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.

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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 Environmet Policy.

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

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What it takes to Green Cinderella

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published on Saturday March 20, 2010

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Malta’s environmental policy has to date been EU driven for the simple reason that the political establishment in Malta has resisted its development. Dumping environmental responsibilities with land use planning has, in my view, been an integral part of this strategy.

Notwithstanding its past performance, the government’s declaration that it will now embark on consultations leading to the formulation of an environmental policy, which is locally driven, is welcome news. Only time will tell whether this is another exercise in green-washing.

The government’s commitment to safeguard the environment is not to be gauged through its declarations but through its actions or lack of them. Its lack of environmental credentials has been manifested many times. The latest being by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco who, when introducing the Environment and Development Planning Bill in Parliament, stated that the environment will “no longer be the Cinderella of development”.

This has not come about accidentally. It was a deliberate exercise as a result of which the expertise, which the former Department for the Environment was slowly accumulating, was wiped out. Those who plotted the merger needed to ensure that environmental decisions were subject to development considerations at all times.

Cabinet responsibility for the environment made its first appearance immediately after the 1972 Stockholm Human Environment Conference. In 1976, Malta had a Minister for Health and the Environment. His environmental remit focused on landfills. During his watch, the Luqa and Wied Fulija landfills were closed and a new landfill at Magħtab was opened!

The first real minister for the environment in Malta was Daniel Micallef. He was appointed in 1986 during Labour’s last months in government by then Prime Minster Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who was seeking to counterbalance the widespread corruption in the Lorry Sant-led Ministry of Works. This corruption was subsequently documented.

Between 1986 and 2002 much was achieved. It would suffice to state that when, in 2002, the Department for the Environment was disbanded it had more credibility and was much more effective than Mepa’s Environment Directorate is today.

A local company that bottles water and soft drinks was recently awarded the 2009 Environment Award for Industry by the Cleaner Technology Centre. The company had relocated to a new site, upgrading its facilities to function eco-efficiently. But it still makes use of substantial amounts of water extracted from the water table through boreholes and sells this as bottled water and soft drinks. Extraction is to the tune of 51 million litres annually. The director of the Cleaner Technology Centre, when prodded in other sections of the press, admitted that the award adjudicating board was not aware that the company extracts ground water through boreholes. Seen within the context of Malta’s depleted water table this award is environmentally blasphemous.

Some persons entrusted with environmental matters have a proven capability of justifying the unjustifiable. This partly explains why Malta’s environmental administration is in shambles.

Within this context I believe there are more pressing issues than the drafting of an environmental policy. Applying all the EU environmental acquis would be a good first step.

A point I have harped on in these pages (1) (2) is the non-implementation of the waste from electric and electronic equipment directive. This directive applies “the producer responsibility principle” as a result of which producers and their representatives have to take back electrical and electronic waste from consumers. Most importers are aware that they are in breach of the directive’s provisions. They feel, however, that they cannot honour their obligations unless the government reviews the eco-contribution regime as, otherwise, they will end up paying twice for the same responsibilities: a payment through eco-contribution and another one through financing the take-back.

There is also a need for legislation regulating noise pollution. EU legislation on the matter (the environmental noise directive) deals only with traffic/transport-generated noise and substantial parts of it are not applicable to Malta. As the EU does not deal sufficiently with the matter, Malta has to date considered it safe to conveniently ignore the need for noise pollution legislation completely. In a densely populated community this issue is of the utmost importance, yet, successive governments have not been bothered.

These examples (water, waste, noise) just scratch the surface of the deficiencies of the environmental set-up, an area which has been continuously muzzled, sidelined, ignored and deprived of resources. It is this attitude which has to change.

The environmental policy this country needs is one which enables its government to be clear and consistent. Declarations on their own are not sufficient as commitment has been continuously absent. If the government really wants to translate its declarations into action it will take much more than an environmental policy to Green Cinderella.