Sustainable development goals : beyond rhetoric

SDGs

 

In the past few months, considerable work has been carried out by the United Nations to produce a document on sustainable development goals and earlier this week it was announced that a consensus has been achieved over this document that lists 17 goals and 169 specific targets.

The final document, which is now ready for adoption, is brief but wide-ranging. It is entitled Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Taking into account the different national realities, the 17 identified goals cover  a wide range of issues (vide box) that form the global sustainable development agenda for the next 15 years. They aim to eradicate poverty, promote prosperity and increase environmental protection – constant objectives of the international community, that are continuously aimed for but so far not achieved.

The renewed commitment to achieve these goals is welcome. However, both the goals and the specific objectives will have to take account of different national realities and capacities, while respecting national policies and priorities.

Although the document has been described as a historic achievement, in practice it is nothing of the sort. We have been there before. For the past 40 years, commitments have been made at one global meeting after another, only for the world community to come back years later with a slightly different document.

In Malta, the politics of sustainable development is generally cosmetic in nature: full of rhetoric but relatively void when it comes to substance.

Sustainable development should be primarily concerned with having a long-term view which spans generations. It seeks an inter-generational commitment, with the present generation committing  itself to ensure that future generations have sufficient elbow room to take their own decisions. Even if we limit ourselves to this basic objective of sustainable development, it is clear that such a commitment is nowhere in sight in Maltese politics.

Sifting through the rhetoric, a clear gap is very visible. Rather than being developed over the years, the rudimentary sustainable development infrastructure has been dismantled. The National Commission for Sustainable Development, through which civil society actively participated in the formulation of a National Strategy for Sustainable Development, was dismantled by the previous administration.

If the politics of sustainable development is to be of any significance, it has to be evident at the roots of society and the sustainable development strategy itelf has to be owned by civil society. In Malta, a completely different path is followed. The sustainable development strategy is owned by the state and not by civil society. Hence it is largely irrelevant and practically insignificant.

The net result of the developments in recent years has transformed sustainable development politics in Malta into another bureaucratic process, with government appointees pushing pen against paper, producing reports and no visible improvement.

There is no political will to implement a sustainable development strategy, as this runs diametrically opposite to the political decisions of the current administration, which seeks to intensify the complete domination of Malta’s natural heritage by economic forces, plundered for short term gain.

The fragmentation of environmental governance is the latest building block of this strategy which is clearly evident behind the rhetorical facade.

This is not the future we want nor the future we deserve and it is not the transformation that Malta requires.

Next September, Malta will join the community of nations at New York in approving a document which it has no intention of implementing. Behind that rhetorical facade, the farce continues.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 9 August 2015

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The elephant in the room

elephant-in-the-room

 

When Malta’s EU accession negotiations approached the final stages, a merger of the then Planning Authority and the Department for the Environment was announced.

While the merger was the right thing to do, it was done in a hurry and as a result, an organised Planning Directorate overshadowed an understaffed Environment Directorate.  A number of  civil servants employed in the former Environment Department had refused to go along to MEPA, thus further diluting the newly established Environment Directorate. This was further exacerbated by long spells during which the post of Environment Director was vacant. This did not involve weeks, but years. Currently, in fact, there is no Environment Director in place- the post having been vacated around two years ago.

The Environment Department was then one of the youngest departments in the civil service which, overnight, as a result of EU accession had to shoulder responsibility for a substantial portion of the EU acquis for which it was largely not equipped. The situation has slightly improved over the years. The previous administration declared many times that it would bridge the gap in human resources, but, unfortunately, it never lived up to its declarations. As a result, the Environment Directorate was, and still is, overshadowed. In addition, to make matters worse, the consolidated authority was (and still is) led by a Board in which environmental knowledge  was (very) scarce. This was the perfect recipe for a good initiative not to yield any results by design.

Malta requires more consolidation of environmental governance, not its fragmentation. Further consolidation will increase the chances of being more effective in coordinating related areas of policy: land-use planning and environment protection are two such areas. Fragmentation, on the other hand, increases ineffectiveness. However, mergers require commitment and resources – both of which have been manifestly lacking.

The potential fruits of the merger would only have been reaped if the consolidated MEPA had been led by an Environment Directorate. Unfortunately, it was designed differently: a combination of bad design and an absence of good faith.

The solution to this problem is not to reverse the merger but rather to reverse the roles of land-use planning and environment protection in a consolidated MEPA, meaning that land-use planning should be subjected to rigorous environmental control. Unfortunately, this was never on the cards, nor is it contemplated in the de-merger bills. The agenda of the parliamentary political parties has always been very clear: to ensure that land-use planning is subject to the least possible environmental controls in the interests of the development lobby.

This is the elephant in the room. The PN in government implemented this objective by a merger of a highly organised Planning Directorate with a weak but dedicated Environment Department. Labour has opted to achieve the same objective through fragmentation.

At the end of the day, the government’s misguided de-merger will not  cause additional damage: it will be more of the same, as we have been accustomed to throughout the years. The attainment of the full potential of the newly-created authorities will be postponed until such time as they are inevitably reunited under the leadership of a revamped Environment Directorate.

In the meantime, other important issues in the projected legislation can be focused upon. The manner of appointment of boards and top officers of the newly created authorities is one such issue.

Having the Minister’s trust is not a sufficient requirement justifying appointments to boards and authorities – and this not just with reference to appointments of an environmental nature. It would be appropriate if the competence of those selected for office is scrutinised in public. Other democracies, the United States of America for example, regularly use public hearings as an instrument for carrying out such  public scrutiny for a number of appointments of national importance.

In its 2013 election manifesto, Alternattiva Demokratika  specifically proposed the adoption of this method in order to examine the government’s nominees to public bodies. In particular, AD proposed  that government nominees to land-use planning, environment and resource-management boards (including directors and CEOs) should not take up their post until Parliament’s Environment and Land Use Planning Committee had examined such nominations in public and signified its consent thereto. Such a public hearing  should be carried out to establish whether the nominees are suitable for the posts to which they have been nominated.

Were nominees  required to subject themselves to such a public hearing, Malta would  definitely have a much better crop of administrators than that which it has been accustomed over the years. This would also reinforce the notion that administrators of public authorities are, at the end of the day, accountable to the whole country and not just to the government Minister who nominates them for the post.

The merger of land-use planning and environment protection at MEPA should be strengthened by ensuring that the Environment Directorate calls the shots. It is, however, equally important to ensure that those nominated to lead the authority (irrespective of whether we have one or more) are suitable for running the show.  Parliament should thus reclaim back its powers and vet the government’s nominees in public. When this has been done, we will be able to state that we have commenced down the path to improving environmental governance. Otherwise, it will be more of the same for many years to come.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 12 July 2015

Il-qasma tal-MEPA

MEPA cartoon cartoon by Steve Bonello

 

Il-Gvern għadu kif ippubblika numru ta’ abbozzi ta’ liġijiet konnessi mal-proposta biex il-MEPA tinqasam f’biċtejn. Hemm erba’ abbozzi ta’ liġi (mhux tlieta kif qed jgħidu) li ġew ippubblikati.

Abbozz minnhom hu dwar awtorità għall-ippjanar, ieħor hu abbozz dwar awtorità tal-ambjent (u r-riżorsi), ieħor dwar proċeduri ta’ appell minn deċiżjonijiet ta’ dawn iż-żewġ awtoritajiet u r-raba’ abbozz hu dwar it-twaqqif ta’ regolatur għall-ilma u l-elettriku (funzjoni li s-issa kienet responsabbiltà tal-awtorità dwar ir-Riżorsi).

Dawn l-abbozzi flimkien jgħoddu ħames mija u erba’ paġni. Mill-ftit li lħaqt qrajt, il-parti l-kbira ta’ dawn l-abbozzi hu eżerċizzju ta’ cut and paste, jiġifieri, b’mod ġenerali jirriproduċu l-liġijiet eżistenti imma f’kuntest regolatorju differenti. Bla dubju hemm ukoll xi tibdil li nkun naf bih (u l-konsegwenzi tiegħu) meta naqra dawn il-504 paġni waħda waħda.   Il-kummenti fuq id-dettalji għaldaqstant inħallihom għal iktar tard, jekk ikun il-każ. Għal-lum għaldaqstant ser nillimta ruħi għal kummenti ta’ natura ġenerali.

Din il-proposta tal-Gvern (jiġifieri li l-MEPA tinqasam) hi imniżżla bl-iswed fuq l-abjad fil-manifest elettorali tal-Partit Laburista għall-elezzjoni li għaddiet. B’daqshekk, iżda, ma jfissirx li għax kienet inkluża fil-manifest elettorali hi xi proposta tajba. Ikkritikajtha qabel l-elezzjoni għax fil-fehma tiegħi kienet proposta ħażina. Wara sentejn, għadha ħażina kif kienet sentejn ilu.

Il-proposta hi waħda li ġġib il-quddiem sistema ta’ tmexxija ħażina għax tinkoraġixxi l-frammentazzjoni: jiġifieri taqsam f’biċċiet dak li jkun aħjar kieku jibqa’ sħiħ. L-ippjanar dwar l-użu tal-art hu funzjoni ambjentali. Ikun tajjeb li jibqa’ fl-istess awtorità. Bid-differenza li flok  mal-ambjent ikun dominat mill-ippjanar għall-użu tal-art (kif b’mod malizzjuż sar fl-2002 meta saret l-għaqda) hemm bżonn eżattament bil-maqlub: li l-ippjanar għall-użu tal-art ikun ikkontrollat u immexxi mill-funzjoni ambjentali, kif għandu jkun.  Forsi fl-aħħar tibda tonqos il-ħsara li saret. Għax li hemm bżonn m’huwiex “bilanċ” artifiċjali iżda li nirrealizzaw li hemm bżonn li f’dak kollu li nagħmlu nirrispettaw l-eko-sistema li minnha niffurmaw parti. Dejjem u bla eċċezzjoni, u mhux biss meta jidher li jaqbel.

Il-problemi l-kbar li għandha l-MEPA illum mhux ser jissolvew bil-qasma bejn l-ippjanar u l-ambjent. Għax il-problemi mhux l-istrutturi (awtorità waħda jew tnejn) iżda n-nuqqas ta’ volontà politika li jkun hawn tmexxija ambjentali serja. (Id-dilettantiżmu fil-każ taż-Żonqor hu eżempju ċar dwar dan.) F’pajjiż żgħir bħal tagħna ma jagħmilx sens li nimmultiplikaw l-awtoritajiet. Dawn ifissru mhux biss iktar spejjeż iżda ukoll ħtieġa ta’ iktar impjegati imħarrġin f’oqsma li m’għandniex.

Il-MEPA għandha bżonn iktar riżorsi u inqas indħil. Għandha bżonn uffiċjali li jpoġġu l-interess pubbliku f’dak kollu li jagħmlu. Għax awtorità li tirregola, isimha magħha. Qegħda hemm biex tmexxi, mhux biex titmexxa. Xogħol il-Gvern hu li jagħti direzzjoni politika, mhux li jiddetta ukoll kif din id-direzzjoni tkun implimentata.  U l-gvern ma jiddettax billi jgħid lill-membri tal-bordijiet x’għandhom jew x’m’għandhomx jagħmlu. Ħafna drabi l-anqas biss m’hemm ħtieġa li jgħidilhom xejn. Għax ikun diġà qagħad attent ħafna meta ħatarhom.

Fl-aħħar kollox jiddependi minn dawk magħżula biex imexxu. Hawn hu l-qofol ta’ kollox. Jekk aħna kapaċi bħala pajjiż insibu mod kif nagħżlu l-aħjar nies, il-problemi jonqsu ħafna. L-anqas  ir-rapprezentanti tal-partiti politiċi m’hemm bżonnhom fuq il-Bord tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar. Minflok ma jaħtar Membri Parlamentari biex jieħdu sehem dirett fl-awtorità tal-ippjanar kien ikun ħafna aħjar kieku l-Parlament jagħmel xogħolu billi jissorvelja l-ħidma tal-awtoritajiet, kontinwament.

Fil-manifest elettorali ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika għall-elezzjoni tal-2013 dan hu kollu spjegat dettaljatament. Tista’ taqra hawn, dwar il-frammentazzjoni, dwar il-ħatriet u dwar il-rwol tal-Parlament li jissorvelja.

Dan hu it-tibdil vera li għandha bżonn il-MEPA fl-2015. L-uniku tibdil li hu meħtieġ.

 

 

More than fine-tuning is required

 

 

Going through the draft National En­vironment Policy (NEP) one immediately acknowledges that its im­plementation will take quite some time. A long journey always starts with a couple of short paces, the first of which being generally the most difficult. While this obviously depends on the level of commitment to the task ahead, the very fact that a decision to start the journey has been taken is of significance.

There are important issues which the draft NEP fails to tackle adequately. I will focus on two of them.

One can start with highlighting principles, the foundations of environmental policy. The Environment and Development Planning Act of 2010, consolidating previously existing legislation, in article 4 thereof defines the objectives of environment policy in terms of principles to be upheld: government action shall aim to protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations in accordance with the principles of precaution and prevention as well as the rectification of environmental damage at source. The importance of the polluter pays principle as an environment policy tool is also emphasised. This is also underlined in article 192 of the consolidated EU treaties.

I expected the proposed NEP to define a policy direction as to how these principles are to be applied in Maltese environment policy. The draft NEP speaks at length on the polluter pays principle exclusively within the context of waste management policy completely ignoring its applicability in other areas. It makes indirect reference to the preventive principle and to the rectification of environmental damage at source. However, it makes very scant reference to the precautionary principle and limits this strictly to genetically modified organisms.

The precautionary principle is incorporated as Principle 15 in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and was subsequently taken up by the EU and various other countries as a basic principle in environmental legislation. The Environment and Development Planning Act of 2010 defines the precautionary principle as “the principle whereby appropriate measures are taken to protect the environment and to ensure sustainable management of natural resources in the absence of absolute or conclusive scientific proof of the need for such measures”. Uncertainty about damage to our health or to the environment calls for policy in which precaution is the primary objective. The NEP is where this should be spelt out.

Other countries have produced detailed documents guiding both stakeholders and policymakers. An example being the report entitled Prudent Precaution, submitted in September 2008 to the Netherlands’ Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment by a panel of experts appointed by the Health Council of the Netherlands. As stated in the introduction to the said report the relevance of the precautionary principle is not restricted to the environment.

The draft NEP is silent and fails to define this essential policy direction. It is hoped that this failure will be rectified.

The draft NEP clearly indicates that the government is preoccupied with a lack of adequate environmental governance. The recognition of this fact is beneficial as the solution of any problem is dependent on recognising its existence.

It is clear that the fragmentation of environmental issues among the different ministries and authorities is not of benefit to environmental governance in Malta. While acknowledging that it would be impractical to have all areas (in particular those with the barest of overlaps with the environment) under one ministry or authority it does not make sense to have both Malta Resources Authority and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority with jurisdiction over fragmented water issues. Nor does the 2008 decision to hive off climate change from the environment to the resources portfolio make any particular sense in a local context. There will always be overlaps between the three pillars of sustainable development. In addition to water and climate change, in a small country it is much easier to coordinate closely related areas such as resources management and the environment. This would amalgamate the small numbers of trained personnel available.

With this in mind it would have been much better if environment protection and the environmental functions of the present MRA had been amalgamated within the Environment Ministry. It would have been of much more benefit than the current fusion of environment protection with land use planning.

Fragmentation is one of the causes of weak environmental governance in Malta. Yet the draft NEP only offers the solution of Cabinet committees. Cabinet committees have never solved anything. Rather they tend to be rubberstamps. The problems created by fragmentation have to be dealt with by bringing the related fragments back together in a permanent manner.

The adequate management of the environment requires a clear political direction and commitment to address administrative fragmentation. While the draft NEP is a courageous attempt it seems to require more than fine-tuning. Present and future generations demand it.

Published in The Times, September 24, 2011