Speech by HE George Vella, President of Malta at the Malta Sustainability Forum, 14th November 2019

Minister Jose Herrera

Mr Jeremy Vassallo, BOV Senior CSR Officer

Ladies and gentlemen,

  1. Introduction

Thank you, Mr Cassar and the Board of Directors of APS Bank, for inviting me to deliver the opening address at this forum which deals with the great issue of our time: sustainable development. Indeed, I wish to congratulate heartily APS for paying attention to sustainability and I trust you will continue to do so in the coming months and years.

The theme of sustainability is the defining challenge of our era. We are struggling to come to terms with how we manage our natural resources within a context of a real and present danger to our natural world and our planet itself. The Bank’s commitment to debating and acting on this matter is to be highly commended.

Malta’s corporate world needs to do more and better in meeting its social corporate responsibility. Over the past decades, Malta’s construction industry has grown exponentially and more built up areas are directly impinging on the health and psychological well-being of the nation. It is important that the industry understands that this growth, while bringing considerable material benefit to some, must also bring with it a full understanding of the duties which are owed to the country as a whole. This is not only a matter of being generous in funding good causes and charitable institutions, which Maltese companies largely do, but also a matter of playing a direct and effective role in improving our collective social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being.

Each one of us is called to do their utmost and their best to examine all the ways in which we can address the challenge of re-framing our daily lives to meet the demands of sustainability. I am confident that during this Conference some of these ways and means will be explored, debated and acted upon.

  1. Sustainability: what does it mean?

It is often useful to start off any discussion with a reflection on the meaning of the words we are using, and therefore what do we mean with the buzz word sustainability?

The word is composed of two parts: (i) to sustain and (ii) to be able to. By sustain we mean strengthening, giving support and providing comfort. By ability, we recognise that as active agents for change we are capable of bringing about conscious and greener changes. When we speak about sustainability, we are in effect speaking about important universal values of empathy and nourishment that are fundamental to our humanity.

Sustainability therefore is about supporting future generations and allowing them the means to prosper and flourish. This can only happen if the natural world in which they will live in is healthy and dynamic.  This requires of us to understand that our stewardship of the natural world and its resources are a trust held for a time until we pass that trust on to the next generation. In this context, I refer to an excerpt by the one of the pioneers of environmental ethics Professor Robin Attfield:

‘The global commons should be considered the common heritage of humankind, since humanity as a whole inherits them as a trust, subject to their being managed for universal (and not only human) benefit.’

All of us need to understand that we are guardians of the natural world. I am proud to recall that back in 1967, Malta already identified the global commons as an important shared element and tabled a United Nations proposal which gave birth to the doctrine that states that the seabed, ocean floor and sub-soil, are ‘the common heritage of mankind’, and should only be used and exploited for peaceful purposes and the benefit of mankind as a whole. Malta’s vision resulted in the adoption of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This does not mean we have to adopt a hair-sack approach of austerity in our lives. But it does mean that in our choices around consumption, natural resources and the environment we should be mindful of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Lockean proviso’.

  1. The Lockean Proviso

The eminent philosopher of the Enlightenment, John Locke, in his defence of private property wrote that one is entitled to take from nature what one requires for one’s own use provided that there “was still enough and as good left” for others to enjoy. This is a critically important proviso. It means that when we take from nature, we have obligation to ensure that others will have the opportunity to take in the same manner and of the same quality. The “enough and as good” qualification lies, I suggest, at the very heart of sustainability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Can we, hand on heart, say that we are leaving to our children and grandchildren ‘enough and as good’ as we have taken from the planet?

A number of scientists are clear that we are not doing so. Authors like James Hansen and Vandana Shiva argue that our exploitation of resources is expanding faster than nature can renew them. This has its effects in for example climate change and the acceleration of the so-called ‘earth overshoot day’.  In 2019 the date by which we had used the world’s renewable resources was on July 29th meaning that for 5 months in 2019 we are utilising the resources of future generations. His Holiness Pope Francis, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa in August of this year, was categorical about the seriousness of this situation:

“The fact that has shocked me the most is the Overshoot Day: By July 29th, we used up all the regenerative resources of 2019. From July 30 we started to consume more resources than the planet can regenerate in a year. It’s very serious. It’s a global emergency.”

  1. Our role in sustainability

The question therefore is what can we do about this?

Primarily, it is in the hands of politicians to enact legislative frameworks that safeguard the environment and ensure every company operating in the country holds strong Corporate Social Responsibility standards. It is in the onus of regulators to ensure the natural environment is protected and human capital provided with the necessary tools to develop their full potential.

Secondly, we need to recognize our central individual role. Yes, you and me – making smart and sustainable choices to bring about tangible and long-term change. There is no need to succumb to extreme austerity measures, where we feel that all the ills of our planet fall upon our individual shoulders. Likewise, we should eschew fatalist approaches where we feel nothing can be done by us as individuals. While the behaviour of the big corporations is a fundamental challenge to sustainability, we each have a responsibility to protect our natural world.

How much we each consume, especially in terms of energy and water, is a matter that we need to be cognizant of, both as individuals and as societies. We must not only be aware that our consumption choices have consequences but also be clear that those consequences are real and not imagined, that they fall on our children and that we have the power todo something about it.

Furthermore, consuming ‘greener’ and more energy-efficient products sends a vital message to producers, importers, other customers, but also Governments. If, in growing numbers, we send clear consumer choices they will react accordingly. The youth-led Greta Thunberg movement is a clear example of how the voice of the people is having a global impact and directly exerting pressure on the international community, including also big businesses to shift their current practices towards cleaner and renewable ways.

Therefore, our individual choices may become a collective approach directly impinging on sustainability and the future well-being of our common planet we call home.

These are only some preliminary reflections which, I hope, you will find useful in the course of your discussions, debates and deliberations. Once again, I congratulate APS on taking this initiative and all of you for participating and contributing to this forum.