Greening the Constitution

Chadwick Lakes 02

Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party –  is in agreement that 50 years after its adoption Malta’s Constitution needs to be updated.  However such an exercise, as emphasised in AD’s 2013 electoral manifesto, should be carried out with the direct involvement of civil society. The Constitution belongs to all of us.

There are a number of issues which require careful consideration. In AD’s 2013 electoral manifesto at least fourteen such issues are identified. They vary in scope from electoral reform to widening the issues in respect of which discrimination is prohibited, by including protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. AD also proposes the introduction of a Constitutional provision in favour of a balanced budget, thereby ensuring that government is forced to discard budget deficits and consequently to control the spiralling public debt.

One very important issue is the need to entrench environmental rights and duties in the Constitution. The proposed Constitutional Convention, supported by AD, should aim at Greening the Constitution. That is, it should aim at addressing environmental rights and duties such that they are spelled out in unequivocal terms.  Environmental rights and duties should as a minimum be spelled out as clearly as property rights in the Constitution. They are worthy of protection just as the rights of individual persons.

Article 9 of the Constitution very briefly states that “The State shall safeguard the landscape and the historical and artistic patrimony of the nation.”  Further, in article 21 of the Constitution we are informed that this (and other safeguards) “shall not be enforceable in a Court” but that this (safeguard) shall be “fundamental to the governance of the country” and that it shall be the aim of the State to apply it in making laws.

It is not conducive to good governance to first declare adherence to specifc safeguards, but then specifically excluding the Courts from ensuring that such safeguards are being observed.

The strategy of announcing principles but then not providing the legislative framework for their implementation was also taken up in environmental legislation. In fact articles 3 and 4 of the 2010 Environment and Development Planning Act  announce a whole list of sound environmental principles. However  in article 5 of the same Act it is then stated that these cannot be enforced in a Court of Law!

When I had the opportunity of discussing the Environment and Development Planning Bill with Mario de Marco (then Parliamentary Secretary responsible for Tourism and the Environment) I had proposed on behalf of the Greens that the declarations  in articles 3 and 4 of the Bill should not be just guiding principles. They ought to be made enforceable by our Courts subject to the introduction of  a suitable transition. Unfortunately Dr de Marco did not take up the Greens proposal.

As things stand today, article 3 of the Environment and Development Planning Act announces very pompously that the government,  as well as every person in Malta, has the duty to protect the environment. Furthermore it is announced that we are duty bound to assist in the taking of preventive and remedial measures to protect the environment and manage resources in a sustainable manner.

Article 4 goes further:  it  states that government is responsible towards present and future generations.  It then goes on to list ten principles which should guide government in its endeavours.  Integrating environmental concerns in decisions on socio-economic and other policies is first on the list. Addressing pollution and environmental degradation through the implementation of the polluter pays principle and the precautionary principle follows immediately after.  Cooperation with other governments and entities enshrines the maxim of “think global, act local” as Malta both affects and is affected by environmental impacts wherever they occur.  The fourth guiding principle is the need to disseminate environmental information whilst the fifth one underlines the need of research as a basic requirement of sound environment policy.  The waste management hierarchy is referred to in the sixth principle followed immediately by underlining the requirement to safeguard biological diversity and combatting all forms of pollution.  Article 4 ends by emphasising that the environment is the common heritage and common concern of mankind and underlines the need to provide incentives leading to a higher level of environmental protection.

Proclaiming guiding principles in our Constitution and environmental legislation is not enough. Our Courts should be empowered in order that they are able to ensure that these principles are actually translated into concrete action.   Government should be compelled to act on the basis of Maltese legislation as otherwise it will only act on environmental issues when and if forced to by the European Union as was evidenced in the past nine years.

Greening the Constitution by extending existing environmental provisions and ensuring that they can be implemented will certainly be one of the objectives of the Greens in the forthcoming Constitutional Convention.

published in the Times of Malta 18 May 2013

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Reflections on an Environment Policy

The current debate on what should form part of a National Environment Policy is a healthy exercise. It is focusing not only on the different aspirations of each citizen but also on the role of each one of the towns and villages which together constitute this country.

The environmental issues we face are the result of the manner we organise our lives both individually and as a community. In fact it can be safely stated that the manner in which economic activity has been organised throughout time has created different environmental and social impacts.

The exercise at this point in time is hence the clear identification of these impacts and subsequently seeking the best manner in which they can be tackled. This is done on two fronts: firstly through the formulation of an environment policy and secondly by integrating this environment policy with economic and social policy within the National Strategy for Sustainable Development (NSSD).

The NSSD has already been formulated and approved by Cabinet almost three years ago after a long process of consultation. It established targets and objectives which have unfortunately been ignored by the same Government which has approved them. This necessarily leads to the conclusion that these exercises can be a waste of time as their only purpose seems to be an exercise to prove that the new hands on deck can do things in a better way than those they have replaced. 

The National Environment Policy Issues Paper identifies a number of areas which are to be tackled but excludes a number of important ones. What is in my view objectionable and bordering on the insulting is the ignoring by the Issues Paper of the NSSD. It also ignores matters which have been tackled by the NSSD as well as the specific targets identified. This the NSSD did after extensive consultation with civil society, which the Issues Paper promises to go through again.

 

Eco-taxation

One such case refers to the use of economic instruments to attain environmental objectives. The Issues Paper queries whether and to what extent there is agreement  with the use of such instruments to further environmental objectives. Simultaneously with the publication of the Issues Paper, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech through the pre-budget document was lauding the idea of introducing a carbon tax and the possible utilisation of the proceeds to affect a tax shift. This is in the spirit of the former EU Commission President  (French Socialist) Jacques Delors’ 1993 EU White Paper entitled “On growth, competitiveness and employment. The challenges and ways forward into the 21st century”.

So whilst the Environment Ministry is requesting our opinion on the use of eco-taxation (and other instruments) it seems that the Finance Ministry is dead-set to proceed.  Do these two Ministries form part of the same government? 

Both the Environment Ministry and the Finance Ministry would do well to go back in time to the debate on the introduction of the eco-contribution (2003-05) where they could identify a number of issues raised by civil society.

Should fiscal objectives be the purpose of environmental taxation or would it rather be environmental improvement? All over the globe governments declare that their aim in applying eco-taxation is environmental improvement. Yet they resist transferring political responsibility for environmental taxation from the Finance Ministry to the Environment Ministry. Such a move would lend credence to statements on the environmental objectives of eco-taxation and would ensure that the design of specific measures is more in line with encouraging changes in behaviour. Retaining political responsibility for environmental taxation at the Finance Ministry on the other hand signifies that the objective is to tax behaviour but not  to change it. This reluctance is generally reflected in the manner  in which eco-taxes are designed. Fiscal policy makers pay attention to the fact that changing behaviour would mean drying up a source of revenue. Hence eco-taxes designed for fiscal objectives are intended not to affect the elasticity of demand. This is done by selecting items in respect of which there are no alternatives and thus irrespective of tax added to the price there is no alternative to purchasing the product or service. The eco-contribution exercise clearly illustrates this argument.

 

Environmental nuisance 

The Issues Paper has failed to project an understanding that environmental issues can be most effectively tackled at a micro-level. In fact the Issues Paper adopts an exclusively macro approach and does not give any weight to the real life issues. Issues of environmental nuisance are the ones which the man in the street feels strongly about. These include primarily noise, air quality and odour nuisance caused by neighbours in residential areas. They could range from an air conditioner fixed below your bedroom window to a neighbour’s fireplace chimney spewing smoke right into your living room or a bakery belching black smoke onto your washing line. Or the newly opened restaurant or snack bar in a transformed ground floor flat whose operator wouldn’t care less about where the odours from his kitchen end up.    

Information

Access to environmental information is an important aspect of environment policy. Yet the drafters of the Issues Paper ignored it. The environmental information aspects of the Åarhus Convention have been incorporated into Maltese legislation as a direct result of Malta’s EU accession. This legislation provides a mechanism through which the citizen requests the release of information which up till then would be withheld by the authorities. This is a very primitive form of governance. The state should release information without having its hand forced to do it. This is the minimum required in an age of transparency and accountability. 

Policy proposals and other initiatives must be buttressed by studies which not only justify the proposal or initiative but which also identify the resulting impacts and the manner in which these can be addressed. Studies must be published at an early stage and not in the final stages of a discussion. Otherwise the public debate cannot be fruitful.

Transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability are not only duties of the state. They are also a responsibility of private enterprise.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting is one way in which private enterprise informs the public on its activities. It is a function as important as financial reporting. Financial reporting having been accepted by society for quite a long time as a reporting requirement.

In Malta currently two companies publish a CSR report. Vodafone (Malta) and Bank of Valletta (BOV) have already published two editions of their CSR report. There has been considerable improvement in the information made available by Vodafone (Malta) in its second report, but BOV’s reporting  can be substantially improved.

The environment policy should identify the type of organisations that should have the duty to report publicly and on a regular basis on their environmental and other impacts. By organisations I understand not just industry and business but also public corporations, government departments and local authorities. A reasonable first step would be for companies quoted on the stock exchange to take the lead followed by public bodies such as Enemalta, Water Services Corporation, Heritage Malta and Air Malta.

CSR reporting should be guided by international standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative G3 guidelines and should be subject to auditing in order to verify that the statements made reflect what the organisation is really up to. 

Alternattiva Demokratika, AD, the Green Party in Malta has earlier this month published a document in reply to the National Environment Policy Issues Paper which lists and discusses the areas missed out by the said Issues Paper.  In addition to focusing on the urgent need to implement the NSSD, environment information, environmental nuisance and environment information it also points out the need to tackle the uptake of environmental management systems such as ISO 14001 and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) Regulations of the European Union, light pollution, contaminated land, environmental and sustainability planning at a locality level better known as Local Agenda 21,  the role of civil society and environmental NGOs in environment policy and environment  research.  

We hope that when the environment policy is drafted it will include the widest possible list of issues and will tackle them in an holistic manner keeping in mind the parameters established in the National Sustainable Development Strategy.                 

Alternattiva Demokratika considers that environment policy is one of several instruments through which improvement in the quality of life can be attained. Protecting the environment signifies that we better our quality of life. It also signifies that each one of us acts in a responsible manner. However primarily it must be government which leading the way should act in an appropriate manner in order that it leads by example.

 published in

The Independent on Sunday, October 17, 2010, Environment Supplement

AD on Government’s Environment Policy

During a press conference in Valletta, Michael Briguglio, AD Chairperson, said: ‘Alternattiva Demokratika is presenting its reactions to Government’s proposed environment policy. In a nutshell we believe that it would have been wiser if Government implemented the recommendations of the National Commission for Sustainable Development, which have been ignored by Government for over two years. A holistic and effective environment policy should be based on the concept of sustainable development through which environmental, social and economic considerations are given due importance in order to improve the quality of life of people and to protect species. This is precisely what is being proposed in our policy paper, which covers various areas’.
 
Carmel Cacopardo, AD Spokesman on Sustainable Development and Local Government said that AD’s detailed reaction to the National Environment Policy Issues Paper was presented to Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco yesterday during a cordial meeting.
 
AD, said Cacopardo, is of the opinion that environment policy and environment measures have to be buttressed by studies which analyse the economic, social and environmental impacts of the proposals. Environmental research is absent from the list of issues dealt with by the document government published for public discussion. This is not a surprise for AD as acting without analysing impacts a priori is this government’s preferred method of action as has already happened when the eco-contribution legislation was introduced.
 
Government has just announced that it is toying with the idea of introducing tax shifting by reducing taxes on labour and introducing a carbon tax. This proposal communicated in the pre-budget document is scant on details such that it is not at all clear what Government is considering. In addition no studies indicating targets, methods and impacts has been published. Nor is it known whether in fact any studies have been carried out. It is for this reason that AD has 15 days ago requested the release of studies on the “carbon tax” proposal in terms of the provisions of LN 116 of 2005 (Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment Regulations).
 
The use of economic instruments for environmental improvement should be the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment and not of the Ministry of Finance. This would ensure that environmental objectives and not fiscal ones are the primary objectives when such instruments are used
 
The Issues Paper added Cacopardo does not consider a number of important areas of action such as : Light Pollution, Environmental Impacts of Organisations, CSR, environmental nuisance, land contamination, the role of civil society and eNGOs in environment policy formulation, access to environment information and environment research.
            
AD considers that in view of the large number of vacant properties a moratorium on large scale residential development is long overdue. The regulating of funding of political parties would also ease the pressure of the building development lobby on politicians.  
 
Press here to download full AD paper