Times of Malta, 21 July 2008, Editorial –

The phrase “the environmental deficit” was used by The Times last autumn to describe the sins of omission and commission in Malta’s environment. It became part of the lexicon of the general election campaign when the Prime Minister promised that, if re-elected, he would overcome the environmental deficit as he had successfully conquered the economic deficit.

According to a report just published by the European Commission, Malta has broken more environmental rules than any other new member state, thus underlining the parlous state of the environment and the urgent need to set things right. It is clear that Brussels is not impressed by the way the government is handling the environment and is looking for positive action to be taken to meet EU standards. In a sense, the Commission is endorsing the Prime Minister’s own judgement in taking this portfolio under his own wing.

The Commission’s report shows Malta lagging behind on a number of important counts: the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, measures on climate change, halting biodiversity and recycling waste. Worse, Malta is facing the highest number of infringement procedures for breaking EU environmental rules among all 12 new member states.

Malta wears the dunce’s cap on the environment. This is no news to us. Successive State Of The Environment reports have shown that the country has a mountain to climb. The recent report by a public policy think-tank – The Environmental Deficit: The Reform Of Mepa And The Other Regulatory Authorities – showed graphically that Malta has a long way to go after years of neglect of this area.

As the Commission’s report acknowledges, Malta had to begin almost from scratch when it joined the EU. While it has started putting in place important policies and infrastructure, such as sewage treatment plants and new waste policies, much more still needs to be done.

How can the country make the quantum leap required on the environment? Good leadership, good organisation and adequate resources are essential ingredients to success. All of these have hitherto been lacking.

The Prime Minister is committed to providing leadership on the environment. Good leadership is, therefore, nominally in place, though one still has to see the action to execute it. He has the opportunity to energise inter-ministerial coordination in this area. His Administration will be judged on his success in reducing the deficit.

Getting the organisational structures in place to operate effectively – including a truly effective enforcement regime – will be the real test. The regulatory authorities – Mepa foremost among them, but also the Malta Resources Authority, the Malta Transport Authority, local councils and the enforcement agencies – need considerable overhaul and a greater sense of urgency. There needs to be an all-out effort, involving all stakeholders – including, of course, the public – if climate change, carbon emission reductions and renewable energy resources targets are to be met.

With about €300 million available to Malta in EU Structural Funds for investment in the environment over the next five years this country has an opportunity as never before to reduce this massive environmental deficit. Good leadership and organisation must combine to take full advantage of them.