A way paved with good intentions

January 4, 2010

Monday, 16th November 2009

A way paved with good intentions

Alfred E. Baldacchino

Early next month (December 7-18), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meets in Copenhagen.

Climate change was mainly brought about by man’s way of living, where economic importance by far superseded social and environmental considerations. The prevailing global mentality is that there cannot be prosperity without growth, ignoring the relationship between growth and the growing environmental crisis and social poverty.

While global economy doubled during the last 25 years, 60 per cent of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded because of increased resource consumption. The uneven distribution of the benefits of such growth shows that a fifth of the world’s population shares just two per cent of global income.

Sustainable economy can lead to prosperity without growth, if one redefines prosperity and what this contributes to people’s well being. The root of all evil, the denominator to modern life, is money, which has replaced all other principles and concepts for the responsible sharing of the planet that sustains life. The concept of modern economics is the highest financial return in the shortest possible time, a question of numbers and metrics.

Man has now, rather belatedly, realised that he has come to the crossroads of his existence on this planet. The mishandling and depletion of resources and the subsequent natural phenomena will sooner rather than later lead to scarcity of free commodities, which man has always taken for granted, such as air and water. A very high price will have to be paid for their availability. But what about other living species (in the ecosystem) that are dependent on such resources? How will these and the poorest of societies pay?

The Copenhagen meeting is being seen either as an extension to the Kyoto Protocol, which the US and Australia initially refused to ratify, or as a new protocol calling for deep cuts of emissions. The US is still unwilling to stake out a position, while developing nations maintain that talks are pointless. India and China are major developing nations whose national emissions are skyrocketing.

The 192 countries expected to be present for this meeting will all speak from platforms that most suit their agenda. Already, about 50 African countries have boycotted a preparatory meeting in Barcelona in November, claiming that the industrialised countries had set carbon cutting targets too low for reducing global green house gas emission. Africa is already the worst sufferer from drought, agricultural damage, rising sea level threatening coastal areas and the spread of tropical pests and diseases. The increase in extreme weather conditions, the number of epidemic diseases and humanitarian disasters are inevitable. The scarcity of resources will fuel more conflicts. It is becoming obvious that the world’s poorest nations are faced with a Hobson’s choice: No climate deal or a bad climate deal.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that by 2080 up to 3.2 billion people – one third of the planet’s population – will be short of water, up to 600 million will be short of food and up to seven million will face coastal flooding.

The UN Secretary General admitted that the Copenhagen pact could more likely be an agreement on principles rather than specific targets agreement for cuts. This is mainly due to a lack of political will. Some environment ministers are pessimistic because each country will remain stubborn and various parties will not compromise. Those in advanced countries are not willing to accept the necessary rethinking, restructuring, and changes in lifestyle.

One reason being projected at such international meetings is that measures needed are necessary to save the planet. But since when planet earth depended on one of the species in its ecosystem to save it? Planet earth has seen similar and worse scenarios. The present natural phenomena, which we are being subjected to, are just hiccups for planet earth till it adjusts the ecological web, which man has torn apart through greed and egotism. These are just eye-openers for the selfdeclared most intelligent species, who generally is still very sceptical of the fact that homo sapiens is part of such an ecosystem. The main aim of such international meetings should be to save homo sapiens and not to harness or save planet earth, which without fear or favour will take the necessary corrective measures.

Even the world’s main faith representatives (including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism) met in Windsor Castle, England, to give their religious input in the fight against climate change. Under the banner of Faith Commitment For A Living Planet, this Alliance of Religions and Conservation aims at unveiling programmes that could motivate the largest civil society movement the world has ever seen. “It’s much more about the moral idea of ‘Nature is God’s Nature, so we have to be kind to it’.” That is, if today’s monetary culture leaves any room for morality.

In Copenhagen, there will be three platforms to choose from: Economical, social and ecological and it is expected that the economical one will be quite overcrowded. Such meeting must focus on opening the door to common good and closing the door to common disaster for man. Indeed, the path to Copenhagen is paved with good intentions. But, as I write, my subconscious keeps reminding me that so is the way to hell.


Article © Allied Newspapers Ltd., printed on Monday, November 16, 2009.

Trees and GDP

January 3, 2010

21 June 2009

Trees and GDP


Alfred E. Baldacchino

Some people might think that tree planting is just putting the potted tree into a hole in the ground, and perhaps watering it. Tree planting however involves much more than this and requires a plan of action, unless of course such tree planting is done for convenience rather than conviction. When planting a tree, one has also to take into consideration the economic, ecological and social aspects.

Ecologic aspects

There are trees and trees. Different trees grow in different types of habitats. One would not, for example, plant a tree, which grows along watercourses, such as a poplar or a willow tree, in a salt marsh. Neither should trees be planted on garigue, the richest habitat, as unfortunately happened in both cases. Similarly, no one would plant a salt loving tree, like the tamarix, in a valley. These would jar with the environment, as much as a girl in bikini would be out of place in church. These are but some elementary points with regard to the planting of indigenous tress propagated from local stock.

Imported alien species of trees should be handled with the utmost attention and planning. Some of these imported alien species can, and have, become invasive because of lack of planning. As examples one can mention the eucalyptus, the  acacia, the castor oil tree, the tree-of-heaven and the Brazilian pepper, among others. The application of precautionary principle is of utmost importance when it comes to importing living species, not excluding trees, be they exotic or  indigenous. Such imported species also carry with them the possibility of giving a free ride to other species, which can have a very negative ecological, economical and social impact. The recent introduction of the red palm weevil, the mulberry longhorn beetle, the tomato leaf miner, the citrus white fly, the Geranium Bronze Butterfly, and a number of other species including molluscs, flies, wasps, are all taking a stronger hold and impacting the Maltese ecosystem.

Social aspects

Planting trees without any plan of action can also have a social impact, both if the trees are planted in the wild and also if they are planted in urban areas. As an example, take the number of imported Australian eucalyptus trees planted both in the rural and urban environment. Besides the negative aesthetic impact they have, eucalyptus trees rely heavily on underground water; in fact, they are used to dry marshes. The number of eucalyptus groves growing in rural areas, notably in Gozo, without doubt are affecting the supply of underground water in the island, particularly the surrounding fields, to the extent that farmers have to look for alternative sources of water, either from ‘new’ boreholes, or by obtaining water from other sources. The domino effect of having eucalyptus trees growing next to farmers’ fields, are making it more difficult and problematic for farmers to cultivate their fields, with the result that there is a possible smaller output from the cultivated fields, and more expensive produce. Naturally, the unnecessary waste of this natural resource – ground water – cannot be ignored.

Economic aspect

The more the social and ecologic considerations are ignored, the more negative the economic impacts are. Without a proper plan of action, society is burdened with cost externalities, that is, costs which are not borne by those involved in tree planting – mainly the importers of trees, or landscapers.

As an example, one can refer to the now established invasive alien species, the red palm weevil (RPW), which was imported with palm trees. The RPW is devastating palm trees in the Maltese Islands, be they historic, aesthetic, indigenous, public, or private. Many are spraying living palm trees in the hope of saving them, or cutting and transporting dead trees, naturally personally paying for such unforeseen and unwanted costs. These are some of the externalities being paid by society due to the lack of an official policy and lack of foresight and planning by those who were involved in the introduction, naturally unintentionally, of the RPW, but who, notwithstanding, pocketed the profits from such commercial activities.

Growing indigenous trees locally

The Gross Domestic Product is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders and sold on the market in a specific time period, usually one year. Tree planting can contribute to the GDP of the country, if there is a proper plan of action.

In another section of the press, it was officially stated that seeds from local indigenous trees are being sent to Italy so that they can be propagated there, and then re-imported as potted plants. This is indeed unbelievable in this day and age when Malta is party to a number of international biodiversity conventions, all of which highlight the need to protect indigenous biodiversity. This might also give the impression that Maltese gardeners, who have been handling seeds ever since man set foot on these islands, are today incapable of propagating indigenous trees. It can also give the impression that there is some sort of Midas magic touch in this policy.

A proper plan of action for the planting of indigenous trees, besides contributing to the Maltese GDP, can also contribute to the balance of payments. This can be achieved if indigenous seeds are collected, sown, cared for, distributed, sold, planted and distributed locally. This creates a number of different unlimited green jobs, besides completely eliminating the possibility of importing any IAS, diseases or viruses, which are all possible under the present policy of importing plants and trees, and which has happened in some cases. It would also ensure that the local gene pool of indigenous trees is not polluted. Besides, it contributes to the better balance of payments, less money going overseas for something that can be done much better and more efficiently locally. Furthermore, money, which is being uselessly spent overseas, can have a much needed multiplier effect if it is spent locally. New green jobs for locals will be created, the ecosystem will benefit, and society will not be asked to pay, in cash or in kind, for externalities, as it is doing at present. The value of such goods and services would also be reflected in the local GDP.

An official urgent policy in this field is urgently needed if, IF, what is officially said and written on the protection of biodiversity, is to be taken seriously.

Mr Baldacchino is a Planning and Environmental manager