More cars should mean more trees, not fewer

Inevitably, road networks and other contruction projects will keep eating into Malta’s already limited natural and urban landscape... and trees are always the first visible victims

Only 15 trees will be uprooted along the Rabat road between Pit Stop fuel station and the foot of Saqqajja hill
Only 15 trees will be uprooted along the Rabat road between Pit Stop fuel station and the foot of Saqqajja hill

There seems to be an air of inevitability surrounding the ongoing destruction of trees to accommodate upgrades to the road network.

A recent press report caused a furore by suggesting that as many as 200 mature Aleppo pines – including the iconic specimens leading up to Rabat on the Saqqajja Hill – would be uprooted to make way for new roads. The Transport Ministry subsequently denied certain aspects of the news item: but while the story itself may have been exaggerated, the project will indeed result in the loss of a number of trees on that stretch of road, just as trees will also be uprooted in Santa Lucija and elsewhere.

At the same time, it would be bootless denying that the projects are, in themselves, necessary. Malta’s entire road network has long been crying out for a radical overhaul in several areas. And with traffic now a major concern in surveys, the need for the current spree of road works has long been felt by motorists: and, perhaps more pertinently, by politicians who respond to national trends. Besides, the ultimate objective is, in itself, desirable: we all hope that a more efficient road network will ease frustration, and make travelling more energy-efficient and less time-consuming.

But we must also acknowledge that these problems cannot be permanently solved simply by widening roads wherever possible. For one thing, there is a natural limit to the space available for traffic-related infrastructural works... but in the long-term, with Malta’s population and standards of living increasing in equal step, there seems to be no ultimate limit to the number of vehicles that will end up using those roads. Surely, a time will have to come when we start talking about strategies to somehow limit or disincentivise private vehicle use... rather than just permanently facilitating the use of even more cars.

Hence the sense of inevitability in all this: there is a price that the entire country has to pay in the transaction. Inevitably, road networks and other contruction projects will keep eating into Malta’s already limited natural and urban landscape... and trees are always the first visible victims. The mature trees that will be lost in Santa Lucija, Attard and Rabat are only the tip of an iceberg, compared to the onslaught on trees that has been going on for years, if not decades.

Admittedly, however, it is not an easy balancing act to perform. Modifications to the living environment are understandable, and the removal of trees to accommodate certain projects cannot be a priori excluded in all cases. One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs; in Malta, it would seem that one cannot realistically conduct major infrastructural projects without chopping down a few trees. But there are ways to mitigate the negative effects. In reality, the destruction of trees is rarely backed up by concrete action to replace lost trees with mature equivalents. Malta needs more tree cover, not less; and saplings alone cannot do the trick. As a country, we may not be in love with our trees; but even the least environmentally-minded amongst us will immediately understand their importance to ecology, and their cultural landscape value in general.

Everybody recognises the tree-lined road leading to Mdina when depicted on a postcard or in some tourist brochure. Without doubt, the trees in that picture have an important role in making the Rabat road iconic. Most – if not all – would agree that losing them would be a shame.

But the issue here is deeper and more complex. It is not just trees that face the chop; agricultural land also lies on both sides of the proposed projects. The part-solution of preserving existing trees by creating a wide central strip is the better solution in the event of having to choose between losing agricultural land and mature trees. And this is not the only choice we may have to make.

The most recent controversy puts our car-dependence in stark contrast with the need to preserve our natural environment: indeed, these two factors are mutually dependant. Cars pollute the atmosphere with carbon monoxide and other gases; trees are essential to replenish oxygen. More cars, in theory, should necessitate more trees – not fewer – to counter their effect on air quality.

At the heart of this dilemma there remains the disproportionate use of the private car. It is utopia to believe that any government will act in some way to curb car sales and car use. But it is not utopia to believe that the time has come for a serious effort to study the creation of a mass transit system that runs both above and below ground.

Encouraging people to use buses will not, on its own, solve the problem. Buses also use roads that are already congested. The modal shift that is required calls for an efficient, rapid system that takes people to their destination on time, without adding to the existing congestion.

Even such an ambitious project will come with its own fair share of controversy; that, too, is inevitable. But we cannot continue merely trading our natural heritage with wider roads, ad infinitum. The ultimate cost of that strategy is simply too high.