Tackling the green skills gap

green skills 3

Launching the public consultation on the Green Economy last month, Ministers Leo Brincat and Evarist Bartolo emphasised the need to address the green skills gap in the process leading to a Green Economy strategy and action plan.

It is estimated that 20 million jobs will be created in the Green Economy between now and 2020 within the European Union. Capacity building is the greatest challenge: ensuring that more working men and women are adequately equipped with green skills.

The Green Economy includes activities in different sectors. It is possible to go about activity in these sectors in a manner which reduces their environmental impacts, is socially inclusive and economically rewarding.

Various sectors have been identified as being of key importance in the transition to a Green Economy. The basic characteristics which distinguish the Green Economy are a reduction of carbon emissions, the reduction of all forms of pollution, energy and resource efficiency, prevention of biodiversity loss  and the protection of eco-system services.

The United Nations Environment Programme  has repeatedly emphasised that the transition to a Green Economy enables economic growth and investment while increasing environmental quality and social inclusiveness. A Green Economy is one which respects the eco-system and recognises that there are natural limits  which, if exceeded, endanger the earth’s ecological balance. In effect it means that the transition to a Green Economy signifies addressing all of our environmental impacts in all areas of activity. Addressing impacts in one area would still signify progress although this would be of limited benefit.

An agriculture which forms part of the Green Economy is one which works with nature, not against it. It uses water sustainably and does not contaminate it. Green agriculture does not seek to genetically modify any form of life nor to patent it.

Energy efficient buildings, clean and renewable energy together with the sustainable use of land are also basic building blocks of the Green Economy. We cannot speak of the Green Economy whilst simultaneously tolerating  large scale building construction. Having a stock of 72,000 vacant dwellings, (irrespective of the reasons for their being vacant) signifies that as a nation we have not yet understood that the limited size of the Maltese islands ought to lead to a different attitude. The green skills of politicians and their political appointees on MEPA is what’s lacking in this regard.

Maritime issues are of paramount economic importance to Malta’s economy. The depleted fish stock and the quality of sea water are obvious issues. But the impacts of organised crime through the dumping of toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste in the Mediterranean Sea is not to be underestimated as has been evidenced time and again in the exploits of the eco-mafia reign to our north.

Heavy industry is fortunately absent in Malta. New industries like the pharmaceutical industry are more eco-conscious. However we still require more inputs on resource efficiency and eco-design.

Greening tourism is essential in order to ensure that more of tourism’s environmental impacts are addressed.  The consumption of tourism is 50% more per capita than that registered for a resident, indicating that there is room for considerable improvements.

Public transport is still in shambles. The effects of this state of affairs is evident in the ever increasing number of passenger cars on our roads which have a major impact on air and noise pollution in our communities. Greening transport policies signifies that the mobility of all is ensured with the least possible impacts.  Still a long way to go.

Waste management has made substantial improvement over the years even though it is still way  behind EU targets. It is positive that the draft waste management strategy has established the attaining of a Zero Waste target by 2050. However we still await the specifics of how this is to be achieved. It is achievable but the commitment of all is essential.

Our water resources have been mismanaged, year in, year our. Discharging millions of litres of treated sewage effluent into the sea is just the cherry on the cake. The contaminated and depleted water table which still contributes around 40% to Malta’s potable water supply is in danger of being  completely lost for future generations if we do not act fast.

All the above have been dealt with in various policy documents. One such document is the National Sustainable Development Strategy which establishes the parameters for the action required. Implementing the National Sustainable Development Strategy is the obvious first step in establishing a Green Economy.  It is here where the real green skill gap exists. Decision makers lack green skills. This skill gap exists at the level of Cabinet, Parliament, the top echelons of the civil service and in the ranks of the political appointees to Boards and Authorities where decisions are taken and strategies implemented.

When this skill gap is addressed, the rest will follow and we will be on the way to establishing  a green economy.

published in The Times of Malta, Saturday 14 December 2013

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A five drop policy

We need a five drop policy: a sustainable water policy which would treat with care our five sources of water.

Drop No. 1 is a drop of rainwater. We need to handle rainwater with care. If we harvest it appropriately we will be able to make use of it when it is required. If we harvest it we will also reduce its flow in streets and diminish substantially the overloading of our sewers whenever it rains.

Drop No. 2 is a drop of storm water. Storm water flowing through our streets can be substantially reduced if rainwater harvesting is done appropriately. The remaining storm water would then be less of a danger to life and limb. It would be less of a civil protection issue and much more an exercise of collecting rainwater from streets to be utilised for non-potable purposes.

Drop No. 3 is a drop of ground water. Ground water has been mishandled for years on end. It is time that we realise that this resource which has been collected and stored by nature is finite. Through the years it has been over-extracted such that the quality of what’s left is compromised. It has also been contaminated by human activity, primarily agriculture, such that it would take a minimum of 40 years to reverse the process.

Drop No. 4 is a drop of treated sewage effluent. Treated sewage effluent is being discarded as a waste when it should be valued as a very precious resource. Treating sewage before discharging it into the sea honours Malta’s obligations under the Urban Wastewater Directive of the European Union. However throwing it away into the sea is an unsustainable practice which should be discontinued. We should appreciate its value and put it to good use. At the moment we are discharging treated sewage effluent into the sea at three points along our coast and then taking it up again at other points to produce potable water through our reverse osmosis plants!

Drop No. 5 is a drop of sea water.  Sea water is much cleaner nowadays due to sewage being treated before discharging into the sea. This has improved substantially our bathing waters. But sea water is also the source of over 55% of our potable water which we process through our reverse osmosis plants.

These five drops of water make up our water resources.

Water is of strategic importance to ensure a healthy eco-system, for our quality of life as well as for our economy.  Government can and should do much more to protect this precious resource. But we should also consider how we could improve our input by using this resource properly.

A sustainable water policy is a five drop policy through which each and every one of us values each and every source of water.

This post was originally published in di-ve.com on Friday 9th November 2012

Dealing with Environmental Crime

published July 9, 2011

 In late 2008, the European Union, through a joint decision of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, adopted Directive 99/2008 “on the protection of the environment through criminal law”.

Member states had to implement this directive by not later than December 26, 2010. Malta, together with 11 other EU member states, did not comply. As a result, on June 16, the EU Commission issued a warning to all 12 states to comply within two months.

The EU directive on the protection of the environment through criminal law does not create new environment legislation. It aims to consolidate existing laws through harmonising penalties that should be inflicted as well as by ensuring that these penalties are really a deterrent.

Annex A to the directive lists EU legislation (some 70 directives and regulations) subject to this directive’s provisions. This is wide ranging and includes legislation regulating waste, GMOs, air quality, quality of water for human consumption, use of sewage sludge in agriculture, use and transportation of hazardous materials, protection of water from nitrates originating from agriculture, trade in endangered species and many others.

Within EU structures, the Maltese government opposed provisions of the proposed directive. So it is no surprise that this resistance is also reflected in the implementation process. This gives a new significance to the Maltese government’s declarations on the importance the environment has in its political agenda.

During the discussion stage in the EU structures, representatives of the Malta government expressed a view contrary to the harmonisation of sanctions primarily on the basis of the economic disparity across the EU member states.

The impact assessment produced by the EU on the proposed directive had emphasised that, in the EU, there are three areas that organised crime focuses on to the detriment of the environment. These are illicit trade in ozone depleting substances, illicit hazardous waste treatment and disposal and illicit trade in endangered wildlife species. A study entitled Organised Environmental Crime In EU Member States (2003) quoted by the EU impact assessment also states that 73 per cent of researched environmental crime cases involve corporations or corporate-like structures.

Organised environmental crime, which has a turnover of billions of euros in the EU, can have a devastating effect on the economy. There are various examples which we can draw upon. The case of the contaminated mozzarella in the Naples environs in March 2008 is one such example. Organised crime pocketed substantial landfill charges for the handling of toxic and hazardous waste, which was subsequently dumped in areas that were reserved for the grazing of buffalo. The resulting buffalo mozzarella was contaminated with dioxin. The impacts on the mozzarella industry were substantial.

Proof of the operations of the eco-Mafia has also surfaced some time ago when Francesco Fonti, a Mafia turncoat, took the witness stand against the Calabria Mafia. We do recall information given as to the sinking in the Mediterranean of about 42 ships laden with toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste. One of the said ships has been located and identified off the coast of Reggio Calabria.

This network of organised environmental crime is so vast that, at a time, it also dumped toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste in Somalia. The warlords in the Somalia civil war were financed by the eco-Mafia. They supplied them with arms in return for their consent to the dumping of the toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste. Italian journalists (RaiTre) who had tracked down the shipments were shot and murdered in Mogadishu.

The dumping of toxic, hazardous and nuclear waste in the Mediterranean Sea can have very serious impacts on Malta. It contaminates what’s left of fish stocks but also, depending on the location used for dumping, it can impact Malta’s potable water, 60 per cent of which originates from seawater processed by reverse osmosis plants.

Given these serious impacts I would have expected that the Maltese government would be at the forefront in implementing the directive on environmental crime in order to ensure that issues of cross-border organised environmental crime are adequately tackled. It is indeed very unfortunate that the tools which the EU provides so that Malta can protect its real interests are continuously ignored. One cannot help but ask why.

Law firm Hugo Lepage & Partners, in a comparative study commissioned by the EU Commission and entitled Study On Environmental Crime In The 27 Member States (2007), repeatedly identifies penalties for environmental crime in Malta as being at the lower end of the scale in the EU. The message that gets through is that environmental crime is treated lightly in Malta. Malta is not alone in this respect: it enjoys the company of a small number of other countries.

Environmental crime should be punished through penalties that are effective and proportionate to the environmental damage carried out or envisaged. It is in Malta’s interest that this is done expeditiously.

Addressing Our Environmental Deficit

published on Sunday 27 July 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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 In his address to Parliament last May, the President had 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.”

In December 2006, the National Sustainability Commission had drawn up the National Sustainable Development Strategy. Having been approved by Cabinet, it is appropriate that the pre-budget document just published ignites the debate on its implementation. The strategy is a blueprint for action representing a holistic perspective as to how this country should be administered. Its eventual handling will in due course give a clear indication of the government’s real views on sustainable development.

Malta’s energy policy is undoubtedly up for an upheaval. Due to the absence of strategic planning over the years, Malta is one of the few countries without any significant alternative energy generated. Other countries identified their vulnerability because of fuel oil dependency years ago and took action. Denmark has since built up its wind energy industry from scratch since the oil crises in the 1970s and is now a world leader. In 2005 Denmark generated 18.5 per cent of its electrical energy needs through wind.

The pre-budget document identifies near shore wind technology as the next step forward, contributing 95MW of wind energy or seven per cent of Malta’s projected electricity demand in 2010. The shortfall in meeting the EU target of having 10 per cent of electricity demand met by alternative energy is planned to be met with wind turbines at other exposed land sites and industrial estates, including those to be identified within the framework of the eco-Gozo project.

The pre-budget document focuses on macro-generation and does not give sufficient weight to micro-generation of energy, both with small wind turbines as well as with photovoltaic panels. It must be borne in mind that micro-generation if adequately motivated could add up to a substantial amount of energy generated through alternative technology. In addition to residential application (not flats or maisonettes!), schools and public buildings could be ideal sites for the micro-generation of energy. Moreover, one can consider fitting micro-turbines to the structures of the hundreds of disused windmills (water pumps) that pepper the countryside. These windmills were strategically located by our ancestors in wind-prone areas and are now an integral part of the Maltese countryside.

The pre-budget document rightly refers to energy generated through waste. It speaks of the generation of electricity using animal waste through biogas in a facility to be constructed in the north of the island. This is a long overdue initiative. However, I believe that it is badly conceived. The lessons that should have been learnt following the Sant’ Antnin debacle seem to have been forgotten.

The point at issue is whether one facility covering the whole island is sufficient or desirable. Would it be a good idea to transport animal manure across the whole island to a facility in the north?

One point resulting from the public debate relative to the Sant’ Antnin waste recycling plant was the applicability of the proximity principle. The required plant should be sited as close as possible to the source of the waste being processed. This had led to the Sant ‘Antnin projected operation itself being scaled down to deal with one third of the islands’ waste. The rest, it was stated, should be processed on other sites (possibly two) that have not yet been identified! These other sites should be used for the production of biogas too and they should be identified in a location as close as possible to those areas that have the largest number of animal farms in order to minimise the movement of animal waste. Knowing that a number of these farms are sited very close to each other should make matters easier for our waste management planners.

Bad planning brings out another sore point, which was not discussed in the pre-budget document: namely the management of our water resources. Groundwater (a ‘free’ source of freshwater) still accounts for 40 per cent of our potable water supply. Groundwater accounts for the greater part of the water used by agriculture, the construction sector, landscaping activities and various other industrial and commercial concerns, including some hotels which are supplied by bowsers. However, as a result of over-extraction, the quality of the water in the aquifer is becoming saltier by the day and will become useless within our lifetime.

Yet, illegal extraction of ground water continues unabated and the authority responsible for the sustainable use of this precious resource (the Malta Resources Authority) persists in not taking any concrete action. The recent increase in the surcharge on mains water will inevitably result in a rush to drill more boreholes and extract more groundwater, with the consequence that our aquifer will die an earlier death.

Within this context, the construction of wastewater treatment plants treating urban wastewater and discharging it directly into the sea assumes an alarming relevance. A country whose natural water resources are not sufficient for its use ought to manage its water resources in a much better way. It certainly ought not to permit the illegal extraction of water or the discharge of treated water into the sea. The siting of the wastewater treatment plants in Malta and Gozo is such that discharging treated water into the sea is a foregone conclusion. This decision, undoubtedly arrived at based on the original siting of the sewage outfalls, ignores the possibilities to reuse the treated water, either as a second-class source or (with additional treatment) as potable water. Other developed countries, notably Singapore, produce an ever-increasing percentage of their potable water in this manner. This issue is ignored in the pre-budget report.

All this could easily have been prevented with a proper water management planning strategy, which, instead of large-scale plants for wastewater treatment, could have identified a number of smaller sites along the sewer route on the islands for the construction of small packaged wastewater treatment plants. These would have provided ample treated effluent where and when required for agricultural use, landscaping and other uses not requiring water of potable quality – at little or no distribution costs. The widespread availability of this water would have substituted the need to extract groundwater and facilitated the required enforcement action on its illegal extraction.

The total costs would have been substantially less. By costs I do not just mean economic ones but also the ecological cost of losing a strategic resource (the aquifer), which loss will have to be borne by future generations.

As indicated in the public hearings carried out by Minister Tonio Fenech, the pre-budget document deals with the sustainability of localities, rightly linking this issue to the proposed reform of local councils. It refers to the need for localities to draw up a Local Sustainable Development Strategy. In environmental management, we normally consider this within the Local Agenda 21 process currently espoused by thousands of localities around the globe: think global act local.

The sustainable localities proposal is undoubtedly well intentioned, and if adequately planned and applied can lead to positive results. The difficulty that will arise is that of economies of scale. Our localities vary substantially in size: from the largest – Birkirkara, to the smallest – San Lawrenz in Gozo. I believe that the best manner to apply Local Agenda 21 in Malta would be on a regional level. It would entail the setting up an additional level of local government that could be made up of all the local councils in the region. One possibility for the identification of regions would be to follow the boundaries of the seven local plans. These regions could be the channel for drawing up a Local Agenda 21 in conformity with national policy and strategies, which allow ample room for adequate planning. The proposed Conference on Local Sustainable Development would be a good start.

The basic point at issue in all deliberations is to view the economy as a tool at the service of the eco-system rather than as master of all. Adopting sustainable development as a policy instrument is no easy task. It entails taking a holistic view of public administration and its consequences. It signifies that national policy and administrative action need to have a continuous long-term view.

Economic policy generally takes on board social policy. It now needs to ensure that it is subservient to the eco-system because at the end of the day the eco-system is the source of our being. It is only at this point that we will be in a position to settle our country’s accumulated environmental deficit!