A Much-Needed Vision
The National Strategy for the Environment 2050, recently opened for public consultation, comes at a time when few would question the need to pay serious attention to the state of the environment in Malta. The challenges that Malta faces in this sector are far from trivial. While the country has certainly made tremendous strides in several respects, the statistics given with the Strategy itself paint a rather dire picture of the state of the environment in Malta and the implications of this for the well-being of its citizens.
For example, just 1.8% of Malta’s land cover comprises urban green areas, and 91.4% of citizens are concerned or highly concerned about urban issues. At the same time, 84% of the public are highly concerned about air quality in Malta (not surprising considering that a population of 516,000 sustains a vehicle fleet of >400,000 within the very limited land area of the country) and 76.3% are highly concerned about marine pollution.
That there is widespread underlying disquiet amongst many citizens about the state of the environment is indeed evident to any who choose to see this. The considerable pressures imposed by constraints of space and population are further exacerbated by the fact that the environmental sector has long tended to be the ‘Cinderella’ of policy priorities for successive governments, receiving little attention but deserving of far more.
In this context, the strategy is a most welcome initiative, offering a highly desirable vision of where we want to go. It is particularly positive to note that the Strategy strongly acknowledges issues that have thus far been largely ignored or marginalised – ranging from the pervasiveness of light and noise pollution to the need to consider issues of landscape quality, to the opportunities afforded by stronger synergies with industry. The Strategy also embraces new strategic directions, reflecting European-wide trends in research and policy, such as a recognition of the need to ensure stronger connections between citizens and nature, not only for related mental and physical health benefits but also because such connections are known to be fundamental for fostering pro-environmental behaviour.
In this regard, it is highly encouraging to see the Strategy emphasise the importance of providing accessible green spaces within urban living environments and incorporating nature in school environments through nature-based learning approaches. If effectively implemented, these initiatives would have immense benefits, not only for improved environmental quality, but also for health and well-being. It is also highly positive to see the Strategy adopt a broad approach to nature conservation and protection, acknowledging the opportunities potentially afforded by restoring degraded terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In a country where almost no space is untouched and where pockets of nature are interspersed within a dense matrix of human activity, it is clear that such a proactive approach is much needed.
Where the Strategy falls short is perhaps in convincing stakeholders that its ambitious and noble goals can truly be achieved. While it is recognised that the intent of this document is to establish a strategic direction, the Strategy is rather sparse on details of how measures will actually be implemented and how their success will be measured.
Regrettably, given the track record of performance in the environmental sector nationally, this does not inspire confidence. For example, it is hard to take seriously the claim that existing gardens and green spaces will be protected (without any further explanation), when the exact opposite has been taking place, notwithstanding public outcry.
In some cases, the Strategy also does not seem to go far enough. For example, despite vague descriptions of measures to safeguard landscape quality, the Strategy makes no commitment for Malta to actually ratify the European Landscape Convention, which it signed 22 years ago. It is worth pointing out that Malta is the only one of the Convention’s 41 signatory states not to have ratified this Convention.
In other aspects, the Strategy perhaps expends unnecessary effort. For instance, it proposes funding the creation of an index of citizen well-being in relation to the sustainability of the environment. However, given that the link between well-being and environmental quality is well known and has been extensively researched for decades, this does not come across as the most efficient or effective use of limited available resources. Available data already clearly identifies several environmental concerns that are impinging on the well-being of Maltese citizens; there is certainly no pressing need for such an index to allow us to evaluate the impacts of development proposals on liveability and quality of life, as suggested in the Strategy. What is needed is simply a real will to address these issues.
Indeed, what is perhaps even more concerning is what the Strategy does not address. Despite the rhetoric that ‘a healthy environment is both our duty and our right’, it has been painfully evident that the health of the environment remains largely at the mercy of a land-use planning system that, while excellent at promoting the interests of a few, has been woefully inadequate at safeguarding the common good.
Several of the issues that the Strategy seeks to address can be linked back to the failures of this planning system – amongst which are excessive congestion in urban areas, the lack of green spaces, the largely fragmented state of local biodiversity, the creation of a road network that prioritises cars and disincentives alternative modes of travel, various pollution issues that reduce quality of life, and the loss of precious water resources through excessive hard landscaping, to name just a few. It is all well and good to lay out a utopian Strategy for the environment – but how convincing is this, when there is little to suggest that the environment will no longer remain subservient to the land-use planning system that has brought us to this point? As long as planning decisions remain under the influence of political appointees, with environmental interests represented by the lone minority votes of the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) and environmental NGOs, there is little to inspire confidence.
I have no doubt that the Strategy is well-intentioned. I likewise have no doubt that the ERA is staffed by highly competent professionals who truly have the country’s best interests at heart and who are perfectly capable of implementing what is proposed in this Strategy – if they are allowed to.
There is also much that several Faculties and Institutes of the University of Malta can contribute, through both research and capacity-building initiatives. However, if the Strategy is to become a reality, the ERA can no longer be handicapped by institutional structures that render it a dog who can whine but not bite, damaging its credibility in the eyes of the public in the process.
As the Strategy’s foreword itself notes, there needs to be a real political commitment to its implementation, and this needs to be truly cross-sectoral, pan-governmental, and bipartisan. This requires far more than this Strategy itself can offer – namely a real willingness to sacrifice short-term political interests for long-term environmental and social gain.
Feedback submitted collectively by the Faculty of the Institute of Earth Systems on the Strategy is available here.
Debono, J. (2019). Two out of every three Maltese believe roads and big projects are a threat to the environment. Maltatoday. https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/environment/environment/95475/two_out_of_every_three_maltese_believe_roads_and_big_projects_are_a_threat_to_the_environment
Debono, J. (2022). In Europe, Maltese most likely to rate their rural landscapes negatively. Maltatoday. https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/environment/environment/117756/in_europe_maltese_most_likely_to_rate_their_rural_landscapes_negatively Environment & Resources Authority. (2022). National Strategy for the Environment 2050. Marsa: Environment and Resources Authority. https://era.org.mt/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/National-Strategy-for-the-Environment-2050-%E2%80%93-Public-Consultation-Draft.pdf
[All statistics and figures cited in this article are taken directly from the National Strategy for the Environment 2050, above]
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Malta or THINK Magazine