The Future started yesterday


The term “sustainable development”  forms part of the contemporary poltical lexicon.

It is unfortunately generally a greenwash engaged upon by politicians whose gaze cannot consider more than a three to four year timeframe.  To make any sense the politics of sustainable development must be and in fact is measured in terms of generations and is commonly referred to as a “long term view”.

The Brundtland report which  is credited with setting the sustainable development ball rolling in contemporary politics was presented to the United Nations General Secretary in 1987. Entitled “Our Common Future” it was the result of the deliberations of the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland former Norwegian Prime Minister.

The Brundtland report is very clear in its first pages.  In the introductory chapter  we are told that “We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote ; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”

This one sentence encapsulates the significance and objectives of the politics of sustainable development:  the future has to be factored in today’s decisons. We cannot plan the present without considering its impacts on the future. Future generations have a right to take their own decisions.They need to be in a position to take their decisions without being obstructed by limitations imposed by their ancestors.

During the preparatory meetings for the Rio 1992 Earth Summit, delegations  discussed the impacts of development on various vulnerable groups. Sustainable development requires new forms of participation in decision making as a result of which those sectors of society which are normally on the fringes are reintegrated into the process.  Women, children, youth, indigenous groups, NGOs and local authorities were identified by Agenda 21 at Rio in 1992 as vulnerable groups. Other sectors such as trade unions and business/industry require a strengthened role such that there voice is heard and forms an integral part of the decision taking process.

In the process leading to the Rio 1992 Earth Summit Malta presented the UN with submissions focusing with another vulnerable group, future generations. This was done in a document dated 21 February 1992 submitted to Working GroupIII of the Preparatory Committee of the UN Rio Conference which met in New York  in early March 1992.

In paragraph 17 of its document Malta proposed to go beyond rhetoric through the inclusion in the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment of the following:

“ We declare that each generation has, in particular, the responsibility to ensure that in any national or international forum, where it is likely that a decision is taken affecting the interests of future generations, access be given to an authorised person appointed as “Guardian” of future generations to appear and make submissions on their behalf, so that account be taken of the responsibilities stated in this Declaration and the obligations created thereby.”

Malta’s proposal was developed by the International Environment Institute of the University of Malta within the framework of its “Future Generations Programme”.  In 1992 Malta’s proposal was not taken up in the Rio Declaration on the Environment however it has resurfaced in the current Rio+20 process.

In what is known as the zero draft, that is the draft final document of the Rio+20 sustainable development conference due to be held next June,  the international community is proposing to consider the setting up of an “Ombudsperson or High Commissioner for Future Generations to promote Sustainable Development” (paragraph 57 of the document The Future We Want).  This proposal, if implemented, would eventually lead to consider impacts on Future Generations of international initiatives.

In parallel with the developments on a international level which may eventualy lead to the United Nations focusing on the rights of future generations to promote Sustainable Development the Government in Malta has published draft legislation which introduces a Guardian of Future Generations. This was proposed by the Greens in Malta during consultations carried out by the Minsitry for the Environment and was taken up by government when the final draft of the legislation was drawn up.

The Bill, entitled “Sustainable Development Act”  recognizes for the first time that Future Generations (in Malta) have rights which can be impaired by today’s decisions. It provides for the creation of a Commission to be known as the Guardian for Future Generations which is to be made up of a President appointed by the Prime Minister and three other members hailing from environmental NGOs, business fora and social and community NGOs.

The Guardian for Future Generations will be assigned duties related to sustainable development ranging from sustainable development advocacy across national policymaking to encouraging NGOs and the private sector to participate in sustainable development initiatives. Given the functions and role of the Guardian I think that it would be more appropriate and effective if instead of a Commission it is just one person  appointed by the Head of State rather than by the Prime Minister.

It is unfortunate that the Bill confirms the abolition of the National Commission for Sustainable Development and in its stead proposes the creation of a Network made up of 8 persons, these being a mix of public officers and representatives of civil society. The National Commission was much larger and had the advantage of being composed of a wider cross section of civil society together with representatives of all the Ministries. Whilst it is clear that government’s objective in creating the Network is to create a lean, efficient  and effective structure, I submit that this is not incompatible with retaining the National Commission which through its extensive reach was and can still be an effective sounding board where the politics of sustainable development is moulded.  The involvement of a wide range of stakeholders is imperative in creating or reinforcing structures for sustainable development.

These developments signify that present generations are slowly coming to their senses and recognising the fact that the impacts of today’s decisions will be felt far into the future. Giving a role to future generations today would ensure that their right to take their own decisions tomorrow is not restricted by the decisions we take today. Then we can proceed to mitigate the impacts of decisions taken in the past.  As the future began yesterday!

published in The Independent on Sunday – Environment Supplement, January 29, 2012

Just lip service and cold feet

                                             published Saturday August 13, 2011

The year 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit held in June 1992. The Rio Earth Summit itself was held on the 20th anniversary of the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which is credited with introducing the environment in the contemporary political lexicon.

In fact, it was as a result of the Stockholm conference that various countries started appointing an environment minister. In 1976, in Malta, Dom Mintoff appointed Vincent Moran as Minister for Health and the Environment. The emphasis at that stage was environmental health. His primary environmental responsibilities being street cleaning, refuse collection and the management of landfills in addition to minor responsibilities on air quality. The serious stuff came later when Daniel Micallef was appointed Minister for Education and the Environment in 1986.

In 1992, the international community met in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the conflicts between development and the environment. This was brought to the fore by the 1987 UN report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, headed by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report, entitled Our Common Future, referred to as the Brundtland report, is generally remembered for its definition of sustainable development. Development was defined as sustainable if, in ensuring that the needs of present generations are met, it did not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit produced the Rio Declaration on the Environment, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Framework Convention on Biodiversity, the Statement of Forest Principles and Agenda 21. Each one of these assumed a life of its own, addressing various issues.

I think it is essential to focus on the relevance of Agenda 21, which was, way back in 1992, drafted to serve as a global action plan for the 21st century.

Agenda 21 emphasises that sustainable development is not spearheaded by economics. It does not seek to balance profits with other considerations. Based on respect for people and the planet in the carrying out of our activities, it links the environment with social and economic policy.

It is indeed regrettable that some countries, Malta included, loudly proclaim adherence to the objectives of Rio 1992 yet fail miserably in translating them into the requirements of everyday life.

It is necessary to reiterate that Malta, through its present government, has paid lip service to issues of sustainable development. The Environment Protection Act of 2001, now in the process of being superseded, had established a National Commission for Sustainable Development headed by the Prime Minister. This was tasked with the preparation of a National Strategy for Sustainable Development, which was finalised and approved by the commission in December 2006. It was presented to Cabinet, which approved it in the weeks prior to the March 2008 election.

Soon after the 2008 election, during Parliament’s first session on May 10, 2008, Malta’s President proclaimed on behalf of the government that its policies will be underpinned by adherence to the principles of sustainable development. We were then told that when formulating decisions today serious consideration would be given to their impact on the generations of tomorrow.

I doubt whether there was ever any intention to implement such a declaration. I am informed that the National Commission for Sustainable Development, which, in terms of the Environment Protection Act, is still entrusted with the implementation of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, has not met since December 2006. Consequently, the procedures laid down in section 5 of the strategy as a result of which the different ministries had 18 months to prepare and commence the implementation of an action plan based on the strategy in their areas of competence were transformed into a dead letter.

The government has now gone one step further. It is formulating a National Environment Policy. This initiative has been undertaken by the same ministry responsible for issues of sustainable development – the Office of the Prime Minister.

From what is known on the contents of this policy it substantially duplicates the areas addressed by the National Sustainability Strategy. Consequently, it is discharging down the drains four years of discussions with civil society that had given the strategy its shape and content. It is clear that on the issue of sustainable development this government is very rich in rhetoric but when it comes to implementation it gets cold feet. It’s all talk, meetings, documents and consultations. And when a document is finally produced it is back to the drawing board to start the process for another one! This is lip service at its worst.

While the international community meeting in Rio in 2012 will take stock of its modest achievements in implementing the conclusions of Rio 1992 and its follow-up meetings, including those of Johannesburg in 2002, in Malta we are still awaiting a lethargic government to take the first steps.


Other posts on sustainable development during the past 12 months

2011, July 23                Living on Ecological Credit.

2011, June 5                 Government’s Environment Policy is Beyond Repair.

2011, March 5              Small is Beautiful in Water Policy.

2011, January 22        Beyond the  Rhetorical declarations.

2010, October 23        Time to realign actions with words.

2010, October 17        Reflections on an Environment Policy.

2010, October 3          AD on Government’s Environment policy.

2010, September 17  Lejn Politika tal-Ambjent.

2010, September 4     Environment Policy and the Budget.

2010, August 14          Thoughts for an Environmental Policy.

2010, August 2            Bis-serjeta ? Il-Politika Nazzjonali dwar l-Ambjent.

Sustainable Development Politics




published Saturday October 16, 2009

by Carmel Cacopardo


Sustainable development has been inserted into the Maltese political lexicon as a guiding rule for the Executive during the current legislature. This was a positive step as it indicates awareness as to the inherent conflicts between so-called development and the environment. The adoption of sustainable development as a guiding rule denotes the willingness to act. At least the spirit seems to be willing.

Let us be clear as to the meaning of the key terms. Being in a state of sustainability means that actions, attitudes and behaviour are such that they permit other generations in the future to take their own decisions. Sustainable development on the other hand is the path followed to achieve a state of sustainability.

This signifies that each decision must be evaluated on the basis of its long-term impacts and not just on its short-term economic gains. Economic and social impacts of policy decisions are generally taken into account as most of these are of an immediate nature. However, over the years, unfortunately little concern was shown towards environmental impacts. These tend to accumulate “unnoticed” until the time is ripe for nature to strike back. This is relevant to practically all issues: from over-fishing to the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The problems existent today and normally referred to as climate change are the accumulated results of human action since the beginning of the industrial revolution. These have been further compounded by the disappearance of most forests in the developed world.

The issues placed on the global agenda as a result of climate change have been determined by past generations. That is, today we are paying the bills accumulated as a result of the actions of past generations.

The political cycle determines a five-year vision. Anything maturing beyond five years is generally of minimum concern to the political class. This is the first basic issue: adopting a sustainable development path means taking a long-term view. It is a generational view, planning by the present generation to ensure that the needs of the present are satisfied in such a manner that future generations too can get a fair deal. It means handing over to the next generation a world containing fewer problems than have been bequeathed by past to present generations. This is achieved not just through not creating additional problems, but also as a result of gradually solving some of the inherited problems.

Sustainable development departs from a basic premise: man does not form part of an economy but of an eco-system. The economy is the manner in which humankind organises itself. This method of organisation must be in synch with the eco-system otherwise it is doomed to fail. Now the market economy (free or regulated) is based on concepts of continuous growth. Much debate has been going on pointing out that there are limits to growth which are determined by the finite size of the earth and its resources. Yet life goes on without much thought as to the implications of this basic truth.

To put it simply, if the adoption of sustainable development by the government as its guiding light is to mean anything at all it must revisit all policies and adjust them such that they reflect the fact that the earth and its resources are finite. All areas of policy are affected. It must be clear that it is next to impossible to arrest the accumulated and ever-increasing environmental deficit without addressing the policies and attitudes that have caused it.

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 decision is taken. 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.

The politics of sustainable development is concerned with redirecting economic activity such that this is compatible with ecological and social requirements. The ecology, the economy and social needs are thus placed on the same level when decisions are taken. This is the challenge of the 21st century. The Rio Earth Summit labelled it as Agenda 21.

It is a long process. Sustainable development seeks to change the tools we use as well as the attitudes we apply and consequently leads to a different behavioural pattern, one which respects the eco-system of which we form part.

Declarations in favour of sustainable development need to be followed up by an operational programme which encourages a more active participation in designing a sustainable future. Only then will declarations made have any worth.

Sustainable Localities & Regionalisation

published on 21 June 2008


by Carmel Cacopardo


To what extent are our localities sustainable ? This issue was brought up in pre-budget public discussions organised by the Ministry of Finance. The idea was floated as to what extent is it desirable to attract business to non-traditional localities in view of the fact that in 2007 six localities (Valletta, Sliema, Birkirkara, Mosta, St Paul’s Bay and Victoria) attracted 30 per cent of the 56,811 enterprise units functioning within these shores.

It was stated that the benefits of spreading the enterprise units (existing and new ones) in non-traditional areas would include the reduction of travelling time between home and work. This may also, however, shift traffic congestion depending on the type of enterprise involved, the resulting intensity of activity and the localities affected. A need for infrastructural improvements could build up in the newly-identified areas relative to road network, supply of water and electrical power as well as waste disposal. Dependent on the type of enterprise attracted, the friction between competing land uses would also be brought closer to a larger number of residences, possibly squeezing out residents in the process.

The discussion as to what makes a locality sustainable is healthy as it focuses on the maxim “think global, act local”, signifying that, while environmental impacts are being felt at a global (or regional) level, they are, however, created at a local level where remedial action should be taken.

Localities in other countries address sustainability at a local level through implementing what is known as Local Agenda 21. As a result of the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the United Nations approved a document entitled Agenda 21. A Blueprint For Action For Global Sustainable Development Into The 21st Century.

In this document the issues to be addressed in order to assist in the transition from the existing mess to a more sustainable state of affairs are explained in 40 sections, section 28 addressing the role of local authorities. It is stated that “Because so many of the problems and solutions being addressed by Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities, the participation and cooperation of local authorities will be a determining factor in fulfilling its objectives”.

The experience of local authorities in other countries provides many examples. It highlights the difficulty created by size and, consequently, points to the question as to whether in Malta we require another layer of democratic institutions, at regional level, to which a number of responsibilities could be devolved: some currently pertaining to the national government, others to local authorities. This would be in addition to local councils, complementing their functions and, thereby, reinforcing the devolution of public administration.

Regionalisation has already been referred to in the past months as one of the possible solutions to the management of waste on the island.

This argument cropped up when addressing the issue as to whether the Sant’Antnin recycling plant at Marsascala should process all the solid waste generated on the island or whether it should be one of a number still to be determined. Within that context the proposal was made that the management of waste should be regionalised thereby applying the proximity principle to waste management: that is managing the waste generated as close as possible to its source.

Regionalising waste management would create a more visible link between cause and effect, thereby contributing to a more effective management of waste in these islands. The regional authority would assume the role of the operator, with the central government taking on the role of the regulator.

Subsidiarity would also be given a realistic opportunity to succeed as the difficulties encountered by some local councils due to a lack of economies of scale could be effectively tackled in most if not in all cases.

A proposal for the identification of the regions is already indirectly available. This is contained in the seven Mepa Local Plans, namely: the Grand Harbour Region, the Southern Region, the Central Region, the North West Region, the North Harbour Region, the Marsaxlokk Bay Region, Gozo and Comino.

Regional government could devolve responsibility for agriculture, education, land use planning (local plan implementation), projects of a regional importance, the administration of regional sports complexes, regional health centres, inter- and intra-regional transport and social security from national government. Local government could shed responsibility for waste management, the cleaning of non urban areas and the maintenance and management of beaches, which could be a regional responsibility.

The sustainability of our localities is intrinsically linked to their further democratisation. Creating an additional democratic layer and assigning specific responsibilities thereto would help in the amelioration of the running of this country. It would increase accountability as well as ensure more value for the taxpayer’s money.

This is our Challenge



 Agenda 21 is the basis on which sustainability strategies are drafted. This applies to both national strategies (say, Malta, the UK or Australia sustainability strategy) as well as supranational ones (like the EU, the Baltic Sea or Mediterranean sustainability strategy). Its full title is Agenda 21. A Blueprint For Action For Global Sustainable Development Into The 21st Century. Adopted at the Rio Earth summit in 1992 it is a result of the UN debate that ensued after the publication of the Brundtland Report. (Entitled Our Common Future, it was concluded in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.)

Marina Silva, resigning as Brazil’s Minister for the Environment, was quoted as stating: “Today we are living through the challenge of prevention, of looking twice before doing something, discussing twice before doing something. Because each thing that we alter can lead to… dramatic consequences.

“Those who celebrated the industrial revolution never thought that we were injuring the planet, almost fatally. We didn’t have this knowledge. Today we know”.

It is within these parameters that the identification of sustainable development as the main theme underlying the government’s political programme assumes significance. It was 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.” The objective is a long-term view of policy formulation and its implementation.

Sustainable development is not just about objectives; it is also about methods used in attaining them. It is about participation of the community in all that which is of concern. Agenda 21 identifies major groups in society whose role in decision-making needs to be reinforced at a global level: women, children, youth, indigenous people, NGOs, local authorities, workers and trade unions, business and industry, the scientific and technological community and farmers (Agenda 21, sections 23 to 32).

During the preparatory stages leading to the Rio Earth summit, Malta had submitted a proposal for an addition to this list. It was proposed that the world community should go beyond vague declarations of responsibilities towards future generations and institute an official guardian to safeguard posterity’s interests. Malta had then proposed the setting up of a “guardian of future generations” to appear and make submissions on their behalf, thereby introducing a new dimension, “the time horizon”, into the resolution of present-day issues. This proposal was not approved.

The government’s political programme for the current Parliament is revisiting this proposal. It is accepting that the impact of today’s decisions is of utmost relevance to future generations. This has considerable implications in all areas of policy and administration. It means that the government is (rightly) accepting that today’s generations are administering in trust on behalf of future generations. As a consequence, this signifies that the government has accepted that the present generation has a moral duty to ensure that when it concludes its tasks it hands over trusteeship to the next generation with less problems than it had itself inherited.

The fiscal deficit is being tackled and the target of a balanced budget is in sight. The environmental deficit, on the other hand, is much more complex to address as it will require the revisiting of all areas of policy which have contributed to its formation and present state. It will take much more than political rhetoric to deliver!

It requires tackling the quality of the air we breathe. As a result, this signifies the need to reduce transport emissions through the implementation of a sustainable transport policy thereby leading also to an improvement of our mobility. A sustainable alternative leading to a decrease of cars on the road could thus be available.

It requires addressing the impacts of the building industry, ensuring a sustainable use of resources as well as the setting up of an equitable rental market thereby utilising the vacant building stock.

It means addressing Malta’s contribution to climate change as a matter of urgency through living up to our commitments on the provision of renewable resources of energy as well as investing in energy-saving measures.

It means protecting our biodiversity. Recognising the intrinsic value of nature is fundamental. A recent report by the Irish environment authorities revealed that biodiversity has a net economic value to the tune of €2.6 billion per annum to the Irish economy!

It also means a culture of participatory democracy where the state leads but does not dictate.

This is the challenge which we all face. We are considerably behind schedule but if the sustainable development path is selected in earnest it may not be too late!

The author, an architect, is the spokesman on sustainable development of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party in Malta.

Bridging the Gap

10 May 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo


During the past week the Prime Minister stressed that sustainable development tops the government’s agenda. On May 2, in a speech inaugurating the new Rempec offices, he said that “the main thrust of the government’s action in the next years will be sustainable development”. On May 4, interviewed by The Sunday Times, he further emphasised that “I consider sustainable development to be the biggest challenge the country has right now”.

This is very encouraging.

Since the early 1970s, in the immediate aftermath of the Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment, in line with other governments all over the world the environment was promoted in Malta as a responsibility at Cabinet level. In 2001, the National Commission for Sustainable Development (NCSD) was introduced in the Environment Protection Act.

Chaired by the Prime Minister it is intended to implement the provisions of Agenda 21, approved at the Rio Earth summit in 1992, the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference.

The Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands was drawn up by the NCSD primarily but not exclusively through the inputs of civil society. Concluded late in 2006, it articulates the interrelationship between all policy areas and draws up the objectives of the paths our country should take in its transition from its present state to sustainability.

Sustainability is attained as a result of sustainable development, that is, by ensuring that all activity carried out by the community is based on a long-term view that places emphasis on the need for an integrated approach: policy and its implementation must integrate environmental, social and economic considerations.

As a result, while present generations satisfy today’s needs, future generations retain their options such that they too can make their choices.

NCSD identified 10 areas of action, namely (1) air quality and climate change, (2) energy efficiency and renewable energy resources, (3) biodiversity, (4) freshwater, (5) wastes, (6) marine and coastal environment, (7) land use, (8) transport, (9) natural and technological risks, and (10) leisure and the environment. In each of these areas it is required that policy and rhetoric are aligned thereby bridging an existing green gap.

Priorities will be identified by the political programme of the government, to be announced today when Parliament convenes for its first sitting after the March 8 election. Such a programme will not be written in stone. There are already a number of areas, notably the financial sector, in respect of which there is cross-party consensus. Sustainable development should be another such area. A consensus can be developed on the basis of the National Sustainable Development Strategy.

The longer it takes for the development of such a consensus the greater the damage to our economic/social/environmental fabric and the more difficult the healing period required.

While all the 10 areas identified by the strategy have to be tackled, I consider that priority action should be focused on renewable energy, conservation of water resources, development of an efficient public transport system, containment of the building in-dustry and protection of biodiversity.

A number of existing policies would as a consequence have to be revisited. For example, rent reform has to be tackled without further delay.

The Housing Authority would do well if it were to separate issues of social accommodation from those of ownership.

The former is a social need; issues of ownership are not. Rent reform could assume a different perspective from that identified to date.

In respect of pre-1995 tenancies it could retain security of tenure but not protected rent, thereby creating a reasonable basis for reform which would be fair to both owners and tenants.

In the case of tenants who are at the lower end of the income scale the Housing Authority could subsidise the fair rent but then it should not subsidise the well-offs who have been making use of third party property at meagre rents for generations.

An equitable reform of rent legislation would over a number of years, given suitable encouragement from the Housing Authority, release into the rental market a substantial number of the 53,000 vacant properties, thereby freeing pressures on unbuilt land.

There are other areas that need to be tackled, among them tourism, which to date is primarily linked to the hotel industry and practically ignores other more sustainable forms, like ecotourism and agritourism.

All are steps which assist the sustainability trajectory.

As a first step however we need to bridge the gap by ensuring that the National Sustainable Development Strategy is owned by the community and not just by the political parties.

If this first step is assured, I have no doubt that a fruitful implementation of the strategy can be initiated.