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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Pope Benedict XVI : Laying the Groundwork for a Sustainable Civilization ?

by Gary Gardner

Published by Worldwatch Institute on April 15, 2008

Rumour has it that Pope Benedict may address climate change during his visit to the United Nations this week. Whether he does or not, his young papacy can claim to be the “greenest” ever. Benedict has identified extensive common ground between sustainability concerns and a Catholic worldview – adding weight to the argument that the world’s religions could be instrumental in nudging policymakers and the public to embrace sustainability. Now, the Pope has the opportunity to further develop the links between sustainability and religious values, markedly advancing thinking in both arenas.

Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, made important environmental statements during his long papacy, but Benedict is the first “green pope.” Last year, the Vatican installed solar panels on its 10,000-seat main auditorium building, and it arranged to reforest land in Hungary to offset Vatican City’s carbon emissions, making it the world’s first carbon-neutral state. And Benedict has repeatedly urged protection of the environment and action against poverty in a number of major addresses. His next encyclical (major papal teaching), due out this summer, is expected to further wrestle with environmental, social, and other themes of interest to the sustainability community.

As he embraces these themes, Benedict and the larger Catholic community could play an especially valuable role in helping to address two major influences on the environment that get too little attention today: consumption and population. (A third, technology, already receives high levels of policy focus.)

The consumption question should be comfortable ground for a modern Catholic pope, given the longstanding social and spiritual critique of consumerism in Catholic thought. For example, Pope Paul VI, in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, linked heavy consumption to injustice, declaring that, “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life…. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.”

John Paul II added a spiritual dimension in Centesimus Annus in 1991, critiquing “a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,'” and urging people to “create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.” The Church’s spiritual and social teachings are rich complements to modern environmental arguments against consumerism.

Benedict’s challenge is to move longstanding Church teaching into concrete action. Despite the extensive archive of papal statements on the subject, there is no evidence that Catholics consume less or differently than anyone else. Yet given that 40 percent of the human family lives on less than $2 a day while the prosperous among us consume casually and wastefully, Catholic leadership in redefining “the good life” away from accumulation and toward greater human wellbeing and solidarity with the poor cannot come soon enough.

Benedict will need to be creative in persuading the comfortable in his Church to take consumption teachings seriously. The dramatic equivalent of solar panels on a Vatican rooftop may be needed to move prosperous Catholics to critically assess their own consumption-and to find joy in consuming less.

The other issue, population, is more difficult for a Catholic leader to tackle, especially one with Benedict’s reputation for doctrinal strictness. For Benedict and most Catholics, human reproduction is a domain infused with questions of deep personal morality. But a pontiff who appreciates the epochal nature of the sustainability crisis must surely also recognize the moral challenges raised when human numbers grow exponentially in a finite world.

How much of modern hunger, disease, poverty, and environmental degradation can be blamed on population sizes that have exceeded the carrying capacity of local, regional, and global environments? The share is unknowable, but surely not small. The challenge for Benedict will be to apply his formidable intellect to harmonize the personal and social ethics of population issues.

Benedict’s interest in sustainability issues comes not a moment too soon. The sustainability crisis is civilizational in scope and depth-and therefore a natural concern for a global institution like the Catholic Church. Should Benedict raise the twin issues of consumption and population to the level of theological and spiritual attention they deserve, he would not only advance thinking on religious ethics-but also on how to create just and environmentally sustainable societies.

Gary Gardner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the book Inspiring Progress: Religions’ Contributions to Sustainable Development.