Addressing Our Environmental Deficit

published on Sunday 27 July 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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 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!

The politics of sustainable development

published on Sunday 29 June 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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 The government is in transit: it has declared that from now on sustainable development will be the cornerstone of its policies. However, it has not yet stated how this will come about. With regard to this issue, it cannot wait five years to implement its proposal. It must be in a position to deliver immediately.

The adoption of sustainable development as the focus of government policy should lead to the logical conclusion that the economy should henceforth no longer be viewed as an objective but rather as a tool: the economy should be at our service, rather than being our master! The point of departure should be the ecosystem of which we form part. The limited capacity of our ecosystem should lead us to adopt ecocentric policies as distinguished from the current anthropocentric ones. This is what sustainability is all about and this is what the adoption of sustainable development, as a policy objective, should lead us to. The transition from the current state of affairs to a sustainable state should hopefully address the causes of our accumulated environmental deficit!

The government is now seeking ways to live up to its declarations in favour of sustainable development, hoping that it would not have to resort to make substantial changes to existing policies. It is however next to impossible to arrest the accumulated and ever-increasing environmental deficit without addressing the policies and attitudes that have caused it. The list is quite long!

In Malta too, mainstream politics is motivated by the instant link between cause and effect. The community almost immediately feels the economic and social effects of policies and administrative decisions. Thus, mainstream politicians are generally quick to react even to a perceived impact on the economy or on the social fabric. The effects of environmental impacts are however generally much

slower, in part due to the resilience of Mother Earth. Hence, for innumerable political generations, environmental impacts were completely ignored or sidelined, as there was a time lag at times of considerable duration between cause and effect. Now the chickens are coming home to roost and further postponement is not possible. Today’s generation will have to shoulder and address the accumulated environmental deficit, hopefully reducing its effect on future generations.

Policy needs to be approached in a holistic manner, focusing simultaneously on social environmental and economic considerations. It is not a question of an artificial balance between the economy, the environment and social policy but of acting correctly, preferably each and every time. A policy, which is economically sound but socially and/or environmentally wobbly, is of no use and should be discarded. The reverse side is already common practice as socially and environmentally sound policies are rarely applied if they do not pass the test of economic viability.

I acknowledge that this is quite a hard nut to crack, as it will require revisiting practically all areas of policy. Some areas will require minor policy adjustments while others will require a complete overhaul. In some areas action has already commenced. In others, action is incomprehensible at this stage given the current prevalent mindset.

The politics of sustainable development is concerned with redirecting economic activity such that this is compatible with ecological and social requirements. The environment, the economy and social needs are thus placed on the same level when decisions are taken. Throughout the years economic decisions have generally taken into consideration their social impacts. As a result, various measures have been introduced to mitigate and/or prevent negative social effects. The politics of social solidarity as developed has assisted in the transition from a free market economy to a social market economy.

The politics of sustainable development is the means leading to the next transition: an ecocentric economy. The environmental impacts of social and economic policy require attention at the drawing board rather than mitigation after they have occurred. In order for this to occur, it is required that instead of facing the effects we direct our energies to tackle the causes. It is for this reason that the Environment Protection Act of 2001 provides in Section 8 for the setting up of a National Sustainability Commission entrusted with the drafting of a National Strategy for Sustainable Development for the Maltese Islands. The Commission has laboured between 2002 and 2006 to produce a draft, which was concluded and presented to Cabinet for approval in December 2006. Cabinet approved it late in 2007.

In the public sector, the government’s adoption of the principles of sustainable development should spur action on three levels – tackling upstream impacts, direct impacts and downstream impacts. This will necessarily filter through to the private sector that will effectively have no choice but to proceed on similar lines. The government would be leading by example.

Some time last year, the government had commenced an exercise which should eventually lead to a system of public sector green purchasing, whereby non-economic criteria are inbuilt into tender documents. This would not only entail conditions of environmental importance, but also ones of social relevance. We have not heard much on developments to date except declarations during the March 2008 election campaign, and some echoes

afterwards that when contracting-out for services, the public sector will be on the look out for the conditions of work of the employees of those who take part in the tendering process. This was stated because a miniscule part of the private sector is being very innovative when it comes to determining the manner of circumventing the acquired rights of its employees. While the government is certainly hitting the right note when it identified the rights of those employed by bidders for public tenders as ripe for scrutiny, I believe that it is well past the stage of declarations. Concrete action is urgently required.

The public sector will properly manage its upstream impacts only if it ensures that all those who supply it with goods and services do so in a manner that is socially just and environmentally responsible.

The direct impacts of the public sector are the most obvious ones. The appointment of Green Leaders in different ministries and authorities was a step in the right direction as it set the foundations for a culture change among public sector employees. It can lead to quick results (known in environmental management as the “low lying fruit”) in areas related to energy and water consumption, use of stationery, other materials and equipment and waste management among others. The appointment of green leaders can thus set the public sector on the road leading to eco-efficiency.

However, an emphasis on the public sector downstream impacts will be that which eventually could make the major difference. The effects on those at the receiving end of the public sector will not only determine “value for money” but also, more importantly, in my view, it will determine whether the public sector is eco-effective.

The first on the list would be public sector employees themselves and the effects of the fixed term contract on their morale and professional conduct. Subsequently, each policy must be examined for its ecological impact while searching for alternative methods of implementation, which would reduce or preferably eliminate its undesirable impacts.

Managing the social and environmental impacts of the public sector is of paramount importance in the path leading to sustainable development. This will involve the individual policies that need to be analysed in detail. Value for money is not the only criterion used to assess whether public monies have been well spent. When this is taken in hand the public sector would have commenced trekking on the long road of sustainable development. The first steps are the most difficult. Translating rhetoric into action is only possible if the original rhetoric is a reflection of an inner conviction.

Only time will tell.

BOV’s CSR : The next step

This was originally published on the 5 January 2008 as an article in The Times

BOV’s CSR: The next step

 

Bank of Valletta is to be congratulated on the recent publication of its second Corporate Social Responsibility Report covering 2007.

In its mission statement BOV defines its commitment as being that of playing a leading and effective role in the country’s sustainable development “whilst tangibly proving ourselves to be responsible and caring citizens in the community in which we operate”. The objective of the CSR report is hence that of informing the community as to the manner in which the bank is acting as a responsible citizen. The bank’s CEO makes this even more clear in his statement on page four of the report. In fact, he rightly underlines that while the bank is responsible towards its shareholders it is also accountable towards society.

This is the crux of CSR: the accountability of business towards all stakeholders, the community at large. Profits generated on their own are not a measure of success, as the business of business is not just business!

The bank has ploughed back into the community 1.31 per cent of its profits (Lm350,000 or €815,500) through engagement in seven pillars of activity, namely the arts and culture, heritage, environment, sports, social, education and business sectors.

In particular, BOV has assisted Heritage Malta in preserving the Tarxien Temples. It has furthermore supported the restoration programme at Palazzo Falson, Mdina.

Reading through the BOV 2007 CSR report one encounters many a positive note as to the manner in which the bank is being eco-efficient. First on the list is its Santa Venera centre which, through both design and operation, is energy-efficient. Its Marsascala branch has, during 2007, been equipped with photo-voltaic panels, thereby contributing to an annual reduction of three tonnes of CO2 emissions as a minimum. The other branches await their turn.

BOV recycles its paper and has taken the first steps which will eventually lead to a paperless administration. Furthermore, it makes use of recycled toners and cartridges, not only contributing to less waste going to landfill but also paying less eco-taxes as a result. Reducing environmental impacts has a positive financial impact too!

The BOV report does not mention the environmental impacts generated by the use of transport (by both the bank and its employees). Nor is any reference made to the use of water in its branches, including the collection and utilisation of rainwater.

BOV has also sponsored a number of environmental initiatives aimed at the environmental education of the community.

While BOV is setting a good example which should filter through the business community, this should be seen as only a first step. In addition to improving the management of its direct environmental impacts, thereby reducing them, BOV can move forward, in the process retaining its leading role in banking CSR in Malta.

BOV should, on the basis of this eco-efficient experience, move on to new initiatives that address the eco-effectiveness of the banking system. In addressing its corporate responsibilities, BOV as any exemplary citizen would undoubtedly ask whether its services are being misused. In particular, whether any of its customers have used its services to contribute towards the ever-increasing national environmental deficit.

It would be interesting if in a future report we could read about environmental criteria applied in the consideration of requests for business loans, including those utilised to finance the construction industry. Additional interesting information would be whether BOV has refused its services to any client on the basis of environmental criteria.

The financial balance sheet on its own does not measure progress. It is only concerned with profits. The environmental and social balance sheets need to be addressed too, thereby having a “triple bottom line” approach to measuring progress.

Through its 2007 CSR report, BOV has proven that it is serious about managing its direct impacts. It now needs to move further by managing its upstream and downstream impacts. Managing its upstream impacts signifies addressing the environmental impacts generated by its suppliers – hence the introduction and maintaining of a green procurement service. Managing its downstream impacts would address the environmental impacts of those using its services. When this is done successfully BOV would be eco-effective, as a result contributing to a reduction of Malta’s environmental deficit.

BOV has taken the lead. I hope others will follow because profits and principles can co-exist.