Choosing the best path forward
Half a decade has gone by since public consultation for the national sustainable development strategy.
At the time Nature Trust urged dark sky heritage areas designated in the local plan for Gozo and Comino should be adopted.
The light pollution awareness group is a sub-group of the Malta Astronomical Society, but reducing light pollution is not only good for star-gazers. It is good for biodiversity too.
Land-nesting, sea-dwelling shearwaters shy away from coastal lights. The Eco-Gozo concept, if it is a truly environment-oriented initiative, should be drawing more attention to the need for cutting down on unnecessary outdoor lights while saving energy too.
Despite all the special mentions in national policy documents, unnecessary light pollution prevails in both urban and rural areas.
Nature Trust recently had to question the wisdom of Enemalta trenching works in Dwejra for electricity provision when the site is listed as a dark sky heritage area.
This is the sort of thing which the recently launched national environment policy (NEP) attempts to put right, although it may be difficult to see why we needed yet another document to achieve this aim so many years later.
Spatial planning, a more co-ordinated way of doing things, is presented in the NEP as a way to “protect the countryside from inappropriate development, including that giving rise to light pollution”, according to the NEP.
Yet a draft of the sustainable development strategy was already talking about spatial planning back in 2004 as the key to protecting the environment while integrating social and economic goals:
“It is therefore recommended that an integrated spatial development plan be prepared to take forward the vision and key objectives for sustainable development set out in this document, elaborating upon them and translating them into concrete actions by identified agencies linked to measurable targets,” advised the original strategy.
Surprisingly for environmentalists, the NEP finds that a ‘green utopia’ may not always be the best scenario.
The ambitious policy aims to be more than an upgrade of what has gone before. Specific pilot projects are proposed along with a sense of greater urgency to finally transform words into action. The task is mammoth and getting there is not predicted to be smooth.
Deciding on policy is not without its paradoxes. For example, improving health and consequently cutting down fatality rates by reducing pollution could bring about an increase in population numbers.
This in turn could lead to greater demand on resources according to a paper on possible scenarios published this month by the Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism, Environment and Culture.
It may be overly simplifying the matter to lift individual wisdoms out of this wealth of analysis from the secretariat without reference to its overall context.
The paper identifies a sliding scale of scenarios and acts as an accompanying document to the national policy, presenting a range of pathways both with and without perks, pitfalls and diversions.
If we were to be idealistic, we would all be living in a green utopia where positive environmental policies and education have finally steered society away from the notion that the economy and the environment are separate.
High quality of life would spring from a highly developed and stringently applied environmental policy which adds value as a selling point for foreign investment.
Of course, environmental policy changes would need to be phased in more slowly to avoid negative socio-economic impacts so improvements may not have been uniform.
In a green utopia, Malta would be better prepared for disasters (such as oil spills), with economic growth perceived as dependent on environmental quality.
Enforcement would be strong, with a single coordinated structure closely linked to the police force taking action on key concerns: construction, transport, industry, entertainment noise, and so on.
Our commitment to the environment appears to be low to medium and enforcement may often be restricted to major environmental health issues. Enforcement will remain weak as long as it is too widely distributed across poorly resourced agencies which collaborate only in exceptional cases.
A few strongly networked agencies taking action on key issues such as land, noise and air quality while studying closer consolidation would be the first step towards better implementation of the policy.
At every stage on the road to a better environment there are increasing budgetary consequences for public authorities at different levels of government with additional administrative burdens and the need to restructure existing authorities or create new ones.
In a rather too familiar worst case scenario, the state takes a major role with public participation and access to environmental justice minimal, while crisis management is the order of the day.
In a now slightly improved scenario, the state is still central with few other players, all lacking empowerment on the whole.
There may be more public participation but it is not yet streamlined across government entities even though EU policies require public participation, access to justice and joint management.
This palette of different futures has been presented to us by means of the studies which accompanied the formulation of the national environment policy. We have important choices ahead of us.
Developing a preferred option NEP Phase 2 Workshop, January 2011
“Are the economic, social, and environment models we believe in correct?” – Gordon Cordina, University of Malta, on socio-economic perspectives over the coming decade.
“Decreasing stocks of natural resources, accelerating technologies racing into the unknown, increasingly unsustainable environmental pollution load, continued economic growth, increasing severity of the consequences of climate change.” – Marguerite Camilleri, Office of the Prime Minister, on global megatrends.
“If we foresee that things may happen, we can just allow them to happen and deal with the consequences. But we may also think of ways (actions, strategies, policies) to accelerate things to happen or to alter or prevent them happening at all. By debating things that will happen in combination with things that may happen we may already have changed history …because actors engaged in foresight processes end up thinking and probably acting differently. Foresight is about shaping and creating the future more to our will and to activate and align people and coordinate their actions.” – Jennifer Cassingena Harper, Malta Council for Science and Technology, on scenarios and vision.