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Sustainable development: a call for a harmonious balance in planning

Guest Speakers

Carmelo Abela – Minister Responsible for Sustainable Development

Michelle Piccinino – Executive Director, Environment & Resources Authority

Dr Wendy Jo Mifsud – Architect, Planning Authority

This webinar was part of the online event "Shaping Malta's Future: The New Norm" which was held in July 2020. 


What do we mean by sustainable development?

Minister Abela emphasized how the issue of sustainable development affects the life of all citizens, and it has a direct impact on the economy, environment and social welfare of a nation. It is for this reason that the United Nations tasked its members to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Some of these goals include education, poverty and the environment. He concluded that todays’ planning should be carried out keeping in mind the welfare of future generations.


How high is sustainable development on the Government’s agenda?

“Malta’s government assigned a high priority to sustainable development. Therefore, the Prime Minister opted to assign the responsibility of sustainable development to a Ministry which is within the Office of the Prime Minister’’, said Minister Abela. The Minister noted that this is an important message, but that all authorities still need to work together and in coordination. Each ministry has a role to play in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The private sector and civil society also have an important responsibility. Apart from streamlining and coordination, the Minister highlighted how the Budget is also an important element. He noted that the Government has started working on a SD-proof Budget from last year and intends to better integrate proposals that go hand in hand with sustainable development. Finally, the Minister added that Malta is currently working with OECD countries to achieve other sustainable development goals by 2050.


Coordination through Government Entities

As the government sets out policies, various local bodies have been set up to implement such policies. An example of such a body is the Environment & Resources Authority represented in this webinar by Ms. Michelle Piccinino. This authority focuses on the natural environment and its resources. As aforementioned by the Minister, organisations need to cooperate. This cooperation is reflected in the Environment & Resources Authority’s strategy, based on the OECD principles, which goes beyond the notion of GDP. This step highlights that GDP on its own does not necessarily show our true wellbeing. In fact, it was underlined that sustainable development is not based solely on the economy, but the environment is also a key pillar.


The Environment & Resources Authority puts the wellbeing of society at its forefront when addressing sustainable development. In fact, a survey showed that the population considered that a 'me first approach’ should be at the focus of the authority’s aims, as safeguarding wellbeing is crucial.


Another government-formed entity is the Planning Authority, represented in this webinar by Dr Wendy Jo Mifsud. Sustainable development, in this aspect, stems from the authority’s functions, such as development planning and policy making. In fact, the authority drafted and is implementing the highest spatial planning instrument on the Maltese islands; the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED). SPED is a document which aims to address different issues such as housing, environment quality of life etc., and analyses their spatial component, helping the authority to plan accordingly. SPED further focuses on the social structure of the Maltese islands. This means that the island is segmented into different areas, namely urban, rural, costal and marine areas, and Gozo. This partition helps in the Authority’s planning, as development is planned with respect to each part. For example, development should first be encouraged in the urban area. Moving away from this area, different safeguards must be implemented so as to protect the environment. As a result, permits need to be thoroughly analysed. This form of planning further highlights the organisation’s coordination in Sustainable Development as SPED offers great correlation with the sustainable development goals.


How can one reconcile economic development with sustainable development?

Minister Abela started off by stressing that these two aspects do not go against each other, but rather, one can help the other. An example of such is how there are ongoing talks within the UN on whether the goals would be achieved by 2030, because of the effects that the pandemic had on different countries. Hence, by continuing to implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, both economic growth and sustainable development would be encouraged.

A pandemic-free scenario would have been much better for the implementation of these goals; however, we need to learn from this experience. Examples of such include the environment, where it benefitted by having fewer cars on the road and when more people started to work remotely, they were even more productive. The Minister said that when it comes to sustainability, we need to ask questions and try to answer them with the correct policies. He concluded by addressing how the economy still needs to be given a lot of attention due to its openness and how tourism has not yet reached the state that Malta is accustomed to.


Is there any monitoring carried out by a supranational body who is in charge to ensure that countries take up sustainable development?

Recently, the UN published an index where Malta ranked 32 out of 166 countries. The details on what the country needs to work more on are found in this index, with regards to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This is a good indication of where stand now, on an international basis. Local indications are then taken care of by the NSO through the Eurobarometer. Ultimately, it is up to each country to take such feedback and act upon it. The Minister then addressed the need for international cooperation to fight certain challenges, such as climate change. In conclusion, international cooperation is one of the goals needed to be achieved and this would not only benefit Malta but would also help other countries achieve their own targets.


Did COVID19 promote a positive or a negative shift?

Ms. Piccinino pointed out that the COVID19 situation helped to manage a positive shift, which the environment benefited immensely from. For example, working remotely reduced the number of cars on the roads which in turn reduced air pollution significantly. However, education in this sector is necessary as progression can still lead to regression if no care is taken. For example, people have shifted to remote shopping which positively reduces traffic. However, this may generate more waste as more material is being used for packaging. Thus, this industry needs to be made aware of such issues and encouraged to produce less packaging. Ms. Piccinino suggested that by acting sustainably, operators in this area would benefit from an efficient process which will help not only in their work output, but also the environment.



Sustainable development also shows through its economic pillar, that our economy should depend on various sectors and be more resilient. Ms. Piccinino stated that it is unsuitable to depend solely on tourism for economic generation, since this has proven to be deficient in situations such as COVID19, where the economy suffered greatly.


Planning must also be resilient, noted Dr. Mifsud. Cities must be able to deal with anything that happens. In fact, the pandemic affected many aspects in this area. For instance, size of homes and offices are now being changed as the activities and amount of people in them has changed. Another example can include the different expectations for rural areas, since leisure has become an important aspect in people’s life.


Waste Reduction

As Ms. Piccinino pointed out, the EU published the Circular Economy Directive which emphasises that things should not be designed to be wasted, but must be repairable, reusable or at least recyclable. Thus, the manufacturing stage is addressed by this directive.


Air and sea pollution

The Environment & Resources Authority has an active role in managing air quality. In fact, Malta’s air quality is monitored through 5 stations around the island. Even though no major issues have been detected, action to minimise pollution is crucial. Nonetheless, COVID19 had a positive impact on our air quality.


Studies show that our seas are healthy. The Environment & Resources Authority also issued several areas for protection for their habitats or for their species. The Ministry issued the “saving our seas campaign”, aiming at reducing the amount of plastic from our sea which is one of the major sea pollutants. As Ms. Piccinino mentioned, society will directly benefit from such an initiative since particles of plastic might end up in our bodies when we eat contaminated fish.


Furthermore, the Planning Authority considers this pollution issue when drafting policies to assess the implications of noise and air pollution. Green infrastructure has also been introduced to further promote sustainable development and mitigate the negative impact that development and construction have on the environment.