is defended against corruption. In addition to this blatant breach of trust, the institutions are also obstructing those who, notwithstanding the odds stacked against them are seeking to remedy the situation.

If this was not enough, we have just learnt of a secret agreement between the Azeri company SOCAR and the Maltese government, then represented by Konrad Mizzi. Irrespective of whether this agreement was implemented or not, it is another case of abusive use of Ministerial powers and should be properly investigated.

Faced with all this, nobody can remain passive. This is the tip of the corruption iceberg that has stifled our country and has been doing so for quite some time.

It is no wonder that Malta’s reputation has gone to the dogs!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 September 2022

Emerġenza Klimatika: l-impatt tal-karozzi u l-avjazzjoni

Temperaturi rekord, li f’ħafna każi jaqbżu l-40 grad Celsius, nirien qerrieda u nixfa f’diversi pajjiżi. Din hi l-aħbar ewlenija mal-Ewropa kollha f’dawn il-ġranet. Din il-mewġa ta’ sħana mhiex xi sorpriża.  

Rapport mill- Joint Research Station tal-Unjoni Ewropeja li kien ippubblikat iktar kmieni din il-ġimgha, intitolat  Drought in Europe July 2022, jemfasizza li parti sostanzjali mit-teritorju tal-Unjoni Ewropeja hu soġġett għal nixfa li f’numru ta’ każi ilha tinġemgħa. Din hi in-normalità l-ġdida!

Il-klima ta’ bħalissa għandha impatt negattiv fuq l-agrikultura fl-Ewropa kollha. L-uċuħ tar-raba’ ser jirrendu ferm inqas. Fl-Italja, ġara tagħna, fuq it-TV rajna  il-livell tal-ilma tax-xmara Po li hu ferm iktar baxx mis-soltu: hemm metri inqas. L-esperti qed jgħidu li l-volum preżenti tal-ilma tax-xmara hu madwar 80 fil-mija inqas mis-soltu. Nofs l-irziezet Taljani għandhom problemi kbar ikkawżati min-nixfa u t-temperaturi għoljin li qed jiffaċċaw.

Dan m’hu xejn ġdid għall-biedja f’Malta. Ilna niffaċċjaw dawn il-kundizzjonijiet. In-nuqqas tal-ilma hi xi ħaġa normali f’Malta, in-nixfa, imma, qed issir ukoll iktar spissa. Imbagħad jiġu mumenti fejn jinfetħu s-smewwiet Ii jgħarrqu kull m’hawn b’għargħar li jkaxkar kollox.

Il-klima ilha żmien tinbidel ftit ftit u dan riżultat tal-istil ta’ ħajja li qed ngħixu. In-natura ilha żmien tagħtina s-sinjali li ma nistgħux nibqgħu għaddejjin kif aħna. Imma kontinwament ninjorawha. Riżultat ta’ hekk issa għandna din l-emerġenza klimatika, li, ġibniha b’idejna.

L-emerġenza klimatika issa hi rejaltà u hi parti integrali mill-ħajja tagħna. Biex nindirizzawha irridu nibdew nagħtu kaz dak li qed tgħidilna n-natura. Hu meħtieġ  li dan kollu jkun rifless fil-politika li tħares fit-tul. Speċifikament nistennew li l-politika li ma mhiex kompatibbli ma dak meħtieġ biex nindirizzaw it-tibdil fil-klima tkun indirizzata b’mod immedjat.  

Malta m’għandiex industrija li tagħti xi kontribut kbir għat-tibdil fil-klima. Il-problemi ewlenin fil-kaz tagħna ġejjin mit-trasport: mill-karozzi u mill-ajruplani.

In-numru ta’ karozzi fit-toroq għadu qed jiżdied kontinwament. Ix-xogħolijiet konnessi mat-titjib fl-infrastruttura tat-toroq qed isiru bl-iskop uniku li t-toroq ikunu jifilħu għal iktar karozzi. Dan ikompli jżid mal-problema. Il-konġestjoni tat-traffiku tonqos naħa u tiżdied band’oħra! Minkejja l-ħafna kliem sabiħ ma hemmx ir-rieda politika li l-kontribut  tal-karozzi għat-tibdil fil-klima jkun indirizzat.

Il-qalba tal-karozzi għall-elettriku, waħedha, mhux ser issolvi l-problema. L-emissjonijiet jibdew jonqsu fit-toroq u jiċċaqalqu għas-sors tal-elettriku li nużaw biex niċċarġjaw il-batteriji. L-enerġija rinovabbli li qed niġġeneraw hi ta’ kwantità insinifikanti!

Parti mill-problema nesportawha lejn Sqallija billi nużaw l-interconnector, li flok wieħed issa hu ippjanat li jkollna tnejn. B’hekk inkomplu inżidu  d-dipendenza tagħna għall-ħtiġijiet enerġetiċi.

Flimkien mal-qalba tal-karozzi għall-elettriku irid isir sforz ġenwin biex jonqsu sostanzjalment il-karozzi mit-toroq tagħna. Iċ-ċokon tal-gżejjer Maltin jagħmilha iktar possibli li nindirizzaw id-dipendenza tagħna fuq il-karozza u li din tkun sostitwita bi transport pubbliku effiċjenti. Kważi kullimkien jista’ jintlaħaq b’faċilità.

F’ Ottubru t-trasport pubbliku ser ikun b’xejn. Dan waħdu mhux biżżejjed: jinħtieġ trasport pubbliku li jkun effiċjenti.  Hu biss meta t-trasport pubbliku jkun alternattiva tajba li jkun jagħmel sens għall-gvernijiet li jibdew il-proċess biex jonqsu b’mod sostanzjali l-karozzi mit-toroq tagħna.

Biex nindirizzaw l-impatti tal-avjazzjoni l-istorja hi iktar ikkumplikata.  Id-dibattitu kurrenti dwar taxxa fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni, kif diġa ġie emfasizzat, ser ikollu impatt sproporzjonat fuq il-gżejjer periferali fl-Unjoni Ewropeja. Imma l-problema hi waħda reali u teħtieġ li tkun indirizzata bla iktar dewmien.

Il-qalba tal-argument fid-diskussjoni li għaddejja hi dwar l-impatt ta’ taxxa fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni fuq it-turiżmu. Mhux biss it-turiżmu lejn il-gżejjer Maltin, imma dak lejn kull rokna tal-Unjoni Ewropeja. Ilkoll kemm aħna naċċettaw il-prinċipju ambjentali bażiku li min iħammeġ jeħtieġ li jħallas (polluter pays principle) li illum il-ġurnata jifforma parti kemm mill-liġi Ewropeja kif ukoll minn dik Maltija.  Anke it-turiżmu għandu jerfa’ l-piż tal-impatti li jiġġenera, in partikolari l-impatti ambjentali tiegħu. Dak hu l-iskop tat-taxxa proposta fuq il-fuel tal-avjazzjoni.

Wasal iż-żmien li t-turiżmu ukoll jibda jirristrittura ruħu u jibda jagħti każ tal-impatti ambjentali tiegħu. Bl-emerġenza klimatika wara l-bieb ma jagħmilx sens li nibqgħu għaddejjin bit-tkaxkir tas-saqajn.

Żommu quddiem għajnejkom li l-gżejjer u l-komunitajiet mal-kosta jaqilgħu l-ikbar daqqa meta jibdew jiżdiedu l-impatti tat-tibdil fil-klima, billi jibda jgħola l-livell tal-baħar.  Xi gżejjer u uħud mill-komunitajiet mal-kosta l-anqas biss jibqgħu jeżistu.

Man-natura ma tistax tinnegozja, trid tbaxxi rasek!

ippubblikat fuq Illum: 24 ta’ Lulju 2022

Climate Emergency: addressing car and aviation impacts

Record breaking temperatures, in many cases exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, fires raging across a multitude of countries and drought, is the current news all over Europe. The current heatwave was not unexpected.

The European Union’s Joint Research Station in a report published earlier this week, entitled Drought in Europe July 2022, reports that a substantial portion of EU territory is exposed to warning levels of drought, or even worse. This will soon be the new normal!

The current climate will severely impact agriculture all over Europe. The impact on crop yields will be substantial. In neighbouring Italy, we have witnessed on TV the level of the waters of the river Po being several metres lower than usual: its current capacity is 80 per cent down on what’s normal at this time of the year. Fifty per cent of Italian farms are at risk, devastated by drought and high temperatures.

All this is nothing new for Maltese agriculture. We have been there before, at times due to prolonged drought, at others as a result of havoc creating floods which are increasing in frequency.

The climate has been slowly changing over the years, reacting to the changing human behaviour. Nature has been reacting slowly, signalling time and again that it will not be subdued.  Nature’s signals have been repeatedly ignored: as a result, we are now faced with a climate emergency.

The Climate Emergency is now a reality which is an integral part of our daily life. Addressing it would signify that we start taking note of nature’s signals and act accordingly. It stands to reason that this should be reflected in our country’s long-term policies. Specifically, one would expect that policies which are incompatible with responsible action to address climate change, are immediately addressed.

Malta has no heavy industry which contributes to climate change.  Our major contributor to climate change is transport, specifically road transport and aviation.

The number of cars on the roads is continuously increasing. Road infrastructure improvements taken in hand are intended to increase the capacity of Maltese roads and consequently are and will continue to add to the problem. Traffic congestion is being shifted from one area to another. Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, there is clearly no political will to act and address the contribution of road transport towards climate change.

Electrification, on its own, will not solve the problem. It will rather shift emissions from our roads to the source of electricity used in charging our cars. The renewable energy we generate is not sufficient to cater for our needs, in particular if we have to also cater for a complete electrification of our car fleet.

Part of the problem will be exported to the Sicilian mainland through the submarine energy cables and will be serve to increase our energy dependency.

Electrification of our roads must be coupled with a drive to substantially reduce cars from our roads. The relative smallness of the Maltese islands makes it much easier than elsewhere to substitute our car dependency with an efficient public transport. Almost everywhere is within easy reach.

Come October public transport will be free of charge. This must be coupled with an effort to increase its efficiency and reliability. It is only when public transport is a suitable alternative that it makes sense for governments to start a campaign to substantially reduce cars from our roads.  

Addressing the impacts of aviation is more complicated. The current debate on an aviation fuel tax, as pointed out by various political observers, will impact the peripheral islands within the EU in a disproportionate manner. At the end of the day some solution will have to be found to this aspect of the problem, without further delay.

The crux of the issue, however, is the impact of such an aviation fuel tax on tourism, not just tourism directed towards Malta but that directed to all areas within the EU. All of us accept the basic “polluter pays principle” which is enshrined not only in EU legislation but also in local laws and regulations. Even tourism should internalise its environmental costs. That is the purpose of the proposed aviation fuel tax.

It is time that the tourism industry starts its much-delayed restructuring. With the climate emergency on our doorstep there is no purpose in delaying any further.

Kindly keep in mind that islands and coastal communities will be the worst hit when the impacts of climate change increase substantially through a sea-level rise. Some islands, as well as a number of coastal communities, as a result, will simply cease to exist.

One cannot bargain with nature; you have to follow its instructions!

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 24 July 2022

Beyond electric cars

Minister Miriam Dalli is partially right when stating that green transport schemes should focus on fully electric options. She made this statement when queried about subsidies for hybrid cars. Emphasising that zero-emission vehicles will be the only ones in receipt of funding assistance is the correct way forward.

But are electric cars in reality zero emission vehicles? In actual fact this is dependent on the source of electricity used when they are charged. When renewable energy is used to power electric vehicles, than we can state that they are zero emission vehicles, otherwise they are not.

There are other important considerations which need to be made. Green transport policy should be much wider than schemes subsidising zero-emission vehicles.

Only approximately 10 per cent of the energy utilised in the Maltese islands is renewable energy generated in Malta, primarily solar energy. The rest is either generated at the gas-powered Delimara power station or else imported through the interconnector with the Sicilian mainland. Plans are in hand to commission a second interconnector primarily to cater for the anticipated substantial increased demand for electricity as a result of the car electrification process.

Is this sustainable? Government is apparently ignoring this consideration.

Malta will be increasingly dependent for its immediate electrical energy needs on the interconnectors with the Sicilian mainland. Failure of the interconnectors to operate for more than a few hours would render most of us immobile as there will not be enough electricity to charge our cars! This is not a far-fetched possibility as we have experienced many a time when the interconnector was out of action, for a variety of reasons. A case in point being when the interconnector was damaged as a result of its being entangled with the anchors of a tanker during a storm.

In parallel with car electrification plans it is essential that the extreme dependency of our population on car ownership is addressed. This can be done through various initiatives.

Increased use of public transport is an initiative which is already being tackled. The announcement that as of October 2022 all public transport will be free of charge can be helpful if its efficiency is enhanced. If public transport is regular and sticks to the planned time-tables it can, over a period of time, contribute significantly to addressing car dependency. One has to underline the fact that car dependency in Malta and Gozo has primarily developed as a reaction to an unreliable public transport. As a result, there is still a reluctance to trust public transport. It still has to continuously prove itself, even though there have been significant improvements in the service provided.

Car-sharing schemes can be helpful in reducing cars from our roads. Currently in Malta we have one company offering the service of 450 cars which are available for shared use (against payment obviously). Using one of these cars instead of owning your own helps in reducing cars from our roads. Having just 450 cars being subject to shared use is however too little. Fiscal incentives including subsidies to those opting to share cars rather than to own them could be helpful.

We should continuously remember that in most cases, in Malta, we travel for short distances. Having less cars on our roads will also contribute to more road safety and consequently this would encourage more walking and cycling, especially when the distance involved is small.

Electrification of our roads on its own is not sufficient. It is just one of a number of tools which need to be applied in transport policy to contribute to a reduced climate impact, attain safer roads, achieve cleaner air and also to ensure more sustainable mobility.

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday: 22 May 2022

From Dubai to Singapore

Last week, the President of the Republic, laying out the programme for the new government in what is known as the speech from the throne, emphasised that the environment is a core value for this government. Reading through the speech prepared by government, his Excellency was clear by dwelling on a number of different topics of considerable environmental importance.

However, Dr Vella was unfortunately not advised as to how and when the government intends to address its continuous contradictions in its drive to shift its focus from the infrastructure to the environment.

The elastic environmental politics presented by this government ranges from more flyovers to achieving carbon neutrality, simultaneously being dependent on two interconnectors tapping the Sicilian energy market.

Previous governments led by the Labour party had sought to transform Malta into another Dubai, that is a land of high rises and extensive land reclamation . The attempt at Dubai-ification embarked on by the Muscat led government will apparently now be transformed into a Singaporization as emphasised by infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia. This is the implementation of the policy of continuity which his Excellency was apparently not sufficiently advised about.

The current crop will do their best to outshine their predecessors. Since there is not much more land to ruin, they have therefore turned their gaze towards the sea which they will be ruined in due course.

Preliminary studies carried out in the past had identified the areas in Maltese waters where land reclamation could be considered, subject to more in-depth studies. The coastal areas identified and studied are those along the  Magħtab/Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq coastline and the Xgħajra/Marsaskala coastline. These are the coastal zones which have to be watched and protected.

The basic question to ask before embarking on planning any land reclamation projects is: what do we need land reclamation for? In the past land was reclaimed to construct the Freeport or to protect the coast at Msida, Gżira and elsewhere.

If any new pressing need is identified one should carefully consider them.

The Netherlands used land reclamation successfully to adequately manage its low-lying land. Hong Kong made use of land reclamation to create high value land required for its airport on the Chek Lak Kok island. Through land reclamation Singapore expanded its container port, an essential cornerstone in its economy.

The way to go about tackling land reclamation is through serious public consultation. Labour in government has, so far, only consulted developers on land reclamation. It has, in the recent past, only consulted those who were seeking new ways to make a quick buck! These are the fourth-floor guys who are only interested in making hay while the sun shines.

If government is serious about land reclamation it should immediately publish a list of its proposed projects. This should be accompanied by a draft national land-reclamation strategy for public consultation. At this point consultation should not be with the speculation lobby: it has already been extensively consulted. Consultation at this stage should primarily be with environmental NGOs and the coastal communities, in particular those directly impacted.

Having said the above I do not think that land reclamation is or should be a priority. Rather, the priority should be the restructuring of the construction industry: specifically cutting it down to size and putting it to good use.

The country would be economically, environmentally and socially much better off if the construction industry is assisted in its much-needed restructuring. It would undoubtedly need to shed labour which can be absorbed by other sectors of the economy. Retraining would be required to ease the entry of the shed labour force into other economic areas.

After years of haphazard and abusive land-use planning, land reclamation is the last thing we need!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 15 May 2022

The financing of the PLPN

Through a number of articles in the local press we have been repeatedly made aware that government and its authorities do not treat the parliamentary political parties (and their commercial companies) as the rest of us when it comes to outstanding bills, including those relating to taxes due.

The regulation of party-political financing should not stop at donation reports. We need to shine the spotlight on their pending bills too as these are an additional substantial financing source which in practice serves to finance the political parties through open-ended credit facilities! It is being carried out by the state, directly and by stealth.

To be clear I am referring to outstanding VAT payments and pending water and electricity bills which go back a number of years which have accumulated to millions in outstanding dues. In addition, there are also NI and PAYE contributions collected by the parliamentary political parties and their commercial companies on behalf of the Inland Revenue Department from their employees and retained unlawfully at their end. Any private employer who acts in the same manner is normally subject to legal action, in particular for failure to act on repeated reminders to conform! If you try not paying your water and electricity bills for years on end you will very soon receive a polite notice from ARMS indicating that you will soon have no more access to water and electricity!  But it is kids gloves for the PLPN. 

The amounts due run into many millions of euros and form part of the accumulated debts of the parliamentary political parties. It is difficult to quantify the precise amounts due by PLPN and their commercial companies as the authorities continuously withhold information as to the precise accumulated amount of the arrears due. The only information available in the public domain is sourced through leaks indicating that the amounts due run into millions: an upward eight digit spiral! Public knowledge of the extremely generous credit terms which public authorities grant parliamentary political parties and their companies would reveal the systemic abuses which have been shielded for too long a time.  This information should be disclosed as this is in the public interest. Good governance requires it.

This is an indirect source of political party financing which needs to be quantified and acted upon immediately. It is unfortunate that the regulator of political party financing is the Electoral Commission which is itself composed of nominees of the PLPN, who are thus regulating themselves, in addition to regulating their direct competitors, the other political parties.

It is also about time that the commercial companies belonging to the political parties are dealt with as an integral part of the political parties which they service. Stricter controls and real-time reporting time-frames are essential if we really want to ensure that these commercial companies are not used as vehicles to channel illicit funding to oil the PLPN political machinery.

As expected PLPN are in denial. The PL insists that its companies have not entered into a deal with Yorgen Fenech. The PN on the other hand insist that all is above board at its end: they proclaim that they have not issued any fake dB invoices! Yet both of them continuously fail to play by the rules. Audited accounts for their companies have not been presented for many years. As a result, there is no way to verify whether and to what extent the PLPN commercial companies are innocent of the charges that they are being continuously used to circumvent the rules regulating the funding of political parties.

Both the PL and the PN sanctimoniously proclaim their adherence to the basic principles of good governance. It is about time that they start practicing what they preach!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 17 April 2022

Abusive continuity

The distribution of multiple cheques to every household by the Labour Government on the eve of the general election is more than abusing the power of incumbency. Through the said distribution, the power of incumbency is being transformed into a corrupt practice, specifically intended to unduly influence voters.

What, in normal circumstances should be a simple administrative act is being transformed into blatant political propaganda, at public expense, straight into your letterbox. A covering letter signed by Robert Abela and Clyde Caruana says it all. A Banana Republic in all but name!

Why should such handouts be distributed on the eve of elections if not to influence voters?

Even if one were to accept that such handouts are acceptable, it is certainly not in any way justifiable to plan their distribution specifically on the eve of an election. This goes against the basic principles of good governance.

The power of incumbency is the executive power of a government seeking re-election. Incumbents always have an advantage. The manner in which they handle it defines their governance credentials.

This has been a government characterised by bad governance throughout its term in office. Right from the very beginning, on 13 March 2013. I consider the full 9 years as one continuum. This was reinforced by Robert Abela himself who emphasised that his leadership of the Labour Party seeks to continue the “achievements” of his predecessor and mentor Joseph Muscat. Continuity was his declared mission.

On its first days in office, Labour started off on its Panama tracks. The secret Panama companies set up by Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and someone else, known as the (mysterious) owner of Egrant, went on to rock Labour over the years.

The Electrogas saga and its link to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia intertwined with the Panama debacle.

It is now clearly established that the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia was directly linked to her investigative journalism. Her investigations led her to identify the governance credentials of various holders of political office and their links with big business. Defining their relationship as being too close for comfort would be a gross understatement.

As emphasised in the investigation report on the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination, over the years, a culture of impunity has developed in these islands. This has led to misbehaviour in public office being normalised. It has also led to considerable resistance in the shouldering of political responsibility by holders of political office, whenever they were caught with their hand in the cookie jar! Rosianne Cutajar and Justyne Caruana being the latest examples, as amply proven by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life George Hyzler.

To add insult to injury Cutajar and Caruana were the recipients of generous termination benefits, notwithstanding that their term of political office ended in disgrace. Caruana received terminal benefits twice in the span of a short time, as she established a national record of resigning twice from Robert Abela’s Cabinet!

With this track record one should not have expected otherwise from the Muscat/Abela administration. With the abusive distribution of cheques on the eve of the general election Labour’s current term is approaching a fitting end.

The Labour Party in government has consistently acted abusively. Robert Abela has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor and mentor Joseph Muscat. Continuity has been ensured, as promised.

published in Malta Today : Sunday 20 March 2022