The environment: from Presidential wish-lists to deliverables

It is evident that clarity is needed on where the EU is heading on the circular economy, on what is really behind the proposed changes, as well as whether any changes will lead to a better integrated and more holistic approach

‘It is refreshing indeed that the President spoke up boldly in defence of the environment’
‘It is refreshing indeed that the President spoke up boldly in defence of the environment’

While certain media predictably tried to play down the President of the Republic’s strong references in defence of the environment on at least two public occasions, it would be an insult to the ordinary citizen and taxpayer were we to dismiss such strong messages and treat them lightly as mere Presidential wish lists drawn up by an eminent person without any executive powers.

The government certainly did not.

It was very positive of the Prime Minister that not only did he focus on the need for a stronger emphasis on the environment, in his comments at the Presidential Palace on New Year’s Eve, but even more telling was his outreach to eNGOs in his end of the year broadcast as well as his call for a balanced approach towards sustainable development as the best means of enhancing two-way communication. 

What the President may lack in executive powers she definitely has in moral authority and it is refreshing indeed that she spoke up boldly in defence of the environment during two major public events: The 40th anniversary of the Republic and her first address to the Nation on Christmas eve.

Willingly or unknowingly she has turned herself into the real champion of the environment, way beyond the greenwash realm of the political class, by sending a message that we can only ignore at our own peril.

Were we to do so not only would the environment suffer – our own collective credibility would do, too.

She could not have been clearer than when she stated that adults and children alike have ended up confined to the built environment, away from contact with nature and with few spaces where they can roam. 

On Christmas Eve she had an even stronger message to convey.

Without mincing her words she stated that the environment is the nation’s lung. Adding that in 2015, we need to continue reminding ourselves that when we devalue and impoverish the environment, we would be sickening society. 

She even cautioned that unless we decide to be vigilant and watchful, we shall pay a stiff price for our actions in this sector. She stated that we surely cannot continue to make a bad situation even worse. 

She actually ‘reminded’ the authorities that in this sensitive sector decisions concerning the environment are ultimately ethical decisions before being tackled from the purely technical and legalistic angle.

Possibly bearing in mind that 2015 is predestined to be the sustainability year, she concluded by stating that all those sectors that impact on the environment must examine their own conscience, in the hope that the word sustainability will not remain a hollow word, but will on the contrary, become the guiding light of the way and manner in which things are decided upon in our country.

While many tend to speculate on when the MEPA demerger will be happening, what seems to be concerning people most about this demerger is what shape it might actually take in practice when it really happens and we then move to the implementation stage.

From the feedback that I have had from all those that I have consulted, the major concern is not about the shape of the draft legislation on which the environment and resources authority will be shaped, but rather on how the new planning regulations and authority will be impacting the environmental sector. 

This is where collective responsibility comes into play and sustainability in the most mainstreamed of manners will gauge whether we will have lived up to the spirit and substance of all that we promised in our electoral manifesto as a government-in-waiting. 

As a firm believer in collective responsibility I am fully aware of what this implies and have no intention of shirking from it as a member of the Executive, while at the same time I have never held back from making my voice heard. Where it matters. Even in international circles.

As I did during the recent pivotal Environment Ministers’ Council Meeting held a few days before Christmas in Brussels. When a doom-laden air of uncertainty hanged in the air due to the unclear paths that loomed ahead regarding air quality, the circular economy and waste management.

I must have intervened at least on four different occasions during the Council meeting, to call for clarity on behalf of my government on the EU road ahead in these pivotal sectors.

There was little appreciation if any at all about the Junker proposal to dilute legislation on these issues under the by now customary pretext of cutting down on red tape and fast tracking certain processes.

The Italian Presidency was among the most vocal in expressing its concern through Minister Galletti, who ably chaired the Italian environment ministry since July with a certain gravitas and momentum.

While many were pleased to note that Commissioner Vella took immediate note of the concerns shown and even committed himself that the entire air package would remain on the table before any changes are even considered, he also undertook to take note and convey the concerns on waste and the circular economy of all the ministers present to the Presidency.

In my on record interventions I made it clear that while we look forward to holding discussions in the context of creating synergies with the Energy and Climate policies, given the potential negative impact on environmental health that lowering the bar might have on air quality standards, particularly when there is a push to harmonise them with the much stronger WHO standards, while remaining open to considering alternative approaches that might be put forward in the review process, strengthening the environment should and must remain our priority.

I stated without hesitation that this is a crucial and sensitive problem that impacts on us directly, nationally, regionally, and also at an EU level.

On the whole issue of waste and circular economy proposals I stated that Malta believes that the waste package proposal adopted by the Commission earlier this year outlined a long term and sustainable vision for waste management across the Union, in line with the 7th Environment Action Programme, and that Malta had supported the overall environmental objective of this package, also in light of the expected positive impacts in terms of economic growth and job creation.

While Malta had previously expressed certain reservations about the proposed waste package, particularly with regard to some of its over-ambitious targets for re-use and recycling as well as the objective to limit landfilling to residual waste within very tight time frames, nevertheless we had recognised then the importance to further streamline and improve the current EU waste legislative framework. 

My strongest message was that ultimately it is evident that clarity is needed on where the EU is heading on the circular economy, what is really behind the proposed changes, as well as whether any changes will lead to a better integrated and more holistic approach and manner. I sought such clarifications to also facilitate directional guidance and obtain the reassurances that most member states seemed to be seeking with urgency. 

This is the clarity that stakeholders and ordinary citizens will be also seeking and looking forward to when the MEPA demerger happens... particularly since some tend to argue rightly or wrongly that the longer the process takes to happen, this could risk being done at the expense of the environment itself.

The fact that there are agreed time frames for the demerger to take place is a positive in its own right. 

This is why I consider 2015 to be a watershed year for the environment locally and internationally particularly where sustainability is concerned.