Protests, pledges and politicians

Last Saturday’s environmental protest brought together many different parts of society, of all ages. So far it is unclear whether the rally will have any noticeable effect on government decisions or actions.

In a radio show the following day, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat promised that the next national budget will include environmental measures to improve air quality. He has not yet revealed what these are, but the best current guess is something related to electric vehicles, which he has already mentioned before.

The green proposals that were unveiled, after some suspense, before the European Parliament elections in May turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. These were family parks at Benghajsa and Ta’ Qali, which will not make a jot of difference to the environmental disaster visible outside everybody’s windows. A shortage of family parks certainly did not trigger the protest.

New figures released by Eurostat this Thursday have our country down with “by far the highest share” of its population “reporting that they had been exposed to pollution, grime or some other environmental problem”. Now don’t tell me that this is just a perception.

The gas-fired power station is cleaner than heavy fuel oil, but it has clearly not turned out to be the game-changing solution it was made out to be. We are still plagued with deteriorating air quality, mainly from heavy traffic but also due to a combination of dust from construction sites, polluting cruise liners, and much more. Emissions from fireworks are toxic too.

Politicians were not welcome at Saturday’s protest, and there was an understandable point to be made in that. But in reality no changes are possible without politicians taking the lead. They need to take ownership of the issues, and not feel alienated from them. Politicians are the ones who legislate, who set policies. They appoint the boards of the government agencies and regulators who are in charge. Politicians do not grant planning permits, but they actively create the framework for those permits.

The rural policy, for example, is being used to justify objectionable decisions by Elizabeth Ellul’s planning board to allow dilapidated rooms in the countryside to be transformed into villas. Petrol stations are also being granted on the basis of a flawed policy. The same goes for high-rise. These are all relatively recent policies, implemented not long before the new planning legislation and the new planning and environment authorities. Politicians introduced this legislation and approved these policies, and they have the power to change them.

Politicians do not need to march down the street in protest, but they do need to be engaged with the issues for real change to happen. And people need to vote in a way which will give effective results for the environment. We surely have some politicians who genuinely care about environmental issues. But they are heavily outnumbered.

How can voting for someone like Ian Borg, for example, ever lead to better thinking and action on environmental matters? He is a walking bulldozer, and looks like he couldn’t give a toss about people’s opinions and concerns about the environment. He apparently doesn’t care much about protests, or about trees. God help Malta’s landscape, if he had to replace Joseph Muscat when the time comes.

The protest called for a moratorium on large-scale projects. Well, one of the largest ones is the proposed Gozo tunnel, but Joseph Muscat and Ian Borg are busy “getting things done” and have no intention of slowing down on this unnecessary mega-project.

The fourth ferry has gone a long way towards improving any queues or delays in crossing over to Gozo, but they are adamant on digging this tunnel costing millions, destroying the landscape at its entrances, and creating tonnes of excavation waste that the island cannot cope with.

In reaction to the protest, Environment Minister Jose Herrera said that he had “taken note” of it, whatever that means. He had a lot more to say, however, on another subject. He threatened to seize some quarries if they stopped accepting construction waste. Essentially, while he had little to say about the protest, he was fired to speak out to ensure that the construction industry does not have any spokes put in its wheels.

Herrera has also spoken in favour of land reclamation, which would be built using construction waste. He denied any thoughts of building more apartments on ‘reclaimed’ land. He suggested that such areas could instead be used to create green areas, or parks.

The protestors know, of course, that a demand for construction waste to reclaim land would only encourage more building development on existing ‘natural’ land. But does the government care what they think?

Muscat says that having a strong and growing economy will enable this country to better protect the environment. But how is that possible, when our economy depends so heavily on the construction industry, including building massive roads and a huge tunnel to Gozo? Even an educational initiative like the American university came across as nothing more than a land grab for more construction.

Muscat has said that he will leave government soon and, unfortunately for all of us, at this point his legacy on the environmental front will be abysmal. Another pledge about future electric cars will not manage to erase that.


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