Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia speaks to Bertrand Borg about his challenges, priorities and optimism about the ‘new path’ the country is heading in terms of environmental regulation.

There is something of the tightrope walker about Aaron Farrugia, Malta’s minister for the environment, planning and climate change.

An economist by training, Farrugia is a self-proclaimed pragmatist who is not wedded to any particular ideology or perspective.

That makes for an efficient politician – “I’ve met NGO representatives as many times as the three ministers who preceded me, combined,” he tells me – but also one likely to upset purists as he treads carefully between environmental conservation and sustainable development.

Farrugia, for instance, sees merit in handing two nature reserves in Mellieħa over to hunters to manage – an idea that horrifies activists. Nor is Malta’s environment minister dead-set against another environmental bugbear, land reclamation

But Farrugia is also the first environment minister in Malta’s history to rule out expanding landfills as a quick fix to the country’s ever-growing waste problem, and the man who managed to conclude a fuel station policy review in months, after years of delays under his predecessors Ian Borg and José Herrera.

Other policy reviews are in the works. One in particular, a rural policy that sets the rules for building on Outside Development Zone land, will be wrapped up by “the start of summer”, Farrugia says.

If effective, that revised policy will help solve a major headache for Farrugia in a portfolio that is full of them.

Malta comes dead last across the European Union when it comes to recycling. No other EU member state is as far from reaching its emissions targets as Malta. And public trust in the Planning Authority is arguably at historic lows.

Planning - Malta's biggest missed opportunity

Of all his problem children, Farrugia believes planning has proven to be Malta’s biggest missed opportunity.

“There should have been smarter development,” he says when asked what he would have done differently 10 years ago. “Development should happen, but smartly and sustainably. You can build zero carbon footprint buildings, have roof gardens or green facades”.

In a symbolic first act as planning minister, Farrugia nudged Elizabeth Ellul off the Planning Board she chaired. Ellul is still around – she serves as chair of the PA’s regularisation board now – but Farrugia says that is because his hands are tied.

According to the Development Planning Act, the Planning Board chair can only be removed following a vote among MPs.

“There was an element of musical chairs,” to Ellul’s removal, Farrugia candidly acknowledges.

One part of Farrugia’s plan that appears to have temporarily fallen by the wayside is his pledge to publish a list of his meetings with lobbyists and stakeholders. The list exists, but he will not be publishing it yet.

“I was told to wait [before publishing], as it will form part of a government-wide transparency register,” he says. 

We now realise that we don’t need to jump into a car and sit in traffic to go to work

He speaks with unwavering optimism about the “new path” the country is now heading down in terms of environmental regulation, as politicians often do. But unlike his predecessors, Farrugia has been handed the keys to both the Planning Authority and environmental regulator, ERA.

Farrugia says the ERA needs more resources if it is to match up to the better-equipped PA.

He, however, dismisses a suggestion that ERA has been bullied by larger state agencies such as Infrastructure Malta, and insists his relationship with minister Ian Borg – who lost the planning portfolio to Farrugia – is “very good”.

What about Miżieb and l-Aħrax?

Farrugia is less categorical when asked about a proposal to hand the management of Miżieb and Aħrax reserves to the hunters’ federation FKNK.

He first dances around the question but then hints that it will happen.

“Guardianship deals already exist with various NGOs. BirdLife, Nature Trust and others have them,” he says. “The main concern is that they remain open to the public. People should be able to go for a walk or have a picnic.”

The difference is that these NGOs are not in the business of shooting birds out of the open sky.

“People made their choice in the [spring hunting] referendum,” Farrugia replies. “We have to respect that”.

The idea of land reclamation also intrigues him, though he is adamant it cannot be solution to Malta’s ever-growing construction waste problem.

“It is very expensive,” he says. “The ERA is looking at the possibilities. Let’s wait for the reports to see the environmental and economic impact.”

Magħtab will not be expanded further

As for construction waste, Farrugia believes the solution there lies in regulating the sector and then moving towards the use of reconstituted stone – recycling stone debris into a paste which can be moulded.

Farrugia’s recycling optimism extends to broader waste management. Magħtab’s landfill will not be expanded further, and we are told that a waste-to-energy plant which has been on the cards since 2008 will now actually be built.

“In the past, we would just take up new land and turn it into additional landfill space. And unless we did something, ministers would have kept taking up land all the way to Qawra,” Farrugia argues.

Problems with reaching environmental targets are even more amplified when it comes to climate change. Despite switching to gas-powered electricity generation, Malta is likely to make it less than halfway to its 2030 EU emissions targets.

“Improving further is going to hurt a lot,” Farrugia admits, saying the low-hanging fruit has been picked. “Now it’s the bones that are left to tackle.”

The biggest bone of all is transport, which makes up the lion’s share of Maltese emissions.

Remote-working here to stay

Lessons learnt from the coronavirus pandemic could go some way towards addressing that, as more people work from home. Farrugia himself believes remote-working is something that is here to stay.

“We now realise that we don’t need to jump into a car and sit in traffic to go to work,” he says. “

So given that reality and the climate change imperative, is the government’s seven-year, €700 million project to resurface and widen the country’s roads already looking dated?

Farrugia does not think so. He argues the project is important because our attachment to cars is cultural, and “cultural change takes time”.

He is right about that. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that when it comes to the environment, time is not on our side.

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