‘The environment’ is about more than just ‘trees on roundabouts’, you know…

And this is why I suspect that no serious environmentalist could possibly have been consulted, in the drawing up of these proposals

Quick question: what is ‘the environment’, anyway? And what does it really mean to be ‘an environmentalist’?

Reason I ask, is that… well, this week the Nationalist Party presented “seven proposals aimed at targeting shortcomings in the environment sector”; and according to Shadow Environment Minister Robert Cutajar – who separately penned an article this week entitled ‘Action needed against climate change’ - these proposals indicate that “the party is committed to bring about change that will safeguard the environment.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Until, of course, you look at the proposals themselves… and realise that they must have been drawn up by people who have no idea what the word ‘environment’ even means (and evidently, without consulting any real environmentalists, either.)

How else are we to explain that most of these seven proposals are ultimately concerned only with urban embellishment projects… while spectacularly failing to even mention (let alone address) any of the more pressing problems facing Malta’s environment today?

But in any case: here they are, so you can all judge for yourselves:

1.    Develop a tree map and green score for every locality in Malta;

2.    Invest in public spaces by making roads greener while also regenerating abandoned spaces on a local level;

3.    Ensure there is a pedestrian zone in every locality; 

4.    Protect farmers and their fields and strengthen urban biodiversity;

5.    Strengthen the right to access to open public spaces and environmental sites; 

6.    National protection fund for historic buildings and gardens in our localities, and; 

7.    Incentivise environmental initiatives in residential homes.

Now: I could probably write a full-length article (and you all know how long those can be) about each and every one of those proposals... but that way, I’d be left with seven articles saying more or less the same thing. So I’ll limit myself to only two, for now.

Trees, and pedestrianisation.

I think we can all safely agree that no environmentalist, in his right mind, could possibly object to either of those proposals: I myself, in fact, have spent years clamouring for more of both.   

The snag, however, is that these two problems – the lack of trees, and traffic congestion in town centres – cannot be viewed in isolation from other, existing environmental issues; and nor can they be limited only to ‘urban areas’.

When, for instance, environmentalists complain about the need for ‘more trees’… Ok, they might extend that to also include more public gardens, more urban green spaces, and all the rest of it… but what they really mean (if, that is, they truly are environmentalists) is that what Malta needs are not just ‘trees on roundabouts’… but afforestation on a national scale.

That is to say, large tracts of rural land, designated solely for the purpose of growing trees: lots, and lots, and lots of trees (for if the purpose really is to ‘mitigate the effects of climate change’… we would need around half a million of them, just to get started.)

Believe it or not, however: there is still the opportunity to implement a large-scale afforestation programme – of the kind last undertaken in the 1970s: which gave us both Miżieb and L-Aħrax – in Malta today.

For some time now, Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg has been arguing that Ħondoq ir-Rummien – not just the bay, but the whole valley extending upwards towards Nadur – should be restored to ODZ (as it was before the Local Plans were changed – you’ll never guess by whom – in 2006).

And this does not just mean that the whole area would once again be protected from the threat of development. It also means a reversal of the decision, taken in 2006, to change the area’s original designation from… wait for it… ‘Afforestation’, to ‘Marine-Related Activity’.

Yet neither the Nationalist Opposition, nor the Labour government, has come out in favour of that proposal. On the contrary, both have precluded (citing the same, flawed arguments) any revision at all of the ill-fated 2006 Local Plan amendments… which implies that both government and Opposition agree with simply keeping the development boundaries as they are today: not just at Ħondoq, but all over the rest of Malta and Gozo, too.

So not only are both parties rejecting the idea of embarking on a proper afforestation programme, of the kind that is so sorely needed; but they both defend the 2006 extension of the development zones… which – coupled with roadworks and infrastructural projects - constitutes the single largest cause behind the depletion of Malta’s trees to begin with.

From this perspective, the idea to simply ‘green up’ Malta’s already-developed urban landscape - by planting a few roadside trees, and maybe inaugurating a couple of gardens here and there - sorry, but it’s just not going to cut the mustard.

Not only does it ultimately amount to a classic case of ‘greenwashing’, and precious little else…. but (surprise, surprise) it is also what the current government happens to be doing right now anyway – look under ‘Comino’ and ‘Balluta steps’ for further details – and… um…

… that is precisely why this government (and Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia in particular) comes in for such harsh criticism, by environmentalists, all the time.

Because environmentalists can see through these lame, cosmetic attempts to sweep issues under the carpet, you know. They recognise that ‘public gardens’ and ‘green spaces’ – commendable though they may be, in themselves – are nothing but eye-candy, intended to distract public attention from this country’s real environmental problems.

Meanwhile, much the same could be said for the pedestrianisation proposal. Yes, of course it would be lovely if we could all safely walk through our own towns and villages, without the threat of being run over, or having to inhale noxious emissions…

… but in the absence of any major overhaul of our entire traffic system – involving, at minimum, an effort to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads; and (even more importantly) the introduction of a public mass-transit system, to compensate for the loss of mobility - the pedestrianisation of town centres would only displace existing urban traffic to the outlying road network.

We would, in a nutshell, end up with the same (growing) number of cars, only concentrated in a much smaller space. And that means more traffic congestion, not less… and with it, more air pollution… more CO2 emissions… less chance of Malta meeting its international climate change targets… and so on, and so forth, and so fifth.

But this only forces us to confront the truly appalling aspect of this environmental greenwash. It’s not merely about what those proposals contain… it’s more about what they omit altogether.

Those issues I just mentioned, for instance – you know: air pollution; CO2 emissions… and over-development, too (because it’s all related, at the end of the day. More construction also means more particulate dust in the atmosphere; more respiratory problems; more loss of agricultural land, as well as rural space in which to plant trees, etc., etc,) – do not even feature anywhere at all, in what the PN has presented to us as its ‘environmental vision’ for the future.

And this is why I suspect that no serious environmentalist could possibly have been consulted, in the drawing up of these proposals. For among the most glaring omissions, there just happens to be the single, most urgent threat to Malta’s environment as a whole.


Yes, folks: that same precious (and soon to be non-existent) resource that is, inter alia, necessary for the planting of trees… as well as for the cultivation of crops (and to support all life on earth as we know it)… it doesn’t even get a single, solitary mention anywhere in this document.

And this would be bizarre, even if there wasn’t the imminent of danger of desertification, as the result of global climate change. Ok, I’ll keep this part brief, because I wrote about it quite recently… but in case anyone’s forgotten: we still live in a country that produces 60% of its potable water through Reverse Osmosis – at an estimated cost of “between 16 and 18 million Euro per year”, please note – while extracting the rest from the aquifer through boreholes.

Meanwhile, the aquifer itself is threatened by both diminishing annual rainfall and over-extraction – oh, and also by over-development (which eats into fields and valleys, so that most of the limited rain that does fall, no longer seeps into the soil to replenish the water table, etc.). So if nothing is done about this problem, we shall very soon have to rely almost exclusively on RO for our entire water supply…

… which also means more energy consumption; more emissions; more expense… not to mention the possible danger of, say, an oil spill (or equivalent marine catastrophe), that might pollute even our last remaining water-source, too.

So… where are the PN’s proposals for a National Water Strategy? How does it intend to mitigate the rising salination levels of Malta’s main aquifers? And – to mention one issue that was, in fact, raised by these proposals… how does it propose to ‘protect farmers and their fields’: when it is simultaneously ignoring the two main factors that are directly threatening the future survival of agriculture in Malta? In other words, water scarcity, and over-development…?

But tell you what: let me not conclude on such a dismal note. It is, I suppose, encouraging that the Nationalist Party has finally discovered that this thing called ‘the Environment’ does, in fact, exist…

All that remains is to proceed to Phase Two: and look up that word in a dictionary.