By definition, a trade-off is when the acquisition of a product or item results in the loss of another. Perhaps one would mostly associate such a term with everyday situations, like spending money at a shop: the more items you buy, the less money you will have.

During an economics lesson, when how well Malta’s economy seems to be doing was being debated, I brought up the idea of it being a trade-off with the environment.

It had not occurred to me that the prevailing situation can be put in such simple words.

I do not take every correlation and association between two factors to be essentially a cause and effect. However, that does not mean all correlations are coincidences. In certain situations, it could very well be a cause and effect but there is rarely only one cause for any effect.

Here, I hope to emphasise the lack of importance environment protection is receiving and how, slowly, we are witnessing its downfall as a priority, if that were ever the case, that is.

A press release by the National Statistics Office says: “Environment protection has witnessed the largest drop among all expenditure functions [in 2016], with a decline of €86.4 million over 2015”.

The figures show what the government deems a priority and what it does not. Social protection accounts for the largest percentage of the government’s expense. It is always on the rise, as is education, health, general public services and public order and safety. Not once did the government cut back expenditure on any one of these five categories over a five-year period.

Unfortunately, the environment was not given the same importance.

Was it perhaps because tax revenues dropped between 2015 and 2016? Quite the contrary; the tax take is on the rise.

It is true that spending on environment protection was lower for just one year but the total general expense is quite low, especially considering that environmental degradation is proving to be an ever-growing problem. This is not only the case in Malta.

When almost every aspect of the economy is going strong and the only EU 2020 targets reached relate to unemployment and reducing poverty, one starts to wonder whether it really is just a matter of prioritising

As Eurostat figures for 2016 show, only two of the 28 EU countries dedicated more than three per cent of total expenditure to environment protection. Of course, certain countries need to spend less on such matters. Not Malta, which has just managed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent when compared to 1990 is one of the major EU 2020 targets. It is not easy to do so when most of the energy produced is non-renewable.

Another problem we face is the EU 2020 energy target of having 10 per cent of energy production coming a renewable source. Malta’s most feasible renewable energy sources are solar energy and bio-fuels.

Still, our reliance on photovoltaic solar panels is becoming somewhat of an issue. The technology is quite expensive, costing about €250 million to reach the 2020 target. And while this problem has yet to be solved, one must keep in mind the energy demands resulting from rapid economic growth.

Had we started investing in clean energy before the economic boom started, the problem would not have been so big, if at all.

Unfortunately, it seemed to be more of a priority to help initiate this economic boom in the first place. We also seem to be heading towards failing to meet another EU 2020 target: research and development, one of the more obvious remedies to the problems we face. Although the EU 2020 targets comprise five different elements, they are interlinked. Hence, not all correlations are a coincidence.

EU member states are expected to invest three per cent of GDP in research and development. Malta was moving steadily towards achieving this target between 2008 and 2014, when investment in R&D grew from 0.53 per cent to 0.75 per cent of GDP. But we made a U-turn in this regard between 2015 and 2016 when R&D investment dropped to 0.58 per cent and, again, down to 0.55 per cent in 2017.

As GDP rises and the economy keeps growing at rates much faster than we ever imagined, with government revenue continuously on the rise, are the necessary measures to protect the environment not in place because they are not feasible or because they are merely pushed to one side?

When almost every aspect of the economy is going strong and the only EU 2020 targets reached relate to unemployment and reducing poverty, one starts to wonder whether it really is just a matter of prioritising.

Is it because we cannot or because we simply do not want to?

So, after all, is there a trade-off between the environment and the economy?

Francesca Grillo is studying accounts and economics at De La Salle College Sixth Form.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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