Raising the green bar

Budget 2020 sets the tone but it will be fruitless unless there is the political will to go for the green paradigm shift in our lifetime

Budget 2020 pulls the levers and presses the buttons to ensure the economy continues run-ning while spreading out the wealth.

It is an exercise in continuation that is expected to deliver another surplus in government finances next year, and bring down the debt-to-GDP ratio to 40%.

These are important numbers because they ensure the government has room to manoeuvre if the clouds start to mushroom over the economy.

More importantly, the surplus will still be achieved even when the portion of funds from the Individual Investor Programme that are accounted for in ordinary income, are removed from the equation.

The measure to overtime at 15% for those on a basic pay of not more than €20,000 is ex-pected to leave more money in the pockets of those with modest and low wages.

Similarly, the income tax refund, the new baby bonus, the wider parameters for first-time property buyers, and the increase in pensions, will provide a financial impetus to many fam-ilies.

How significant that impetus is will depend on inflation. The government has ensured, for the third year running that there will be no tax and excise duty increases, which helps miti-gate inflationary pressures.

The introduction of a one-off bonus to make up for higher milk prices announced this year by the only Maltese dairy company partly mitigates the spending erosion, especially for families on the lower rungs.

But while these measures and others are targeted to help families keep up with the pace of economic growth, Budget 2020 also provides a blueprint for environmental sustainability by including several measures intended to address climate change.

A decision on the cut-off date by when to stop the importation of combustion engine cars, is now expected next year. This is arguably one of the biggest decisions that need to be tak-en but one with commercial and social impacts that cannot be ignored.

Free public transport, which will continue being available for young people, will be extend-ed to people 75 and over. This represents a slow transition to a radical proposition to make public transport free for all users.

The individual climate initiatives are interesting and some provide tangible, immediate benefits, such as changing the lighting in public squares, to make them self-sufficient through renewable energy.

The €200,000 incentive to contractors to invest in environmentally friendly machinery that decreases pollution, is another tangible benefit, as will be the roofing over of the Santa Venera tunnels exit that will be converted into a green open area in a congested urban envi-ronment.

Government could have been bolder in some aspects such as targeting the use of private cars, which remain the single biggest source of harmful emissions. Increasing the driving age to 21 would give the country reprieve, while fostering a generation of public transport users.

The government could have extended free public transport to pensioners over 65, coupling it with an incentive for elderly people to give up their driving licence.

It could have been bolder on urban greening by changing planning policy to ensure new buildings retain gardens and large backyards to allow breathing space within the built-up environment.

However, it has to be noted that the climate initiatives in the budget have set the bar. It may still not be high enough but it is important that every budget in the coming years in-cludes measures that target climate change. Going back is not an option.

Financial resources have to be directed towards battling this global phenomenon, not least to ensure equity when addressing key issues that may impact those on lower incomes more than anyone else.

Budget 2020 sets the tone but it will be fruitless unless there is the political will to go for the green paradigm shift in our lifetime.

This shift will require recalibrating how we envisage economic growth, to take into account mental, social, and environmental wellbeing.

Malta may be a small country with an insignificant carbon footprint on the world stage but nonetheless, taking measures to address climate change will benefit our communities through cleaner air, and a healthier environment.