The politics of sustainable development – Carmel Cacopardo

The term “sustainable development” is one of the most misused and abused in political discourse. I would dare say that it is as misused as much as the word “democracy”. It is generally used in the wrong context, and,  as a result, sends a wrong message.

Sustainable development refers to development which has a long-term view, that is a view that considers and addresses long-term impacts. In particular, it signifies development which ensures that resources are carefully used so that the interests of future generations are taken into consideration. This is not just a matter of environmental concern – it is an intertwining of environmental, economic, social and cultural policy. It means that our actions must take the long-term view and be simultaneously compatible with the forces of nature, the economy, human development and a respect for culture.

Sustainable development is about living in harmony with all that surrounds us, at all times. It is about being in harmony with Mother Earth, with nature and with our fellow human beings. It is treating our surroundings as part of our family. It is the path to dignity, aiming simultaneously at the eradication of poverty and the protection of the planet. Sustainable development requires the synchronisation of cultural, social, environmental and economic policy. Shielding human dignity, appreciating our culture and environmental protection are as essential as economic development.

Sustainable development is, in fact, a balanced approach to development, as its perspective is all-encompassing. It is for this reason that, since the 1990s, when sustainable development first made it into Malta’s statute book, it was retained (on paper) as a direct political responsibility of the Prime Minister. In practice, it involves coordinating all areas of policy and should be reflected in transport policy as much as in maritime or agricultural policy.

Sustainable development permeates all areas of policy and hence requires a senior politician in Cabinet to be in charge. Unfortunately, not even one of our prime ministers assumed direct political responsibility for the matter as, formally or informally, all of them delegated the matter to the Minister (or Parliamentary Secretary) responsible for the environment.

Consider, for example, transport policy – about which I have written extensively in recent weeks. On paper, it is described through the National Transport Masterplan which envisages both physical improvements to the road network as well as specific initiatives to limit cars on our roads. It is obvious that bottlenecks have to be addressed, but it is just as obvious that there is a practical limit to the size of our road network.

Studies all over the world have clearly shown that addressing traffic congestion through expanding the road network has only postponed the problem and has either moved it physically to another area, or else moved it in time.

Addressing the sustainability of transport policy means that we should get to grips with the basics of mobility issues: the movement with ease from one point to another at all times. Unfortunately, this is not being done. This is reflected in the large number of contradictions encountered in the various aspects of transport policy and ranges from the electrification policy to the policy on the development of fuel stations.

A long-term view of transport policy would have easily made short shrift of the fuel service station policy. The fact that the electrification of motor vehicles will shortly commence and will be spread over a number of years, makes it  pretty obvious to one and all that, at the end of the process, the number of fuel service stations required will be insignificant. A Transport Ministry guided by the basic principles of common sense would have easily understood this basic point and acted accordingly.

The politics of sustainable development still needs to be ingrained in the day-to-day policy-making structures. If this is done, we will be in a position to weed out glaring contradictions and, as a result, be in a position to produce policies which promote the interests of all.