Green talk but no more

four_pillar-sustainable  development

 

When push comes to shove it is always the rights of future generations which are ignored and thrown overboard. This is done repeatedly as governments tend to give greater value to the rights of present generations, in the process discounting the rights of the future.

It is a recurring theme in all areas of environmental concern. Whether land use planning, water management, resource management, waste management, climate change, biodiversity or air quality,  procrastination is the name of the game. With 101 excuses governments postpone to tomorrow decisions which should have been implemented yesterday.

Future generations have a right to take their own decisions. It is pretty obvious that they will not be able to take adequate decisions as their options will be severely curtailed as a result of the implementation of present and past decisions.

The politics of sustainable development aims to address this deficiency.

On a global level it all started in Stockholm in 1972 as a result of the sensitivities of the Nordic countries which set in motion the UN Human Environment Conference. After the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, the Rio Summits (1992 and 2012), as well as the Johannesburg Summit (2002), we can speak of charters, international conventions, declarations and strategies all of which plot out in detail as to what is to be done. However as pointed out by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at the UN Rio+20 Summit (2012) in his report entitled “Objectives and Themes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development” institution building has lagged behind. This signifies that the integration of policymaking and its implementation is nowhere on target, Malta not being an exception.

The Sustainable Development Annual Report 2013 presented in Parliament by Minister Leo Brincat on the 27 May 2014 indicates that not much progress has been made to date on the matter, notwithstanding the number of meetings as well as the appointment of coordinating officers and focal points in each of the Ministries.

Way back in 2008 Malta had a National Sustainable Development Commission which through the inputs of civil society, in coordination with government involvement, had produced a National Sustainable Development Strategy. This was approved by Cabinet at that time but never implemented. So much that to try and justify its inertia the then government tried to divert attention in 2012 by proposing a Sustainable Development Act. This essentially transferred (with changes) some of the proposed structures and institutions identified in the National Sustainable Development Strategy to the legislation and used the process as a justification for not doing anything except talk and talk. The changes piloted through Parliament by then Environment Minister Mario de Marco included the effective dissolution of the National Commission for Sustainable Development (which had been dormant for 5 years). The justification which  the responsible Permanent Secretary uttered as an excuse was that the Commission was too large and hence of no practical use.

It has to be borne in mind that sustainable development is also an exercise in practical democracy whereby policy is formed through capillarity, rising from the roots of society, and not through filtration by dripping from the top downwards. For sustainable development to take root the strategy leading to sustainability must be owned by civil society which must be in the driving seat of the process.

Readers may remember that the President’s address to Parliament  way back on 10 May 2008 had emphasised 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.”

This was not manifested in the government’s actions throughout its 5 year term. Not just in its approach to sustainable development but also in its dealing with the individual issues of environmental concern: be it land use planning, water management, resource management, waste management, climate change, biodiversity or air quality.The politics of sustainable development is an uphill struggle. It signifies a long term view in decision making, that is, considering carefully the impacts of today’s decisions on tomorrow. It requires much more than chatter.

As the report tabled by Minister Leo Brincat states in its conclusion, we are in for more chatter as the emphasis in the coming year seems to be the revision of a strategy which has never been implemented. The strategy is worded in such general terms that it is difficult to understand what this means, except that there is no practical interest in getting things done. It would have been much better if some effort was invested in the Action Plans which the different Ministries have to draw up in order to implement the strategy in the various departments/authorities under their political responsibility.

This, it seems, is unfortunately the Maltese long term view.

Published in The Times of Malta, Monday June 30, 2014

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Increasing environmental awareness

 

 

 

The publication of the draft National Environment Policy (NEP) is a useful exercise irrespective of Government’s intentions, which, to put it mildly, are not always clear.

Government’s intense rhetoric coupled with action motivated primarily by the need to overcome threats of EU infringement proceedings is not the best way to move forward in environmental issues. Labour would certainly be no better. Past experience indicates that Labour are on the same wavelength as the PN even though their policies on a number of issues are not yet spelt out, in public at least.

In April 2010 Ernst & Young had concluded a Public Attitudes Survey on environmental issues commissioned by MEPA. The analysis of the results, available on the MEPA website makes interesting reading.

Of central importance are the conclusions relative to the inter-relationship between the environment and the economy: 69% of respondents held that the environment was as important as the economy, 23% held that the environment was more important than the economy whilst only 8% held that the economy is of over-riding importance.   

Air quality, waste management and land use top the list of the environmental concerns of the Maltese. In fact these are the most worrying issues, though certainly not the only ones.

The draft NEP collects in one document a detailed list of government’s environmental responsibilities, primarily resulting from the EU environmental acquis. There are also some areas covered by the draft NEP in respect of which the EU has no role. Government has erroneously described these as an indication of its determination to go beyond EU requirements.

A logical and down to earth reaction to the draft NEP is that we have been there before. A National Sustainable Development Strategy approved by Cabinet in late 2007 had approved practically a similar (although less detailed) document. It even had some specific targets all of which have been ignored by the Cabinet Minister who was responsible for their implementation: the Honourable Lawrence Gonzi whose portfolio of political responsibilities included and still includes Sustainable Development .

Is it ethical, I ask, for the Prime Minister to approve a strategy (through Cabinet)  with specific targets, ignore them, abolish the Commission which drew up the strategy and then re-present substantially the same strategy and proposals in a different form? Would you believe him if he now says that he is serious about implementation of strategies and proposals originally proposed in 2007 but ignored  by the government which he has led uninterruptedly since 2004?  Speaking for myself I don’t believe one word of what he says on the subject.       

The National Sustainable Development Strategy identified various targets. Most were undated, but some basic ones had a specific timeframe by which they had to be delivered.

Among the specific targets which Dr Gonzi as Prime Minister first approved but subsequently ignored are the following :

  1. By 2008 draw up a strategy to enhance the use of economic instruments (eco-taxation strategy),
  2. By 2008 put in place a permanent structure appropriately staffed and funded to monitor and review the implementation of the National Strategy for Sustainable Development,
  3. Within 18 months of the adoption of the National Strategy for Sustainable Development (that is by mid-2009) Ministries had to prepare their action plans on the implementation of the strategy in their portfolio of responsibilities,
  4. By 2010 draw up an integrated Spatial Development Plan to take forward the Sustainable Development Strategy, with the participation of major stakeholders.

None of the above targets have been met.

 Among the general targets approved in 2007 (4 years ago), before the re-election of Dr Gonzi as Prime Minister he had promised : 

  1. the drawing up and implementation of a policy addressing the issue of light pollution,
  2. the drawing up and implementation of a dust-control policy,
  3. a nationwide public footpath policy which delineates paths that the public can use,
  4. promotion of a culture of Corporate Social Responsibility by major firms,
  5. enhancing enforcement and monitoring to reduce the destabilising  effects on society of construction and quarrying activities.

  None of the above targets have been addressed.

 All the above nine proposals and many others originally forming part of the National Sustainable Development Strategy have re-surfaced in the draft NEP after being ignored for a number of years. Dr Gonzi’s proposals have a habit of hopping from one policy document to the other.

This is not a serious way of doing politics. Those who like Dr Gonzi proposed strategies and failed to implement them should have the decency of explaining why they failed in their mission. Instead of doing so Dr Gonzi organised a media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin to explain to the media the “greening of his government”. Unfortunately no record is available of any of the journalists present taking him to task for trying to hide his failures.

 Notwithstanding the above some benefit will surely arise out of the debate on the draft NEP: even if we have been there before and discussed it not once, not twice but many times over without any tangible result to date. The public’s sensitivity to environmental issues is on the rise. Its environmental awareness is increasing rapidly.  Just 18 months before a general election I do not think that anyone can be deceived anymore on green issues.

Like the PL before it the PN in government has had its chance to deliver and failed.

 

 Published in the Independent n Sunday – Environment Supplement

October 2, 2011