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.

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Beyond the Rhetorical declarations

The fact that a common vocabulary of environmental and related terms has been adopted ac­ross the political divide may lead some to the mistaken conclusion there exists a widespread agreement as to environmental objectives to be attained. However, while a common vocabulary is in existence through the use of the same terms and expressions, we sometimes seem to refer to dictionaries that vary substantially. As a minimum, they may be said to be substantially different editions!

Consider sustainable development. The term is ubiquitous but there is a wide range of and, at times, conflicting views as to what constitutes sustainable development.

When this Parliament met, at its inaugural sitting, the President as head of state and on behalf of the government read what is known as the Speech from the Throne, that is the government’s political objectives and programme it intended to fulfil while in office. It was then stated that: “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.

“Sustainable development has three main dimensions: economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection. When we evaluate our activities in view of these three interrelated dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the government’s actions.”

The notions of sustainable development the President put forward on behalf of the government were the minimum possible. They are reasonable as a first step as they contain the seminal ideas that should form the building blocks of a strategy for ending business as usual and moving towards a path eventually leading to a sustainable society.

Economic, social and environmental dimensions are rightly defined as being interrelated. I would go further by stating the social and environmental impacts we must continuously address are the result of the manner in which the economy has been permitted to operate.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The government’s commitment towards sustainable development is not to be gauged by its rhetoric but through its actions.

The Commission for Sustainable Development set up in terms of the Environment Protection Act has not met for more than four years, since December 2006. Then it had approved the final version of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, which it submitted to Cabinet. A primary function of the commission now is to oversee the implementation of the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands, approved by Cabinet prior to the March 2008 election and having a 10-year lifespan (2007-2016).

This fact on its own speaks volumes as to the government’s unwritten policies. It is in line with the abolition of the Commission for Sustainable Development by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in the UK as a result of its bonfire of quangos. The UK government too describes itself as being the greenest ever. Actions, however, speak louder than words. Lip service is clearly the name of the game.

Instead of honouring its commitments and ensuring that each one of the 20 priority areas identified in the Sustainable Development Strategy are implemented throughout the lifetime of this Administration, a free-for-all has ensued.

How can a government committed to sustainable development justify an administrative set-up that subjugates responsible environmental management to the whims of those who still consider the building construction industry as a prime economic mover on these islands?

The Dwejra debacle, which will, hopefully, soon enter into its final stages, has confirmed once more that, within the set-up of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, the Environment Protection Directorate may be consulted, yet, it is set aside when decisions are taken.

What is the purpose of drawing up local plans to regulate development if these are repeatedly ignored as has been shown once more by the Mepa audit officer in his report on the extension of the Church-run Seminary at Tal-Virtù?

Why speak of eco-Gozo yet issue a development permit for a Church-run cemetery, which is in the process of completely ruining a rainwater harvesting infrastructure that has served the agricultural community at Nadur’s Għajn Qasab for about three centuries?

Government actions speak louder than words. As aptly stated by Marco Cremona (The Times, January 18) we are witnessing mixed messages and conflicting policies.

There is no coordination of environment policy across government. This is in part the result of the abandonment of the sustainable development infrastructure. It is clear there is no one who has the ability to enforce environment policy throughout the government.

Late in 2010, Parliament approved a motion moved by the Prime Minister to introduce a Sustainable Development Bill, which has been given a first reading. The political will to act is, however, nowhere in sight.

Published in The Times of Malta on January22, 2011

The Wied il-Buni Buffer Zone

When the current parliamentary session was inaugurated in May 2008 the then President of the Republic read the government’s programme listing those of its political pledges it felt safe to announce.

The President had informed Parliament that: “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.”

He further emphasised that “Sustainable development has three main dimensions: economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection. When we evaluate our activities in view of these three interrelated dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the government’s actions”.

Now consider this policy direction and apply it to the Freeport at Birżebbuġa.

Had the Freeport been designed today it would have a much smaller footprint. When the Freeport was designed in the 1980s such large-scale projects were not subject to any land use planning control. Nor were any environmental criteria relative to the impacts on the Birżebbuġa community given any weight. (Some would justifiably argue that not much has changed since.)

When, in the early 1990s, the then Planning Authority was faced with a Freeport already in operation (even though it was still in its initial stages) it sought to contain its spread through the policies which it approved.

One important policy contained in the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan creates a buffer zone between the Freeport and Birżebbuġa. In fact, Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan policy MB 28 states: “Any use allocated to the area of land at Wied il-Buni should act as a buffer to shield the leisure activity along the seafront from the industry of the Freeport and, in any case, must not cause inconvenience to nearby residents due to noise, fumes, vibrations and/or hours of work. The preferred use is public open space.”

Policy could not be any clearer, yet, notwithstanding this, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority board last month approved an extension to the Freeport Terminal using part of this buffer zone. As a result, the Freeport’s increased activity in the future is possible but the welfare of the community was thrown overboard by a Mepa board which felt it could ignore the regulator’s own policies. They did not only ignore the above local plan policy but, in addition, they also ignored the social and environmental impacts of the terminal extension focusing only on perceived economic benefits. In so doing, they also threw overboard the government’s declarations in favour of sustainable development and future generations.

In an explanatory note immediately after the above-quoted policy, the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan further explains as follows: “The site referred to (the buffer zone) is immediately adjacent to Freeport Terminal between Triq San Patrizju and the shore.

“The site is currently used partly as a sailing club and the rest as a dump-yard. It is close to houses along Triq San Patrizju and, if not carefully controlled, its eventual use could have a detrimental impact on local residents.

“It also presents an opportunity to assist in reducing the effects of the industrial activity of the Freeport.”

This was approved and published by the then Planning Authority in May 1995.

An increased environmental sensitivity of the community since 1995 should have led Mepa to observe its own rules. In fact, the first decision taken relative to the Freeport Terminal extension was to refuse it. This the Mepa board did on February 26, 2009. However, after it was requested to reconsider this refusal, the Mepa board overturned its original decision on January 21, 2010. There were no changes to the project between the two dates.

There was only one occurrence which could be of relevance: the elections of the Maltese members of the European Parliament in June 2009. Whether this had any bearing on the decision of the individual Mepa board members is difficult to say, as none gave any indication. It is, however, a fact that some Mepa board members had second thoughts and changed the manner in which they voted. Being independent, they are obviously entitled to change their mind. One wonders, however, why none considered it ethical to give a reasonable explanation. Those who will have to bear the brunt of their decision are entitled to such an explanation.

The decision is now being contested in the Planning Appeals Board by the local NGO, Birżebbuġa Environmental Action Group.

Until such time as a definite decision is taken, it may be opportune to ponder as to why it is possible that this country can have clear and specific policies but then cannot identify competent boards capable of ensuring that they are applied as originally intended.

published in The Times today,July 24, 2010

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On this blog you can also see the following posts on the same subject :

17th July 2010 : Wara l-Bieb.

12th June 2010 : Past Mistakes ……. Present Day Decisions.

1st February 2010 : Malta Freeport : Impacts on Residents should be dealt with effectively.

21st March 2009 : The Freeport : Will MEPA backtrack ?

26th February 2009 : Kisba Importanti wara suġġeriment ta’ AD – MEPA accepts AD proposal.

5th March 2008 : Birżebbuġa u l-Port Ħieles