It is action – not social media – that counts | Aaron Farrugia

Environment, Climate Change and Planning Minister AARON FARRUGIA rebuts accusations of ‘inaction’ on Malta major environmental challenges: arguing that his ministry’s work speaks louder than Facebook posts

The IPCC climate change report, published this week, has been described as a ‘code red for humanity’. The implications for Malta are severe:  intense heatwaves, water shortages, desertification, rising sea-levels, etc. And yet, as Malta’s Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Planning, you have not so far publicly responded to this report at all. Can you do so now? What is your reaction to this report?

The responses have so far been homogenous, and based on the narrative that the repercussions of climate change are with us, and that we need to work harder on a global level to safeguard future generations.

But I prefer to respond through the work we are doing rather than a social media post. For the past year and a half we have been working on an ambitious strategic plan which will help us reach our international goals. The draft Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) was agreed upon at cabinet level, its tangible measures are costed, and we know that it will lead us to our 2030 targets and subsequently our target for Malta to become carbon neutral by 2050… a number of measures within the seven sectors are already being implemented. That is my response.

I am cognisant of the fact that information and awareness on the topic, and what we are doing, is also important. To this end, the first national climate campaign, ClimateOn, was launched a few months ago by my ministry and is currently ongoing; and also reaping results. As announced earlier this year, this campaign will culminate in a national conference on climate before COP26.

In the past months, we were also active participants in negotiations with the European Commission and other EU Member States on the Fit for 55 Package. We agreed that we need to act with urgency, which is why we will collectively work to decrease emissions by 55% instead of the original aim of 40%.

Government is placing climate change on top of its agenda. Not with empty talk, but with action. We decided to dedicate half of the Resilience and Recovery Fund, around €350 million, to reach our climate goals. This is why today we are prepared for COP26 with a sound plan that is implementable. After all, this is a global fight and requires global unity and common front to take action. This report is published in a timely manner, ahead of the COP, providing strengthened scientific evidence of the action committed in Paris in 2015 to submit nationally determined contributions, long-term strategies moving towards carbon neutrality and climate finance.

Energy Minister Miriam Dalli has just announced that Malta will be requesting special exemptions in negotiations for the EU’s Green Deal: specifically, regarding a kerosene tax on shipping. And yet, Malta’s shipping registry is the largest in Europe; and the sixth largest in the world. A 2017 ICCT report even stated that “six flag states (Panama, China, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Singapore, and Malta) account for 52% of CO2 emissions.” How can such exceptions be justified, from an environmental point of view?

Measures and economic instruments for the maritime shipping sector are a new element in the Fit for 55 Package, which is a set of legislative instruments aimed at reducing GHG emissions and improving energy-efficiency across economic sectors.

Hence, proposed measures targeting the shipping industry would need to be assessed within the holistic framework being undertaken by the European Commission, which assured that no one would be left behind. Malta is the lowest emitter per capita from all EU Member States, and we’re already facing challenges in reaching our targets. Given the importance of the maritime sector for Malta’s economy and livelihood, regardless of the size of its flag-state, we will be assessing this and other related proposals and put forward our position in all relevant fora accordingly in order to ensure that there are no socio-economic impacts and that indeed this is a just transition.

Meanwhile, a local climate change expert has criticised you for ignoring the climate emergency, and instead “showcasing some mostly unsustainable roundabout examples, which require excessive amounts of water to maintain”. Doesn’t he have a point, that this amounts to a form of ‘greenwashing’?

On the contrary, we have continued efforts towards reducing climate emissions despite the pandemic, which has had a significant negative impact on government finances.

Despite these challenges Government has, budget after budget, committed delivery of measures on the ground – as per climate emergency declaration -including afforestation projects and with a record number of trees planted, more open spaces that promote alternative mobility, urban greening projects, Green Your Life and Grey to Green schemes; as well as green walls and green electrification of vehicles, including government fleet, electrification of public transport buses, incentives for cleaner mobility...

With the support of Resilience and Recovery funding, we are also planning to pilot project the first carbon neutral school. It’s clear that whoever is saying this is either ill-informed or has an agenda to discredit Government’s work.

I invite any climate change experts to discuss with our officials and experts at our ministry our comprehensive strategy announced this year. I believe the majority of people appreciate the work that is being done every day. The ‘roundabouts’ that are being referenced were created with a sustainable plan and are self-maintained through a built-in irrigation system. Afforestation and urban greening projects are not ‘greenwashing’ – they are enjoyed and appreciated by many who find them to be improving the environment they live in, as they continue to complement Government’s collective work.

One way to address climate change is to encourage renewable energy.  Yet a major obstacle to solar energy is the planning system and ongoing construction on roofs and developments which block access to sunlight.  What is stopping the government from introducing solar rights?

The emissions from energy make up around one third of total emissions in Malta’s UNFCCC inventory of emissions. I agree that renewable energy is a key area in this transition; and indeed it is one of the key areas that are included in LCDS.

Malta has achieved significant emissions reduction as our country shifted from the highly pollutant Heavy Fuel Oil to gas, whilst it reinforced its commitment towards incentivising the use of renewable energy. Only recently, as Government we launched the most ambitious schemes to attract investment opportunities for alternative and cleaner sources of energy, complementing the commitment to invest in a second interconnector. Solar rights are an issue that has recently begun to be discussed in EU fora, and we are actively exploring what needs to be done in our own country.

A year ago, you issued a draft of a new planning policy, to remove a loophole which allows the transformation of countryside ruins into villas, if proof of past habitation is presented. But the policy itself (which has to go through another round of public consultation after publication of second draft) is still ongoing.  Why does it take so long, for such a blatantly flawed policy to be changed?

You are referring to the rural policy… the changes that we are proposing to this policy are aimed to avoid loopholes that there might be with the current policy, and continue to strengthen the policy and the agricultural sector in order to protect virgin land as far as possible. There are many ideas on how this policy should change. We are analysing and considering all feedback submitted.

In the meantime, caution is being exerted regarding the interpretation of the current policy in order to ensure that all permits issued are in line with the spirit of the said policy. The process of reviewing the current policy is a bureaucratic one but there were various individuals and NGOs who urged me not to rush, and asking for more time for discussions to take place, also on the level of the Intelligent Planning Consultative Forum.

Under your predecessor, Jose Herrera, ERA had conducted studies on land reclamation.  Have these studies been concluded? And what is your own stance on land reclamation?

The preliminary studies are in our hands and now the studies need to continue on a more advanced level. There are many countries that have used land reclamation, including for industry and mobility. Countries like the Netherlands, for example, made use of land reclamation for new forests. Others for real estate. It is for this reason that we need to look at what our country needs. Personally, as I’ve publicly declared before, I’m positive about the idea of land reclamation.

The Gozo tunnel will inevitably have a massive impact on terrestrial and marine protected sites. How can an Environment Minister be in favour of a project involving excavation works passing right under Pwales valley, and other protected areas in the north of Malta and Gozo?

Government discusses internally and decides the way forward collectively, taking into consideration all challenges and environmental aspects when making decisions.

It is a common complaint that there is too much development going on. We all know that this was result of the Local Plans, and of subsequent policy revisions by the Labour government which aggravated the situation (e.g., DC 15 which measures building height in metres instead of floors…  after sanitary regulations were changed permitting lower storeys)….so why not withdraw these policies, and change the local plans?

Right now, the SPED [Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development] review is ongoing. This review will give us a clearer picture of what kind of local plans our country needs. We need to also understand the concerns and requests of people. While some say that we are experiencing overdevelopment, hundreds of families feel that they are at a disadvantage due to the ways the local plans were designed, and are asking for their land to be included in development zones. These are realities that shouldn’t be ignored.

Meanwhile – and for the first time – the SPED blueprint will be designed not only by planners, but environmental specialists. In this manner we would ensure to find a balance between development and protecting our natural resources.

As soon as you were elected you had promised a transparency register in which you would register meetings with lobbyists.  When do you intend publishing this register?

During the same period, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life was working on a document regarding a lobby register. I was asked to wait for this document to be finalised, after which the government would collectively decide on the way forward.