The Malta Independent 26 May 2024, Sunday
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Is Malta impacting nature and biodiversity investments

George M Mangion Sunday, 12 May 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 16 days ago

Europe can achieve significant impact through nature and biodiversity investing by adopting a comprehensive approach that integrates conservation goals into financial systems.

It can do this by leveraging innovative financing mechanisms, and strengthens policy support. Dreaming of a European strategy where members can make meaningful impacts through investments in nature and biodiversity is always within reach.

One regularly reads articles on social media how governments can enforce regulations that require businesses to account for their environmental impact, similar to the EU's biodiversity strategy for 2030. But implementing stringent environmental impact assessments and requiring biodiversity offsets for development projects can be a political burden to carry especially when most EU members are burdened with high national debts and creeping inflation.


To stop being a dream and become truly effective, Europe should set clear, measurable targets for all members regarding biodiversity conservation and restoration. As in all other EU states, Malta is involved in assessing how investments might impact ecosystems and biodiversity loss since these could affect asset values. Let us start by addressing Malta's incessant drive to build over ODZ land.

In the 1960s, many seaside plots were allocated on the cheap to developers (particularly to assist the tourist industry to take shape).  Back to now, the land use is again a highly critical and subjective contention. In view of Malta's expanding recruitment of low-cost TCNs, we need to build more accommodation facilities - some over green land. We have neglected area-based conservation; so essential in a densely-populated island.

Take Gozo, where both previously quaint seaside fishing villages of Xlendi and Marsalforn, have been inundated by heavy development of soulless housing. Both villages had no effective and efficient protection by the planning and conservation authorities over the past decades. One can argue that the establishment of protected areas can conflict with human rights, equity and development needs.

Let us discuss the extensive land reclamation, building of the Freeport and Grand Harbour quays and deep fish farm cages - these have all destroyed parts of Posidonia oceanica. This is a type of seagrass found in the Mediterranean Sea and is abundant in coastal areas in Malta. Posidonia beds are rich biodiversity hubs, important for hundreds of different marine species. They also protect coastlines from erosion and store and sequestrate vast quantities of carbon, estimated at half a million tonnes a year. Despite their value, it is estimated that over half of the Posidonia beds have been damaged or degraded. Moving to Latvia, where semi-natural grasslands are disappearing from the landscape at an unprecedented rate.

To redress the losses of biodiversity and increase the economic viability of farming on semi-natural grasslands, the GrassLife project was launched in 2016 to restore priority grasslands over more than 1,320 hectares within 14 Natura 2000 sites.

Human land use is the main threat to biodiversity (Tilman et al. 2017). About 75% of the terrestrial habitats have been significantly modified or destroyed by humans (Díaz et al. 2019). Anthropogenic land use impacts on landscapes (Allan et al. 2019). Crop and livestock production are the main reasons for losing habitat (Sanderson et al. 2002), followed by commercial use such as hotel towers, environmental pollution and human infrastructure. At this juncture, one can argue that effective protection of biodiversity is particularly challenged by human land use, climate change and social, political and economic limitations.

Biocultural conservation, climate-smart management and biosecurity approaches help to overcome challenges induced by human needs and climate change. Another example is southern and western Finland. In this area, vast natural boreal forests once thrived, along with bog woodlands serving as crucial sanctuaries for plants and animals. Most of these forests have since been used for commercial purposes and became generally uninhabitable for wildlife.

In 2003, an EU-funded Life project in Finland helped launch a large-scale forest restoration project to improve the conservation status of the forests within 33 Natura 2000 sites. The project was successful and transformed a major national restoration programme with a budget of €30m a year.

To fight such Europe-wide ecological disasters, one may encourage financial regulators to develop guidelines that promote biodiversity-friendly investments. This includes creating incentives for green bonds and other financial instruments that support biodiversity projects. One such measure is to leverage green and biodiversity bonds to fund projects that aim to preserve or restore natural habitats and species. These bonds can offer essential funding for large-scale conservation projects, implementing schemes where beneficiaries of ecosystem services compensate those involved in ecosystem maintenance.

This can incentivise the preservation of valuable natural resources and biodiversity. It can also help pool resources and expertise. So, member states have to allocate scarce funds for the maintenance and expansion of protected areas. Returning to Malta, political manifestos of major parties often contain extensive pledges regarding their commitment to safeguarding biodiversity and enhancing the well-being of citizens. Slowly, we witness the €700m Green Plan launched to turn the bare rocky landscape into lush forests.

So perhaps the Malta Development Bank can stretch its arms to fund captains of industry in a quest to augment biodiversity. Naturally, many bells and whistles have been rung prior to elections by erstwhile seasoned politicians extolling the virtues of monitoring biodiversity and evaluating the effectiveness of conservation strategies. Back to basics, more educational programmes at grass root level are needed to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity. Let us inculcate financial professionals about the economic implications of biodiversity loss. Thus, we reach out to deeper pockets which can integrate these considerations into mainstream finance decisions.

Reflecting, that elections for local councils are in full blast, let us hope that councils are adequately funded to continue supporting biodiversity projects. Their involvement can ensure that projects are socially equitable and that mainstream conservation efforts are in place. Councillors have our full respect for nurturing the habitat in their villages or towns. With proper support from central government, they can actively engage into socio-economic impacts of biodiversity investments. Ensuring significant impacts through investments in nature and biodiversity across all councils will demand a sustained commitment.

Finally, while substantial expanses of Posidonia meadows have been lost, there remains hope that by minimising additional harm, efforts to revive marine biodiversity will yield positive results.


George M. Mangion is a senior partner at PKF Malta 
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