Uprooting trees to make way for new roads is necessary to prevent the country coming to a “complete standstill”, according to Environment Minister José Herrera.

Speaking at an awards ceremony for school environment projects on Monday, Dr Herrera promised that the soon-to-be-established environment authority Ambjent Malta would prioritise new urban greening projects to counteract the loss of trees.

“Studies show we have reached our carrying capacity for cars. Without building new roads, we would come to a complete standstill, which would have negative consequences in terms of the economy and emissions,” he said.

Read: Nearly 500 trees uprooted this year

“As Environment Minister, I am concerned with what’s happening, but we have to find a balance. Ideally, nothing is touched and nature is left to its own devices, but the reality is that, sometimes, development is necessary,” added Dr Herrera.

His comments came amid widespread criticism over the growing number of trees facing the chop due to government infrastructural works, with hundreds of people protesting in front of Parliament on Saturday.

Attard residents on Monday petitioned the Prime Minister to reconsider the central link project, a major reconstruction of the arterial road from the foot of Saqqajja Hill down to Mrieħel which, they said, would destroy arable land and affect 47 farmers.

The €55 million project will involve the loss of 15 mature Aleppo pines – the number having been reduced after a public outcry from about 200 in the original plans – along the so-called Rabat Road.

Read: Rabat tree uprooting plan axed following public outcry

The 432 petition signatories, under the name of the Attard Residents Environmental Network, said the project would destroy a “peaceful green area” and expose residents to “incessant noise and traffic pollution”.

They warned of increased emissions and noise pollution. the loss of protected trees and threatened livelihood of farmers who worked the land to be taken by the road network.

The residents called for alternatives such as an underground tunnel to be considered instead, noting that a subway would address noise pollution and virgin land take-up, and could also be designed to interconnect with similar projects in future.

Some 500 trees have been uprooted since the start of the year, according to Environment Ministry data, with about 300 transplanted. Recent weeks have witnessed the loss of an old Holm oak just outside Valletta’s Upper Barrakka, an iconic carob tree in Villa Forte Garden, Lija, some 14 mulberry trees in Victoria and two landmark trees in Balzan.