Nature calls, will we listen?

United Nations chief António Guterres recently said that “nature is sending us a clear message. We are harming the natural world, to our own detriment.”  He had in mind, of course, the fact that habitat degradation and biodiversity loss in the last few years have been accelerating. There is no doubt that climate disruption is getting worse. Implicit in his warning is the solutionthat, to care for humanity, we must care for nature.

COVID-19 has reinforced the message. Odd, you might say. What does the virus have to do with the environment? It does, when it is known that at least 70% of emerging infectious diseases are crossing from the wild to people. According to David Boyd, the independent UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, climate disruption, biodiversity loss, and toxic pollution make it easier for diseases to jump from animals to humans.

I couldn’t possibly mention all the statistics about the plight of the planet. Suffice to say that air pollution is responsible for the early deaths of some seven million people every year, around 600,000 of whom are children. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s population breathe polluted air. Every five seconds, somebody around the world dies prematurely as a result. 

Recent studies show that on average more than 500 people in Malta die prematurely every year due to air pollution alone. According to a 2017 Eurostat study, the Maltese reported the worst exposure to pollution in the whole of the EU. Though air pollution fell drastically during the COVID-19 outbreak restrictions in Malta, and so did asthma attacks, a return to “normal” will surely see a resumption of the negative effects of health hazards. 

More than 500 people in Malta die prematurely every year due to air pollution alone.

With the world population doubling over the past 50 years, and the global economy growing four-fold over the same period, the delicate balance of nature has been disrupted, creating ideal conditions for pathogens such as COVID-19 to spread.

Recovery from the pandemic, therefore, must also lead to countries uniting to preserve the natural world, in line with global commitments to achieve a better future for all people and the planet. As countries open up, and governments continue with stimulus packages to support job creation, poverty reduction, development and economic growth, it is more imperative than ever to build back better.

What does this mean?  According to most experts, this involves capturing opportunities for green investment — such as renewable energy, smart housing, green public procurement, and public transport — guided by the principles and standards of sustainable production and consumption. A failure to do so, and an attempted return to business as usual, risks seeing inequalities rising even further, and a worsening of the degradation of the planet, at a time when one million animal and plant species are on the brink of extinction. 

Looking at some statistics, it is clear that the challenge is enormous, whilst our efforts have been puny. So, in 2020, the national expenditure on environmental protection (NEEP) in the EU amounted to €273 billion. Rising on average by over 2% each year, NEEP increased by 40% since 2006. Great, you might say. Until one realises that, as a percentage of gross domestic product, this expenditure remained relatively stable for the last fifteen years (between 1.8% and 2.0% of GDP).

The variations amongst countries show that there is still no consensus about a concerted programme putting the environment on an equal footing with other socio-economic goals. Malta’s NEEP has been largely below the EU average and has stabilised at 1.3% of GDP in the three years to 2018.

We gripe about the greed of corporations, but, surprisingly, their spending represents the largest share of environmental protection expenditure, accounting for 57% of the EU total in 2020. By comparison, the contribution of government and households is much smaller, at 22%, and 21% respectively of the total in 2020. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a different story in Malta, where Business expects the Government to assume all the burden. As far as households are concerned, they simply do not give a fig. As a result, Government accounted for over 76% of all NEEP during the period, whereas corporations chipped in 23.6% – that’s less than half the average in the EU. Households spent just 0.4%, a risible amount when one considers the 350,000 tonnes of waste they generated in 2019. That’s 679kg of waste per person, and rising.

What is even more disappointing is the amount of investment in environmental protection. At EU level, this was 20% of total expenditure (€54 billion) in 2020. Dare I mention Malta? Our investment over a six-year period to 2018 was an average 0.26% of GDP, going down to 0.2% in 2018. In absolute terms, average expenditure was €36.4m per annum, down to €20.6m in 2018.

Recently, 28 medical and environmental organisations called for serious measures to address the problems. Their proposals ranged from air and noise pollution reductions, through better incentives for renewable energy sources and cleaner means of transport, green areas accessible to all members of the public, better and safer infrastructure for both pedestrians and users of bicycles and similar means of transport, investment in improved public transport with possible addition of other transport means, to larger permanent pedestrian zones in village cores and towns.

The Government seems willing to listen. In announcing Malta’s Recovery and Resilience Plan, it referred to various reforms and investments. In line with the European Commission’s guideline, some 37% of the €316 million in European funds will be allocated to environmental initiatives. Energy efficiency and clean energy will feature strongly, enabling Malta to reduce emissions by 2050.

As usual, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We have heard similar promises from various governments before, but all too often they have succumbed to the search for gold.   

As Gus Speth, the American environmental lawyer who runs the World Resources Institute, says “people once thought that the top environmental problems of biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change could be addressed by good science. But we were wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy…and to deal with those what we need is a spiritual and cultural transformation.”

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