Looking back at 2019 | Waking up to the climate crisis

Has Malta moved on from its greenwash rhetoric to conrete measures to tackle the climate crisis?

Schoolchildren of St Albert's College in Valletta were encouraged by head of school and deputy chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika Mario Mallia to strike for the climate in March 2019
Schoolchildren of St Albert's College in Valletta were encouraged by head of school and deputy chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika Mario Mallia to strike for the climate in March 2019

Was 2019 the year of Malta’s climate-change awakening?

The reason for this is twofold: civil society became manifestly concerned with the environment — 92% of the Maltese population defined climate change as a ‘very serious problem’ according to a Eurobarometer survey published last September — and the government included green policies in its political arsenal as a direct result of that civil society awakening.

2018 saw a record-breaking 13,000 development permits issued by the Planning Authority, newly approved dwellings were up by 376% since 2013, and 2019 saw various permits issued on areas of ecological importance and high landscape value: Gozo’s ta’ Tutiet villa permit and the Qala ODZ villa permit are just two examples.

NGO Moviment Graffitti organised various protests on overdevelopment throughout the year, culminating in a demonstration against excessive development and environmental exploitation in Valletta in September, drawing thousands of protestors.

Prime Minister hopeful Chris Fearne already said that he would make the environment a top priority if he’s elected in January and he admitted that the Joseph Muscat administration failed on the issue of environment. Muscat’s administration was one that expeditiously promised the enlargement of Ta’ Qali national park and the planting of 80,000 trees ahead of MEP and local council elections, an acknowledgement of the electorate’s green new priorities. But its environmental epiphanies were always knee-jerk reactions.

Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg was heavily criticised throughout 2019 for road-widening measures (including tree felling) to curb congestion
Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg was heavily criticised throughout 2019 for road-widening measures (including tree felling) to curb congestion

Malta was late to join the global climate strike movement but join it eventually did, even though it was hardly a strike and was never followed up. In March 2019, the first student climate strike took place at University – students walked to Valletta from University and joined other protestors there. Education Minister Evarist Bartolo and Labour MEP Miriam Dalli were on the frontline amongst protestors as they walked to the capital.

This was while Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was telling delegates at a summit on e-mobility that Malta could be amongst the first EU countries to switch its vehicle fleet to electric cars. An inter-ministerial committee focusing on electric vehicles had recruited audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to carry out a study and establish a cut-off date for the transition to electric cars. The 2020 Budget in October promised that the government would present this cut-off date next year, a commitment to end the importation of petrol and diesel-powered cars as part of a new climate change strategy.

But Malta’s green party, Alternattiva Demokratika, hit out at the alleged ‘Green New Deal’ Budget, claiming that existing strategies contradicted the green promises made by government. “It does not make sense, for example, for government to declare the need to protect the environment but then dishes out incentives of all sorts to encourage the property market; nor does it make sense to keep to its programme of intensive development of its road infrastructure.”

Alternattiva heavily criticised the permanent link between Malta and Gozo in the form of an underwater tunnel and the Central Link project, a road-widening project that was approved by the PA amidst farmers’ pleas that such a project would be the massacre of agricultural land. It also criticised the government for the lack of any effective measures to generate more energy from renewable resources.

In its apparent commitment to demand a cleaner transportation, the government also dipped its hand in the regulation of micro-vehicles like skateboards and e-scooters, demanding in a public consultation document in March that e-scooter drivers be holders of a driving license and relative insurance.

Between civil society’s awakening and the government’s retort in the form of green promises, Malta was, after all, one of 10 EU member states who failed to achieve the EU emissions target. An EU report shows that Malta’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 28% from 2005 to 2018, greatly exceeding the EU 2020 target of limited increases to only 5%. With regard to renewable energy use, Malta was three points below target.

Between the 'Save the Trees' movement and the climate strikes and the protests on overdevelopment, 2019 put pressure on government to include green policies in its political arsenal
Between the 'Save the Trees' movement and the climate strikes and the protests on overdevelopment, 2019 put pressure on government to include green policies in its political arsenal

Miriam Dalli, during a debate requested by the Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament said that acting on climate change requires the money to finance the necessary transition as early as next year, 2020. She argued that empty rhetoric was not enough anymore, but that concrete action was required. “If your house is on fire, you do not press the alarm button and do nothing about it but you make sure that you call the fire brigade to extinguish that fire.”

The Opposition cashed in on the electorate’s green awakening as well when, in 2019, it found fault with the government’s slack environmental policies in the face of a climate crisis. The Nationalist Party proposed the setting up of a national parliamentary committee responsible for overseeing action related to climate change and demanded that parliament declare a climate change emergency.

As of November 2019, Dalli is guiding the S&D policies in favour of a new economic model that ensures competitiveness and environmental protection as part of the EU’s Green New Deal. She is the vice-president responsible for this portfolio. She was also appointed at home by Environment Minister José Herrera as the head of a commission committed to changing policy for the exclusive use of non-air polluting vehicles.

With Dalli abroad and, possibly, Fearne’s green promises back home, Malta could capitalise on its 2019 awakening in 2020 to be an effective player in the European green new strategy. 2019 could prove to be the first, stuttering step preceding valid change. The incoming Prime Minister’s relationship with business will prove to be vital in this regard. The youthful but growing concern for the environment should shape policy and compel businesses and large companies to be in line with the EU’s Energy Efficiency Directive at the very least if Malta is to prove that 2019 was a fruitful year.

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