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 

Advertisements

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

The circus has come to town

  

 

When considering the draft National En­vironment Policy some patience is required. On one hand it is a detailed document covering a substantial number of environmental issues. However, its exposition of the issues to be tackled contrasts starkly with the government’s environmental performance throughout its long term in office.

The draft policy says more about the government than about the environment. It collates together the accumulated environmental responsibilities the government should have been addressing throughout the past years. The draft policy tells us: this is what the government ought to have done. It further tells us that in the next 10 years, the government will try its best to remedy its past failures by doing what it should do.

The government’s words and action are in sharp contrast, as I have been repeatedly pointing out in these columns. In late 2007, Cabinet approved the National Strategy for Sustainable Development, which, although being less detailed than today’s draft National Environment Policy, says practically the same things. It also covers a 10-year period (2007-2016), half of which has elapsed without the set targets having been addressed. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi is the Cabinet member politically responsible for this failure. Having failed repeatedly, I find it difficult to think how he could be trusted to deliver on environmental or sustainability issues.

On the basis of this experience, it is reasonable to dismiss the government’s media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin where the draft National Environment Policy was launched as just another exercise in rhetoric.

It is definitely not a sudden conversion in favour of environmental issues that moved the government to act. The present exercise is the result of society’s metamorphosis, which came about as a direct consequence of years of environmental activism in Malta. Civil society has pushed a reluctant Nationalist-led government to this point.

No one in his right senses can quarrel with the proposed National Environment Policy in principle. Yet, it is a fact that the environment has always been the Cinderella of government business. All talk and little walk. A clear example is the adjudication process of the Delimara power station extension. When the submitted tenders were adjudicated, it resulted that the submissions that were technically and environmentally superior were considered less favourably than the tender that was perceived as being economically more advantageous. When push comes to shove, environmental issues are not given priority, the adjudication criteria being skewed in favour of perceived economic gain.

All this contrasts with the declarations in favour of green procurement in the draft National Environment Policy. In defending the decision on the use of heavy fuel oil in the power station extension, government spokesmen are in fact stating that while the environment is the government’s political priority it still retains the right to have second thoughts whenever it takes an important decision.

When the government plays around with its declared environmental convictions with the ease of a juggler, it sows serious doubts on its intentions. Even if the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment is doing his best to convince that, under his watch, the environment carries weight it is clear to all that he has not succeeded in wiping the slate clean. He is still conditioned by the attitudes and the decisions taken by his boss and colleagues in the recent past. Their attitudes have not changed at all. Old habits die hard.

On a positive note, I have to state that the process leading to the draft National Environment Policy submitted for public consultation was one which involved civil society. A number of proposals submitted by civil society, including those in an AD document submitted to Mario de Marco, were taken on board. I also had the opportunity to discuss the draft policy and AD’s views with Dr de Marco on more than one occasion. The discussions were, in my opinion, beneficial.

The problem the government has so far failed to overcome is that it preaches one thing and continually does the opposite. The only times when it carries out positive environment action is when it is forced on this course by EU legislation or by threats of EU infringement proceedings. Within this context, declarations that Malta aims to go beyond the requirement of the EU’s acquis are, to say the least, hilarious. It would have been much better if the basics of the EU environmental acquis are first put in place.

The environmental initiatives taken during the past seven years have been mostly funded by the EU.

They would not have been possible without such funding.

By spelling it out, the draft National Environment Policy defines the government’s past failures. Hopefully, it also lays the groundwork for the required remedial action. The environmental destruction the government has facilitated and encouraged will take a long time to remedy. In some cases, the damage done is beyond repair.

Beyond the entertainment value of the media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin, these first steps are just the beginning of a long journey. For the sake of Malta’s future generations I hope that the government does not go astray once more.

Paroli, Paroli u iktar Paroli. Il-Politika ta’ Gonzipn dwar l-Ambjent

 

   paroli, paroli u iktar paroli.

Ftit siegħat ilu għadu kif ħareġ għal konsultazjoni pubblika l-abbozz tal-politika Nazzjonali dwar l-Ambjent.  Dan id-dokument huwa primarjament ġabra tar-responsabbiltajiet akkumulati ta’ Malta fil-qasam ambjentali li ġew injorati bil-goff matul is-snin. Kien biss bħala riżultat tas-sħubija ta’ Malta fl-Unjoni Ewropea fl-2004 kif ukoll bħala riżultat tal-influwenza dejjem tiżdied tal-moviment ambjentali f’Malta li l-Gvern beda jiċċaqlaq fuq miżuri ambjenti. Xi drabi dan seħħ ukoll bħala reazzjoni għal-theddid ta’ passi legali mill-Unjoni Ewropea.

L-politika proposta hija prinċipalment ezercizzju ta’ retorika minn Gvern li wiegħed ħafna u falla bil-kbir. Bil-politika proposta l-Gvern qed jipprova jpatti għall-abolizzjoni tal-Kummissjoni Nazzjonali għall-Iżvilupp Sostenibbli li ilha ma tiltaqa’ sa mill-2006. Il-Kummssjoni Nazzjonali għall-Iżvilupp Sostenibbli fl-Istrategija li pproponiet għall-Gżejjer Maltin indirizzat diversi oqsma intersettorjali li illum qed jiġu indirizzati ukoll mill-Politika Nazzjonali għall-Ambjent. Kienet stabiliet ukoll miri għall-implimazzjoni ta’ proposti speċifiċi bħat-taxxi ambjentali u l-Pjani ta’ Azzjoni fil-Ministeri differenti. Id-dati stabiliti ġew u marru u minflok ma twettaq dak imwiegħed ġejna ippreentati b’dan l-abbozz.

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 Environmet Policy.

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

The two faces of Janus

In Roman mythology the god Janus was depicted as having a head with two faces. One looking eastwards and the other westwards. One symbolically looking into the future  and the other into the past.  

Unfortunately it is not Janus who overlooks the entrance to the Ministry for the Environment in Valletta. Janus could symbolically motivate environmental policy through learning through past mistakes and applying the lessons learnt into the future.  Janus could however symbolise the two political faces of government. One compatible with its declarations and rhetoric. The other with its actions.

Consider this government’s commitments in favour of sustainable development. In May 2008 the Head of State reading the speech from the throne on behalf of Gonzipn promised  one and all 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.

Sustainable development has three main dimensions – economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection.  When we evaluate our activities in view of these three inter-related dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the Government’s actions.”

The member of Cabinet responsible for issues of sustainable development is the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. Dr Gonzi’s commitment towards sustainable development is not to be gauged by his rhetoric but through his actions. He excels in rhetoric but he fails miserably in implementation.

The Commission for Sustainable Development set up in terms of the Environment Protection Act has not met for almost five years, since December 2006. Its Chairman is Dr Gonzi. During its last meeting it had approved the final version of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, which it then submitted to Cabinet for approval. The main function of the commission now is to oversee the implementation of the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands, approved by Cabinet prior to the March 2008 election and having a 10-year lifespan (2007-2016). The strategy is half way past its lifespan and the process for its implementation is nowhere in sight.

This fact on its own speaks volumes as to government’s strategy. The National Sustainable Development Strategy was drafted after years of discussions with civil society. The Commission which in terms of the Environment Protection Act had to be chaired by the Prime Minister hardly ever met in the presence of Dr Gonzi. He delegated his responsibilities to others. When the National Sustainable Development Strategy was finalised government ignored it and commenced the formulation of another document dealing with a National Environment Policy. The information available to date about this National Environment Policy is substantially a duplication of what’s been said and written on the Sustainable Development strategy.

All this leads to one conclusion. The current government is primarily interested in talking about sustainable development and environmental issues. But when the time comes for implementation it goes back to square one. More talk and more documents.

Well it seems that the Minster for the Environment, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, needs some images of Janus at his office. It would remind him constantly that in the long run having two faces on the same head is only suited to mythology.      

 Published Sunday 7th August 2011

The Independent on Sunday – Environment Supplement

 

Time to realign actions with words

On Budget Day next week, the government ought to explain the extent to which its actions are consistent with its political programme read during Parliament’s inauguration by the President in 2008.

It would be pertinent to remember that the President had then stated: “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.” Sustainable development, the President had informed Parliament, was a main goal of this government.

Well, since then, and for a number of months before that too, the National Commission for Sustainable Development has not met. It has been dormant for three years. Not a good sign for a government that considers it should direct itself onto the sustainability path. In addition, targets and objectives of the National Sustainable Development Strategy have been ignored.

Alternattiva Demokratika considers that next week’s Budget could be the opportunity for the government to realign its actions with its declarations.

Cabinet approved a national strategy for sustainable development towards the end of 2007 after extensive consultations with civil society carried out by the NCSD. This strategy laid down a number of specific actions for government ministries to follow. These have been honoured in the breach.

The selected method for implementation of the strategy is through action plans drawn up by ministries. Within 18 months from the strategy’s adoption, that is by mid-2009, ministries were required to prepare their action plans to implement the strategy. They are already 12 months late.

This has occurred because, at least to date, the government has considered the NCSD as a formality.

The mere fact that the Prime Minister, who ex-ufficio is chairman of the NCSD, hardly ever attended commission meetings since 2004 is, in itself, the clearest indication of the mismatch between declarations and actions, the end result being the prevailing state of affairs.

The NSDS identified 20 priority areas: environment (eight areas), economy (three areas), society (four areas), cross-cutting issues (three areas) and implementation (two areas).

Priority area 19, for example, established that, by 2008, that is 24 months ago, a permanent structure properly staffed and funded had to be in place to monitor and review the strategy’s implementation. A role for major stakeholders was also envisaged in order to “critically evaluate progress relating to the strategy”.

Priority area 17 identified the year 2008 as the target for the drawing up of a strategy “to enhance the use of economic instruments such as charges, taxes, subsidies, deposit refund schemes and trading schemes” in order to apply the polluter-pays principle and to promote sustainable development in Malta. Instead of drawing up this strategy, the government drew up a national environment policy issues paper and queried whether and to what extent the public considers it advisable “to move towards a taxation system that penalises pollution rather than jobs”.

To add further to the indecision, the pre-Budget document published in July declared the government was considering introducing a carbon tax. It further advocates a tax shifting mechanism whereby the taxes collected through this carbon tax are offset by the reduction of taxes that “penalise jobs”. Has a study analysing the impacts of this proposal been carried out? While reducing carbon emissions would be positive, what analysis has been made of the economic and the social impacts of such a measure?

On behalf of AD I have sought an answer to this question. In terms of the Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment Regulations 2005 I requested the release of studies commissioned by the Ministry of Finance.

The reply I received last Monday is another proof of the amateurism prevalent at policy formation level. The reply drew my attention to a number of academic journals dealing with tax shifting. I was further informed that the issue (of tax shifting) is being discussed in the Green Economy Working Group, which is expected to present its initial findings to the government by the end of 2010. These findings, it was stated, will be subject to public consultation in early 2011.

While consultation is always to be viewed positively, my point is that the announcement in the pre-Budget document that carbon taxation and tax shifting are being considered was premature in view of the fact that no studies have been concluded to date. Not even preliminary ones.

It seems the government has not yet learned its lessons from the introduction of eco contribution.

Serious policy formation and announcements have to be accompanied by studies detailing impacts of the proposals. Premature policy declarations serve no purpose except to mislead.

Ending all this by realigning actions with words would be a good first step. Our future depends on it.

Published in The Times, October 23, 2010

Reflections on an Environment Policy

The current debate on what should form part of a National Environment Policy is a healthy exercise. It is focusing not only on the different aspirations of each citizen but also on the role of each one of the towns and villages which together constitute this country.

The environmental issues we face are the result of the manner we organise our lives both individually and as a community. In fact it can be safely stated that the manner in which economic activity has been organised throughout time has created different environmental and social impacts.

The exercise at this point in time is hence the clear identification of these impacts and subsequently seeking the best manner in which they can be tackled. This is done on two fronts: firstly through the formulation of an environment policy and secondly by integrating this environment policy with economic and social policy within the National Strategy for Sustainable Development (NSSD).

The NSSD has already been formulated and approved by Cabinet almost three years ago after a long process of consultation. It established targets and objectives which have unfortunately been ignored by the same Government which has approved them. This necessarily leads to the conclusion that these exercises can be a waste of time as their only purpose seems to be an exercise to prove that the new hands on deck can do things in a better way than those they have replaced. 

The National Environment Policy Issues Paper identifies a number of areas which are to be tackled but excludes a number of important ones. What is in my view objectionable and bordering on the insulting is the ignoring by the Issues Paper of the NSSD. It also ignores matters which have been tackled by the NSSD as well as the specific targets identified. This the NSSD did after extensive consultation with civil society, which the Issues Paper promises to go through again.

 

Eco-taxation

One such case refers to the use of economic instruments to attain environmental objectives. The Issues Paper queries whether and to what extent there is agreement  with the use of such instruments to further environmental objectives. Simultaneously with the publication of the Issues Paper, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech through the pre-budget document was lauding the idea of introducing a carbon tax and the possible utilisation of the proceeds to affect a tax shift. This is in the spirit of the former EU Commission President  (French Socialist) Jacques Delors’ 1993 EU White Paper entitled “On growth, competitiveness and employment. The challenges and ways forward into the 21st century”.

So whilst the Environment Ministry is requesting our opinion on the use of eco-taxation (and other instruments) it seems that the Finance Ministry is dead-set to proceed.  Do these two Ministries form part of the same government? 

Both the Environment Ministry and the Finance Ministry would do well to go back in time to the debate on the introduction of the eco-contribution (2003-05) where they could identify a number of issues raised by civil society.

Should fiscal objectives be the purpose of environmental taxation or would it rather be environmental improvement? All over the globe governments declare that their aim in applying eco-taxation is environmental improvement. Yet they resist transferring political responsibility for environmental taxation from the Finance Ministry to the Environment Ministry. Such a move would lend credence to statements on the environmental objectives of eco-taxation and would ensure that the design of specific measures is more in line with encouraging changes in behaviour. Retaining political responsibility for environmental taxation at the Finance Ministry on the other hand signifies that the objective is to tax behaviour but not  to change it. This reluctance is generally reflected in the manner  in which eco-taxes are designed. Fiscal policy makers pay attention to the fact that changing behaviour would mean drying up a source of revenue. Hence eco-taxes designed for fiscal objectives are intended not to affect the elasticity of demand. This is done by selecting items in respect of which there are no alternatives and thus irrespective of tax added to the price there is no alternative to purchasing the product or service. The eco-contribution exercise clearly illustrates this argument.

 

Environmental nuisance 

The Issues Paper has failed to project an understanding that environmental issues can be most effectively tackled at a micro-level. In fact the Issues Paper adopts an exclusively macro approach and does not give any weight to the real life issues. Issues of environmental nuisance are the ones which the man in the street feels strongly about. These include primarily noise, air quality and odour nuisance caused by neighbours in residential areas. They could range from an air conditioner fixed below your bedroom window to a neighbour’s fireplace chimney spewing smoke right into your living room or a bakery belching black smoke onto your washing line. Or the newly opened restaurant or snack bar in a transformed ground floor flat whose operator wouldn’t care less about where the odours from his kitchen end up.    

Information

Access to environmental information is an important aspect of environment policy. Yet the drafters of the Issues Paper ignored it. The environmental information aspects of the Åarhus Convention have been incorporated into Maltese legislation as a direct result of Malta’s EU accession. This legislation provides a mechanism through which the citizen requests the release of information which up till then would be withheld by the authorities. This is a very primitive form of governance. The state should release information without having its hand forced to do it. This is the minimum required in an age of transparency and accountability. 

Policy proposals and other initiatives must be buttressed by studies which not only justify the proposal or initiative but which also identify the resulting impacts and the manner in which these can be addressed. Studies must be published at an early stage and not in the final stages of a discussion. Otherwise the public debate cannot be fruitful.

Transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability are not only duties of the state. They are also a responsibility of private enterprise.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting is one way in which private enterprise informs the public on its activities. It is a function as important as financial reporting. Financial reporting having been accepted by society for quite a long time as a reporting requirement.

In Malta currently two companies publish a CSR report. Vodafone (Malta) and Bank of Valletta (BOV) have already published two editions of their CSR report. There has been considerable improvement in the information made available by Vodafone (Malta) in its second report, but BOV’s reporting  can be substantially improved.

The environment policy should identify the type of organisations that should have the duty to report publicly and on a regular basis on their environmental and other impacts. By organisations I understand not just industry and business but also public corporations, government departments and local authorities. A reasonable first step would be for companies quoted on the stock exchange to take the lead followed by public bodies such as Enemalta, Water Services Corporation, Heritage Malta and Air Malta.

CSR reporting should be guided by international standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative G3 guidelines and should be subject to auditing in order to verify that the statements made reflect what the organisation is really up to. 

Alternattiva Demokratika, AD, the Green Party in Malta has earlier this month published a document in reply to the National Environment Policy Issues Paper which lists and discusses the areas missed out by the said Issues Paper.  In addition to focusing on the urgent need to implement the NSSD, environment information, environmental nuisance and environment information it also points out the need to tackle the uptake of environmental management systems such as ISO 14001 and the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) Regulations of the European Union, light pollution, contaminated land, environmental and sustainability planning at a locality level better known as Local Agenda 21,  the role of civil society and environmental NGOs in environment policy and environment  research.  

We hope that when the environment policy is drafted it will include the widest possible list of issues and will tackle them in an holistic manner keeping in mind the parameters established in the National Sustainable Development Strategy.                 

Alternattiva Demokratika considers that environment policy is one of several instruments through which improvement in the quality of life can be attained. Protecting the environment signifies that we better our quality of life. It also signifies that each one of us acts in a responsible manner. However primarily it must be government which leading the way should act in an appropriate manner in order that it leads by example.

 published in

The Independent on Sunday, October 17, 2010, Environment Supplement

AD on Government’s Environment Policy

During a press conference in Valletta, Michael Briguglio, AD Chairperson, said: ‘Alternattiva Demokratika is presenting its reactions to Government’s proposed environment policy. In a nutshell we believe that it would have been wiser if Government implemented the recommendations of the National Commission for Sustainable Development, which have been ignored by Government for over two years. A holistic and effective environment policy should be based on the concept of sustainable development through which environmental, social and economic considerations are given due importance in order to improve the quality of life of people and to protect species. This is precisely what is being proposed in our policy paper, which covers various areas’.
 
Carmel Cacopardo, AD Spokesman on Sustainable Development and Local Government said that AD’s detailed reaction to the National Environment Policy Issues Paper was presented to Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco yesterday during a cordial meeting.
 
AD, said Cacopardo, is of the opinion that environment policy and environment measures have to be buttressed by studies which analyse the economic, social and environmental impacts of the proposals. Environmental research is absent from the list of issues dealt with by the document government published for public discussion. This is not a surprise for AD as acting without analysing impacts a priori is this government’s preferred method of action as has already happened when the eco-contribution legislation was introduced.
 
Government has just announced that it is toying with the idea of introducing tax shifting by reducing taxes on labour and introducing a carbon tax. This proposal communicated in the pre-budget document is scant on details such that it is not at all clear what Government is considering. In addition no studies indicating targets, methods and impacts has been published. Nor is it known whether in fact any studies have been carried out. It is for this reason that AD has 15 days ago requested the release of studies on the “carbon tax” proposal in terms of the provisions of LN 116 of 2005 (Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment Regulations).
 
The use of economic instruments for environmental improvement should be the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment and not of the Ministry of Finance. This would ensure that environmental objectives and not fiscal ones are the primary objectives when such instruments are used
 
The Issues Paper added Cacopardo does not consider a number of important areas of action such as : Light Pollution, Environmental Impacts of Organisations, CSR, environmental nuisance, land contamination, the role of civil society and eNGOs in environment policy formulation, access to environment information and environment research.
            
AD considers that in view of the large number of vacant properties a moratorium on large scale residential development is long overdue. The regulating of funding of political parties would also ease the pressure of the building development lobby on politicians.  
 
Press here to download full AD paper

Micro-managing environment policy

Issues of environmental nuisance have so far not featured in the debate on the National Environment Policy. Odours would top the list of such nuisances. Consider industrial kitchens. The issue may arise in residential areas that have their ground floor used as a restaurant or a snack bar. This mixed use causes problems as can be attested to by residents in areas such as Buġibba, Qawra, Paceville and Marsascala. Odours are rarely adequately taken care of.

The issue also arises in the case of confectioners when manufacturing is carried out in a residential area. In terms of planning policy, it is possible to site such an activity within a residential area but it must be compatible with its surroundings. When the activity gets too large it is time to move out of the residential area to an alternative site where it belongs: an industrial estate.

A considerable amount of environmental nuisance is caused by noise.

Placing air-conditioning units in common shafts or backyards in residential properties close to someone’s bedroom is, without doubt, the cause of an environmental nuisance. This can cause problems, particularly in the case of maisonettes or flats if proper care is not exercised in identifying the right place for fixing the unit.

Retail outlets in residential areas, in particular those selling frozen foodstuffs and making use of industrial freezers, can also be the cause of nuisance if the noise-generating unit is not properly installed relative to overlying and/or adjacent residential units.

Chimneys in residential areas can cause environmental nuisance. Current policy establishes that the flue must be at least three metres higher than adjacent buildings. For normal domestic use this is generally sufficient to ensure dispersal of smoke emitted. Notwithstanding, problems sometimes occur due to changes in the height of buildings in the vicinity of existing flues, which, all of a sudden, render problematic a flue that has functioned without causing nuisance for ages!

Complaints are also encountered relative to the emissions of bakeries in residential areas. In most cases this state of affairs crops up due to the fact that some of these bakeries are housed in old structures in residential areas that have developed. The building height of part of the residential areas would be such that a number of residential units are normally situated at a height above the flue level.

This means that emissions go straight through the windows of residences. This is certainly not a pleasant experience.

Dust resulting from construction activity is another cause of environmental nuisance. This is an issue which the Construction Management Regulations of 2007 attempted to regulate but, so far, have failed to tackle adequately. The solution (reducing substantially construction dust) can only be attained gradually and is primarily dependent on improved work methods on sites of work and more attention to health and safety issues in the construction industry.

The problem also arises because the construction industry is primarily made up of non-unionised labour. A large proportion are small firms spread over a number of sites. Traditionally, these small units within the industry have not given sufficient importance to health and safety issues. On the other hand, most of the large construction firms are equipped to tackle issues of nuisance on site on both the environment front as well as on the health and safety front. Their complaint is that these measures increase their costs while others in the industry ignore their responsibilities.

Factories making/distributing products used in the building industry are also contributing to the dust problem as is evidenced by the Lija saga, which made the national headlines when Mabel Strickland instituted the first legal action on the matter over 40 years ago. The solution is simple yet expensive: Move all activities indoors in a controlled environment. The expense the industry has not incurred to date has been borne by the community through medication for various ailments: asthma and other allergies topping the list.

Some may consider issues of environmental nuisance as being minor in terms of policy. They are, however, what the environment means to the man in the street. At times impacts resulting from environmental nuisance are the only direct knowledge which Joe Bloggs has of environmental impacts. This requires micro-management of environment policy and is no less important than addressing issues of biodiversity, light pollution or corporate social responsibility.

I hasten to add that ensuring an appropriate micro-management of the environment may sensitise the community to move on and be interested in other important environmental impacts.

Think global but act local. Local communities through local councils can play an important role in identifying environmental nuisances and assisting in their solution. This would develop environmental policy at the grassroots and can help gradually in its acceptance on a much wider scale than at present.

published in the Times of Malta, Saturday October 2, 2010