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The National Environment Strategy as a Strategic Governance Document

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The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) has recently published a draft of the National Strategy for the Environment (the Strategy) for public consultation. With an increased awareness of the importance of well-being, and the contribution that a strong and resilient environment can make to our communities, this Strategy was eagerly anticipated. In fact, its precursor document, Wellbeing First, recognized the importance that a resilient environment has on the well-being of our communities. The fact is that nature’s elastic limit is being tested to its extreme, mainly due to anthropogenic effects. This necessitates immediate and urgent change now. 

The Strategy has eight strategic thematic goals, each of which has a set of objectives. The thematic goals relate to:

  • Clean air for well-being, healthy humans, and thriving nature (air quality)
  • A quality environment for livable towns and villages, conducive to healthy living (the built environment)
  • Biodiversity valued, conserved, restored, and sustainably used for the benefit of our nature, people and climate (biodiversity)
  • Responsible and efficient resource use that reflects the value of raw and waste materials in support of zero waste to landfill (waste)
  • Land resources managed to sustain natural functions and increase resilience to climate change (land)
  • Ecologically diverse, healthy and productive marine waters, capable of supporting sustainable growth (the marine environment);
  • Sustainable water resources that ensure long-term use and support water-dependent ecosystems (water)
  • Enabling and empowering the required green transition.

Each strategic goal identifies the Sustainable Development Goals addressed, where we stand today in each of these sectors, the achievements to date, where we want to be, and how it is proposed to get there. The scientific aspect of this strategy is presented with an eloquence reflective of the considerable scientific capacity and ability that exists within the ERA. It is written in an engaging discourse with no real technical overload, making the Strategy an easy document to read and decipher. 

It is clear that anthropogenic effects have had serious consequences on the state of Malta’s environment. Whether it is the quality of our air, the experience within our built environment, or the degradation of natural resources such as water, we have made a serious impact that can compromise our well-being, be it in economic, social, or environmental terms. The Strategy boldly recognizes where we stand and the deficit that we suffer in environmental terms. It also scientifically lays out the theoretical way forward in terms of the vision we should aspire for. 

However, concrete commitments for immediate and future action are not sufficiently convincing in terms of tangible and meaningful steps that need to be taken. For example, there are still areas where studies are recommended to guide future action, even though international research has already demonstrated positive outcomes between nature and citizen quality of life. We also keep circling around the ‘polluter pays’ principle and pay-as-you-throw concepts despite such principles having already been implemented in developed economies. We are already aware that the progressive alteration of the natural balance through all types of development has led to environmental threats that are manifested in so many forms. Some of these threats are of a transboundary nature, such as climate change, whilst others have a more local dimension, such as the quality of the built environment, water resources, and waste management. We can no longer postpone the time to act effectively! 

Good Environmental Governance

The Strategy recognizes the concept of environmental governance through a number of its goals. Environmental governance is mentioned in various forms, be it groundwater governance or land use governance. This is positive, as good governance is the catalyst for positive and determined action and the genesis of all tangible change. It is therefore worthwhile to look at the various parameters which constitute robust environmental governance and relate these to the direction pursued by the Strategy.

Clearly, political will is a major determinant of action. Political direction can either contribute to determined action or lengthen the timelines for proper and holistic responses. The Strategy is a policy document, and policy is the domain and responsibility of the government of the day. It should signify the way in which the government will fulfil its obligation and duty to protect the environment for the benefit of current and future generations and provide a measure by which the government’s environmental performance will be judged. Yet, the Strategy is ‘owned’ by the ERA, the environment regulator, an ownership mandated by the Environment Protection Act. We have, perhaps, not realised the sensitivity and accountability implications of policymaking and its locus within the decision-making process, making it distinct from regulatory and operational functions. Often enough, political will is interpreted to mean the will of the incumbent government. This notion is false, for all political actors have the responsibility to foster a better environment for society. Polarisation leads to inaction, and political parties should be mature enough to agree at least on a baseline scenario that will, in turn, shelter them from lobbyist pressures.

Coherency is perhaps the foremost challenge that the Strategy faces. It is clear from the actors’ collective responsibility to deliver each identified objective that coherency is a key success factor. Today’s perceptions are that we are an overdeveloped country which has surpassed its carrying capacity in certain sectors. This may even lead to a socio-ecological degradation in intra-generational equity. The Strategy correctly pinpoints a number of pain points which have to be addressed, such as the need for the built environment to be retrofitted with green infrastructure, the move towards a zero-waste society, and a responsibility to safeguard our water resources. 

Yet on the ground, we still need to see concrete actions which are coherent with the achievement of such goals. For example, how will the existing planning framework support the rebalancing of natural cycles disrupted by development? Can we effectively hope for a more resilient environment and strengthened ecosystem services without reflecting the cost of environmental degradation in the price of goods and services? Are we ready to create a level playing field for environmentally friendly alternatives to current practices? It is clear that there is little, if any, intention to factor in the polluter pays principle. Although the principle is mentioned, it is shrouded in feasibility studies that are yet to be conducted. Instead, we get the feeling that good environmental behaviour will be supported through incentives whilst ‘business as usual scenarios’ will not bear the internalisation of costs related to environmental degradation. 

Whilst in each objective the actors who will be responsible for its achievement are identified, the assignment of responsibility is at times unclear as it is not explicitly specified which entity or body will be responsible for achieving what. Perhaps one of the shortcomings of the Strategy is that there are no SMART objectives which can hold implementation to account in terms of measuring what has been achieved, by whom and by when, and whether such achievement is in line with what was forecasted or what the country is obliged to achieve. 

Rule of law is critical for a thriving environmental sector. The environmental EU acquis is indeed extensive and has been transposed into Maltese law. The challenge of the rule of law is the actual enforcement of such legislation. Weak enforcement, for whatever reason, not only leads to abuse but also to a distorted playing field where those who are compliant remain disadvantaged. For example, one of the targets for waste is that 65% of municipal waste needs to be recycled by 2035. This leaves us 13 years to make a huge leap from current waste management outcomes where landfilling constituted 80% of waste management between 2007 and 2015. Yet, Malta remains a country where there is no direct charge for domestic waste according to the type of waste generated, nor is there a legal obligation to separate waste. 

Malta’s weakest efforts have always been in the enforcement function. Clearly it is a difficult and at times dangerous function. Notwithstanding, regulators are set up in order to, amongst other things, ensure compliance. The Strategy hints at possibly looking at a consolidated enforcement function. This may make sense from a capacity perspective, but it comes with its own challenge of managing an enforcement team covering so many disciplines. In the meantime, the rightsizing of regulators with a view to migrate any overcapacity to the enforcement function needs to be undertaken with haste, and if necessary, the required recruitment must be effected to address any remaining gaps. 

The Strategy is reported to have been developed in a participative manner with several stakeholders forming a panel which represented different sectors including policymaking, academia, the business community, and the voluntary sector. This is positive as governance is a means by which interests are articulated, differences mitigated, and subsequent action defined. It generates a sense of ownership, responsiveness, and empowerment for stakeholders. Yet, there are certain noticeable gaps such as the extent to which developers, waste management operators, and academia were fully represented. One might argue that there are an infinite number of stakeholders; representation at this stage has to be limited in order to be manageable and other stakeholders will have the opportunity to respond to this consultation document. Yet it is also known that the perception of a consultation document is that the die has been cast and that significant changes are unlikely unless there is a major uproar. 

Communication remains key to raising awareness of the environmental risks and challenges that the country faces. A number of information and awareness campaigns have been undertaken, but the retention of the relayed messages seems poor if our performance in the waste sector is to serve as an indicator of success. Whilst information and awareness raising is important, it should complement other environmental actions and not be thought of as a ‘be-all’ to instigate the required change.

The Strategy clearly points towards a number of feasibility studies which are primarily aimed at changing the status quo on a number of delicate issues. Whilst this is the correct way to proceed in order to assess the impact and put forward proposals which are integrative, equitable, and ethical, it is important that such studies do not further postpone the action required.

The Chairman’s foreword to the Strategy recognises that ‘national environmental challenges need to be addressed in the interest of achieving an overall sustainable quality of life’. Sustainable development is about maximising economic, social, and environmental goals and encompasses all forms of development. Thus in the same way that environmental challenges need to lead to a sustainable quality of life, it also needs to be kept in mind when addressing the social and economic agendas which also have to contribute towards an environment which befits society and enhances well-being. Unfortunately, the consequences of inaction will be felt more by vulnerable groups, leading to a greater socio-economic disparity. If we cannot agree to this and shoulder our responsibilities, then the potential of the Strategy towards environmental advocacy will not be realised in time. 

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

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