Malta’s EU story : the environment

JOINT SEMINAR BY THE OFFICE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT IN MALTA AND THE TODAY PUBLIC POLICY INSTITUTE

Friday 3 October 2014

address by Carmel Cacopardo

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Since Malta’s EU accession there has been a marked contrast of interest in issues related to environmental governance.

EU accession has generally had a positive influence on Maltese environmental governance.  A flow of EU funds has been applied to various areas which Maltese governments throughout the years did not consider worthy of investing in.  On the one hand we had governments “occasionally” applying the brakes, seeking loopholes, real or imaginary,  in order to ensure that lip service  is not accidentally translated into meaningful action. On the other hand civil society has, in contrast, and  as a result of EU accession identified a new source of empowerment, at times ready to listen, however slow to react and at times ineffective.

Land use planning and abusive hunting/trapping have for many years been the main items on the local environment agenda. Water, air quality, climate change, alternative energy, biodiversity, noise, light pollution, organic agriculture, waste management and sustainable development have rightfully claimed a place in the agenda during the past 10 years. Some more frequently, others occasionally.

Land use planning has been on the forefront of civil society’s environmental agenda for many years. Abusive land use planning in the 80s fuelled and was fuelled by corruption. It led to various public manifestations in favour of the environment then equated almost  exclusively with the impacts of land development. Many such manifestations ended up in violence. Whilst this may be correctly described as history, it is occasionally resurrected  as in the recent public manifestation of hunters protesting against the temporary closure of the autumn hunting season.

Whilst hunting and land use planning may still be the main items on Malta’ environmental agenda the ecological deficit which we face is substantially deeper and wider.  It is generally the result of myopic policies.

For example it is well known that public transport has been practically ignored for the past 50 years, including the half-baked reform of 2010. This is the real cause of Malta’s very high car ownership (around 750 vehicles per 1000 population). As the Minister of Finance rightly exclaimed during a pre-budget public consultation exercise earlier this week traffic congestion is a major issue of concern, not just environmental but also economic. Impacting air quality, requiring additional land uptake to construct new roads or substantial funds to improve existing junctions traffic congestion is a drain on our resources. May I suggest that using EU funds to improve our road network  will delay by several years the shifting of custom to public transport, when we will have one which is worthy of such a description.

The mismanagement of water resources over the years is another important issue. May I suggest that millions of euros in EU funds have been misused  to institutionalise the mismanagement of water resources. This has been done through the construction of a network of underground tunnels to channel stormwater to the sea.  The approval of such projects is only possible when one  has no inkling of what sustainable management of water resources entails. Our ancestors had very practical and sustainable solutions: they practised water harvesting through the construction of water cisterns beneath each and every residence, without exception. If we had followed in their footsteps the incidence of stormwater in our streets, sometimes having the smell of raw sewage due to an overflowing public sewer, would be substantially less. And in addition we would also avoid overloading our sewage purification plants.

Our mismanagement of water resources also includes the over-extraction of ground water and the failure to introduce an adequate system of controls throughout the years such that  most probably there will be no more useable water in our water table very shortly. In this respect the various deadlines established in the Water Framework Directive would be of little use.

Whilst our Cabinet politicians have developed a skill of trying to identify loopholes in the EU’s acquis (SEA and Birds Directive) they also follow bad practices in environmental governance.

It is known that fragmentation of environmental responsibilities enables politicians to pay lip service to environmental governance but then creating real and practical obstacles in practice.

Jean Claude Juncker, the President elect of the EU Commission has not only diluted environmental governance by assigning responsibility for the environment together with that for fisheries and maritime policy as well as assigning energy with climate change. He has moreover hived off a number of responsibilities from the DG Environment to other DGs namely Health and Enterprise.

In Malta our bright sparks have anticipated his actions. First on the eve of EU accession they linked land use planning with the Environment in an Authority called MEPA with the specific aim of suffocating the environment function in an authority dominated by development. Deprived of human resources including the non-appointment of a Director for the Environment for long stretches of time, adequate environmental governance could never really get off the ground.

Now we will shortly be presented with the next phase: another fragmentation by the demerger of the environment and planning authority.

In the short time available I have tried to fill in the gaps in the environment section of the document produced by The Today Public Policy Institute. The said document rightly emphasises various achievements. It does however state that prior to EU accession the environment was not given its due importance by local policy makers. Allow me to submit that much still needs to be done and that the progress made to date is insufficient.

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The circus has come to town

  

 

When considering the draft National En­vironment Policy some patience is required. On one hand it is a detailed document covering a substantial number of environmental issues. However, its exposition of the issues to be tackled contrasts starkly with the government’s environmental performance throughout its long term in office.

The draft policy says more about the government than about the environment. It collates together the accumulated environmental responsibilities the government should have been addressing throughout the past years. The draft policy tells us: this is what the government ought to have done. It further tells us that in the next 10 years, the government will try its best to remedy its past failures by doing what it should do.

The government’s words and action are in sharp contrast, as I have been repeatedly pointing out in these columns. In late 2007, Cabinet approved the National Strategy for Sustainable Development, which, although being less detailed than today’s draft National Environment Policy, says practically the same things. It also covers a 10-year period (2007-2016), half of which has elapsed without the set targets having been addressed. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi is the Cabinet member politically responsible for this failure. Having failed repeatedly, I find it difficult to think how he could be trusted to deliver on environmental or sustainability issues.

On the basis of this experience, it is reasonable to dismiss the government’s media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin where the draft National Environment Policy was launched as just another exercise in rhetoric.

It is definitely not a sudden conversion in favour of environmental issues that moved the government to act. The present exercise is the result of society’s metamorphosis, which came about as a direct consequence of years of environmental activism in Malta. Civil society has pushed a reluctant Nationalist-led government to this point.

No one in his right senses can quarrel with the proposed National Environment Policy in principle. Yet, it is a fact that the environment has always been the Cinderella of government business. All talk and little walk. A clear example is the adjudication process of the Delimara power station extension. When the submitted tenders were adjudicated, it resulted that the submissions that were technically and environmentally superior were considered less favourably than the tender that was perceived as being economically more advantageous. When push comes to shove, environmental issues are not given priority, the adjudication criteria being skewed in favour of perceived economic gain.

All this contrasts with the declarations in favour of green procurement in the draft National Environment Policy. In defending the decision on the use of heavy fuel oil in the power station extension, government spokesmen are in fact stating that while the environment is the government’s political priority it still retains the right to have second thoughts whenever it takes an important decision.

When the government plays around with its declared environmental convictions with the ease of a juggler, it sows serious doubts on its intentions. Even if the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment is doing his best to convince that, under his watch, the environment carries weight it is clear to all that he has not succeeded in wiping the slate clean. He is still conditioned by the attitudes and the decisions taken by his boss and colleagues in the recent past. Their attitudes have not changed at all. Old habits die hard.

On a positive note, I have to state that the process leading to the draft National Environment Policy submitted for public consultation was one which involved civil society. A number of proposals submitted by civil society, including those in an AD document submitted to Mario de Marco, were taken on board. I also had the opportunity to discuss the draft policy and AD’s views with Dr de Marco on more than one occasion. The discussions were, in my opinion, beneficial.

The problem the government has so far failed to overcome is that it preaches one thing and continually does the opposite. The only times when it carries out positive environment action is when it is forced on this course by EU legislation or by threats of EU infringement proceedings. Within this context, declarations that Malta aims to go beyond the requirement of the EU’s acquis are, to say the least, hilarious. It would have been much better if the basics of the EU environmental acquis are first put in place.

The environmental initiatives taken during the past seven years have been mostly funded by the EU.

They would not have been possible without such funding.

By spelling it out, the draft National Environment Policy defines the government’s past failures. Hopefully, it also lays the groundwork for the required remedial action. The environmental destruction the government has facilitated and encouraged will take a long time to remedy. In some cases, the damage done is beyond repair.

Beyond the entertainment value of the media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin, these first steps are just the beginning of a long journey. For the sake of Malta’s future generations I hope that the government does not go astray once more.

Living on Ecological Credit

published

Saturday July23, 2011

An informal meeting of EU ministers of the environment held in Poland earlier this month reminded us that we are living on ecological credit. Our balance sheet with nature is in the red. It is healthy that EU politicians have recognised this fact.

Environmentalists have been campaigning for ages that the world is living beyond its means. International NGO WWF, for example, publishes information relative to ecological footprint analysis. From the information available, Malta’s ecological footprint is 3.9 hectares per person. This can be compared to an EU average of 4.9 hectares per person (ranging from a minimum of 3.6 for Poland and Slovakia to a maximum of 7.0 for Sweden and Finland) and a world average of 2.2 hectares per person.

This adds up to a total impact for Malta of about 50 times the area of the Maltese islands. A clear indication of the extent of Malta’s reliance on ecological credit.

Malta’s environmental impacts are accentuated due to the islands’ high population density.

Malta’s small size is in some respects an advantage but this advantage has been generally ignored throughout the years. The reform of public transport, currently in hand, could someday put the issue of size to good use by developing an efficient system of communication. This reform, however, has to be properly managed. Preliminary indications point to a completely different direction. I do not exclude the possibility of the achievement of positive results even if, so far, I am disappointed.

The results the Greens hope to be achieved from the public transport reform would be the increased use of public transport and, consequently, a reduction in the number of cars on the road. This will come about if bus routes are more commuter-friendly. A reduction of cars on the road will lead to less emissions and a reduction of transport-generated noise. It would also cut a household’s expenditure through the reduction of fuel costs.

Water management in Malta also contributes considerably to the island’s ecological deficit.

The commissioning of the Ta’ Barkat sewage purification plant means that Malta is now in line with the provisions of the EU Urban Wastewater Directive. But the actual design of the sewage purification infrastructure means that by discharging the purified water into the sea an opportunity of reducing the pressure on ground water and the production of reverse osmosis-produced water has been lost. The purified water could easily be used as second-class water or it could be polished for other uses. When the Mellieħa sewage purification plant was inaugurated it was announced that studies into the possible uses of the purified water were to be carried out. These studies should have been undertaken before the sewage purification infrastructure was designed as they could have led to a differently designed infrastructure. The system as designed means that any eventual use of the purified water will require its transport from the purification plants to the point of use. A properly designed system could have reduced these expenses substantially by producing the purified water along the route of the public sewers and close to the point of use.

Public (and EU) funds have been wrongly used. Water planners have not carried out their duty towards the community they serve through lack of foresight and by not having an inkling of sustainability issues.

It also means that those who advised the head of state to inform the current Parliament’s inaugural session in May 2008 that “the government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development” were not aware what that statement signifies. Repeatedly, the government, led by Lawrence Gonzi, falls short of addressing adequately environmental impacts, as a result pushing these islands further down the road of dependence on ecological credit.

The government could have opted for a fresh start in May 2008 by implementing the National Sustainable Development Strategy, approved by Cabinet some months prior to the 2008 election. Instead, I am reliably informed that the National Commission for Sustainable Development has not met a single time during the past 42 months. As a consequence, the strategy has been practically shelved and discarded.

I cannot and will not say that there have not been any environmental initiatives. While various initiatives have been undertaken, some only address impacts partially. Others have been embarked upon half-heartedly. It is also clear to all that government environmental action does not form part of a holistic vision. It rather resembles the linking up of loose pieces of unrelated jigsaw puzzle bits.

This contrasts sharply with the public’s awareness and expectations. The public is one step ahead awaiting its representatives to act in a responsible manner in accordance with their much-publicised statements.

Excessive ecological credit will inevitably lead to ecological bankruptcy. No EU or IMF will bail us out. It’s better to take our environmental responsibilities seriously before it is too late.

The mauling of Dwejra : an environmental crime

 

Some would have formed the opinion that the basic information on the Dwejra debacle is known to all.

Not quite, I would say.

MEPA issued a permit containing The Consent Conditions relative to a number of sites in Malta and Gozo to be used for filming parts of the tele-serial “Game of Thrones”. One of the sites was at Dwejra Gozo.

Two site specific conditions applicable to Dwejra (conditions 23 and 24 of The Consent Conditions) refer to Areas of Ecological Importance and Sites of Scientific Importance. These are terms used by the Structure Plan to classify the protection afforded to areas of conservation (Structure Plan Policies RCO 1, RCO 2 and RCO 3). Given that the Dwejra site is a Special Area of Conservation I searched and noted that in The Consent Conditions there is no reference whatsoever to Special Areas of Conservation rules and policies, regulated in terms of the Habitats Directive of the EU which was transposed into Maltese law through Legal Notice 311 of 2006 (Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations 2006).

This leads to the logical conclusion that the consent issued by MEPA for the use of the Dwejra site to film part of the tele-serial “Game of Thrones” was only processed in terms of land use planning considerations. Environmental considerations are completely absent: they were completely ignored. The Consent Conditions being a written proof  of this.

Planning vs Environment

During the national debate as to whether it made sense to have land use planning and environment protection forming part of the same authority the Gonzi-Demarco duo  always insisted that MEPA dealing with both would lead to having a much better protection of the environment. Coordination, it was said, was the name of the game. In practice we are faced with something else: land use planning considerations are ruling the day and environmental considerations are being continuously sidelined. The Dwejra case being a typical example.

 

The Species Data Form

Dwejra was included as a Nature 2000 site and consequently as a Special Area of Conservation by the European Union at the request of the Maltese Government which also supplied the detailed justification as to why the area should be protected. The scientific reasons justifying the selection of the site as a Special Area of Conservation are available on the Species Data Form which MEPA had submitted to the EU on behalf of the Government of Malta some years back. An electronic copy is available at the EU website.

EU LIFE+  financial support

In 2003, given the importance of the protection afforded to the site the EU through its LIFE+ Fund  supported a conservation project for the area headed by Nature Trust Malta then in partnership with MEPA and WWF Italy. The EU forked out €324,000 of the EU taxpayers’ money.

Permissible Activity

Permissible activity in a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is a very delicate matter. It is regulated primarily by regulations 18 and 19 of Legal Notice 311 of 2006.

Regulation 18 establishes that a permit is necessary for any activity in an SAC. It also determines who needs to be notified.

Regulation 19 goes in detail and establishes the parameters within which MEPA as the Competent Authority can act. When the consent required is not related to the management of the SAC and it is likely to have a significant effect thereon, MEPA or the applicant is to carry out “an appropriate assessment of the implications of the operation or activity on the site in view of the site’s conservation objectives”.

Legitimate question

After having ascertained, through the assessment, that the integrity of the site is not affected MEPA is required to obtain and take into account “the opinion of the general public and representations made”.  This means that the assessment carried out has to be subject to a public consultation.

In view of the above it is legitimate to ask: was an appropriate assessment carried out? And further, when was this appropriate assessment subjected to the scrutiny of the public in order that representations could be made by the public as well as environmental NGOs?

I am not aware as to whether an appropriate assessment was carried out and hence nor am I aware as to its possible conclusions. However if this assessment was carried out I do not recollect that it was subjected to public consultation.  Nor have any of the environmentalists with whom I have discussed the matter any recollection of this public consultation ever taking place.

The public interest

Regulation 19 of Legal Notice 311/2006 further specifies what is to be done if the appropriate assessment results in negative implications for the SAC site. In such cases MEPA as the Competent Authority may only give its consent to the activity “for imperative reasons of overriding public interest …… of a social or economic nature.”  These reasons are defined as relating to human health, public safety, or beneficial consequences of primary importance for the environment or other reasons which in the opinion of the EU Commission are imperative reasons of overriding public interest.   

The consent must be accompanied by “compensatory measures necessary to ensure that the overall coherence of Natura 2000 is protected.”  The EU Commission is furthermore to be informed of these compensatory measures taken by the Competent Authority.

MEPA’s responsibilities

To date the public has been informed in detail as to how the conditions of the permit which MEPA issued to Fire and Blood Productions were not observed. The public is aware that Fire and Blood Productions has apologised for the damage caused but shifted the blame onto its Gozitan sub-contractor.

This only explains one small part of the saga. No one has yet commented as to how MEPA has contributed to the debacle when it is crystal clear that it is precluded from issuing a permit for the Dwejra site in terms of the provisions of the Habitats Directive.

MEPA as the Competent Authority has the duty to ensure that the provisions of the Habitat’s Directive of the EU are observed to the letter. As explained above, through its actions MEPA has ignored both the letter and the spirit of the Habitats Directive.

This leads me to conclude that the damage caused to the SAC was not caused just by the Gozitan sub-contractor acting on behalf of Fire and Blood Productions. Through its lack of observance of the provisions of Legal Notice 311/2006 MEPA has made it much easier for damage to be inflicted onto the Dwejra SAC. Instead of protecting the environment the now reformed MEPA has facilitated its damage.

This is an environmental crime for which persons having a name and a surname are directly and personally responsible.                        

Accountability

It is time to translate words into action.

I hope that investigations currently in hand will identify the names of those responsible in order that they may be requested to account for both their actions as well as their inaction which have led to the Dwejra SAC mauling.

In a country where the organs of the state are bursting at the seams with lawyers one may sometimes assume that in Malta the rule of law is strictly observed. Such incidents prove that one is grossly mistaken in making such assumptions.    

Environmental legislation must be adhered to first of all by the state. If the state through its institutions ignores environmental legislation how do we expect Joe Bloggs to respect it?

The EU has given us the tools to hold decision takers to account. This is a reason why a large number of environmentalists voted in favour of Malta’s accession to the EU. It is the only way to save what’s left of our heritage.

Published in the Environment Supplement of  The Malta Independent on Sunday,   November 21, 2010

Dawl li jniġġes

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mill-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa bil-lejl dan tara

Il-Birdlife għadha kif ippubblikat rapport dwar it-tniġġis ikkawżat mid-dawl u kif dan jeffettwa għasafar li jbejtu f’Malta. Ir-rapport huwa intitolat Light Pollution and its effect on Yelkouan Shearwaters in Malta; causes and solutions. Dan ir-rapport huwa parti minn proġett iffinanzjat mill-EU biex tkun imħarsa l-Garnija u fejn din tbejjet, magħruf bħala l-Rdum tal-Madonna fl-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa.

It-tniġġis kawżat mid-dawl huwa problema fiż-żoni madwar il-kosta u jeffettwa lill-għasafar li jtiru l-iktar bil-lejl. Dan it-tnġġis mid-dawl ma jeffettwax biss lill-għasafar. Minbarra ħlejjaq oħra jeffettwa ukoll lilna.

Fid-dwal mixgħula bil-lejl għandna ħafna ħela. Ir-rapport jirrakkomanda x’miżuri jistgħu jittieħdu biex dan it-tniġġis mid-dawl ikun ikkontrolat u possibilment eliminat.

It-tip ta’ fittings għad-dwal użati fit-toroq jista’ jnaqqas ħafna din il-problema ta’ tniġġis u dan billi jidderiġi d-dawl lejn fejn hu meħtieġ. F’ċerti toroq hemm dawl żejjed.

L-istudju jiffoka fuq il-kolonja tal-garnija fl-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa u jikkonkudi li l-garnija li tbejjet hawn hi efettwata mit-tniġġis tad-dawl li qed joriġina minn Buġibba, l-Mellieħa, il-Campsite fl-Aħrax stess, iċ-Ċirkewwa u l-Għadira.

Ir-rapport fih lista ta’ rakkomandazzjonijiet li jinkludu mod kif jitnaqqas it-tniġġis mid-dawl kkawżata mid-dwal fit-toroq, mal-bajjiet, mal-lukandi u anke dak madwar bini pubbliku, bħas-swar u l-knejjes.