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A great step further but still more to go

Authors:
  • Sustainable Europe Research Institute SERI Germany

Abstract

All in all, the report rightfully claims that the United Kingdom has made considerable progress toward sustainability. Having said that, SDC is just as right to point out the discrepancy between need and deed, and it is also justified in its criticism that the government has downplayed the immense (and partly still growing) size of future sustainability challenges, has lacked ambition and coherence, and is missing a set of teeth that would give sustainability plans a cutting edge in key policy areas. In its call for a more ambitious, vigorously implemented sustainability strategy-particularly regarding the prominence given to rethinking the central role of traditionally defined economic development for government politics-it touches upon one of the key obstacles for sustainable development. However, although SDC addresses the issue of resource productivity, it falls short of suggesting similarly comprehensive policies for satisfactory employment and income distribution. Similarly, where it has addressed sustainable consumption, it refers only to a part of the environmentally dominant consumption patterns. SDC's appraisal represents a major step forward, stressing the need to engage the whole of U.K. society. This is especially true of its policy recommendations. The commission rightfully urges to overcome the strategy of small, undemanding, incremental steps, which it recognizes as the strategic basis of the government's sustainability policy. Nonetheless, even SDC's suggestions do not comprehensively cover the essentials of sustainable development with detail and rigor, and some crucial sustainability demands are hardly touched upon at all. We must try still harder.
VOLUME 46 NUMBER 8 ENVIRONM ENT 42
REPORT ONREPORTS
The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to estab-
lish a sustainable development strategy (1994) and a set of
indicators to monitor progress (1996). In 1999, the govern-
ment introduced a new set of 15 headline indicators plus a wider
set of core indicators, published as Quality of Life Counts,as the
basis for regularly reviewing progress toward sustainability.1The
headline indicators make up a “quality of life barometer” intend-
ed “to provide a high level overview of progress and be a power-
ful tool for simplifying and com-
municating the main messages
for the public.”2These indicators
are the basis for annual govern-
ment reports, Achieving a Better
Quality of Life. On a regular
basis, the national Sustainable
Development Commission
(SDC)—composed of qualified,
well-known, and politically independent individuals—comments
on government policies toward sustainability. The U.K. govern-
ment has publicly committed itself to take political action should
one of the regularly updated indicators signal alarming trends for
sustainable development of the country.
SDC’s most recent report, Shows Promise. But Must Try Hard-
er,was published this April. It cannot be accused of failing to rec-
ognize the government’s efforts with regard to sustainable devel-
opment. However, it does recommend changes that will certainly
be considered radical.3Supporting the intention and general
structure of the government’s approach, SDC acknowledges the
role the United Kingdom has played in sustainability issues on
the international level: pushing international developments and
leading by example through national precedent. In particular, the
SDC report welcomes the government’s structured procedure
with four objectives, ten principles, and a set of headline indica-
tors used for regular reporting and strategy assessment. The
report also grants a special compliment for the government’s
commitment to change policies should one of the headline indi-
cators actually indicate unacceptable trends or situations. How-
ever, while in some cases this seems to have happened, SDC
found that the government failed on the two most notorious chal-
lenges: waste and climate. Overall, whereas “departments have
made reasonable progress in ‘green housekeeping,’ albeit uneven-
ly . . ., there has been much less progress in putting sustainable
development at the heart of decision making within departments”
and across Whitehall (where government resides in London), the
commission insists.4Conse-
quently, it calls upon the govern-
ment to step up efforts to sys-
tematically tackle the root causes
of unsustainable development.
The U.K. government charac-
terizes sustainable development
as being directed to the achieve-
ment of four main objectives:
• social progress that recognizes the needs of everyone;
• effective environmental protection;
• prudent use of natural resources; and
• maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth
and employment.
“The Commission agrees that the first three of these objectives
are crucial to the achievement of sustainability;”5however,
although SDC generally supports the fourth objective’s aim
toward high and stable levels of employment, it considers the
growth objective misguided for this end. Nonetheless, economic
growth has dominated the government’s agenda and to some
extent elements of social progress.6Environmental protection and
the prudent use of resources have effectively been subordinated to
the other objectives. For instance, although SDC considers the
Climate Change Levy7and the extension of the Landfill Tax8to
be helpful, it deplores the fact that more green taxation measures
have not been taken and that the fuel duty escalator has been
abandoned for fears about competitiveness and short-term
growth.
A Great Step but Still More to Go
The U.K. Sustainable Development Commission Report:
Shows Promise. But Must Try Harder
Reviewed by Joachim H. Spangenberg
SDC’s report calls upon the U.K.
government to step up efforts to
systematically tackle the root causes of
unsustainable development.
Recommendations for a Substantial
Sustainability Policy
The SDC report defines a number of objectives for the revision
of the sustainability strategy the government has announced. In
particular, it determined that the government’s new strategy
should
• improve effectiveness and speed up change;
• become integrated—covering and harmonizing all policy
areas—and improve governance effectiveness by rigorously
applying a consistent and operational approach to make sustain-
able development the core orientation of all government policies;
• be directed by the central government, with all its authority,
which must in turn reach out to all fields and levels of decision-
making;
• galvanize citizens, enhancing stakeholder awareness—in par-
ticular, awareness of environmental problems and their origins
(climate change, biodiversity loss, and resource consumption, for
example)—by actively involving stakeholders in discourses and
decision preparation; and
• be at the heart of priority setting, resource allocation, and pol-
icy implementation for all government and governance activities:
Sustainable development objectives should be the key means to
enhance the comprehensiveness of government policies at all lev-
els (including regional and local authorities).
These objectives imply that the U.K. government must do bet-
ter by defining ambitious targets and transparent strategies to
approach them and overcome adverse trends; following through
with implementation and control that improves monitoring with
better-focused, more relevant headline indicators; and broadening
the application of budget-neutral sets of economic instruments to
encourage and support sustainable patterns of behavior, taking
into account possible tradeoffs between social and environmental
sustainability (for instance, energy poverty). It also implies that
the government must firmly embed sustainable development into
education—of all kinds and at all levels, including science for sus-
tainable development—and strengthen engagement of civil soci-
ety—an outreach that should be built around challenges and sup-
ported by focused communication.
However, the report also implies that the government must
understand and do things differently. One prominent demand for
new conceptual thinking is SDC’s call to rethink the focus on the
role of the economy. The commission demands a radically dif-
ferent way of measuring economic progress; a strengthening of
only the kind of growth supporting employment, social progress,
environmental protection, and prudent resource use; and a quali-
tative understanding of employment that is linked to well-
being—not to growth.
A Comprehensive Call for Change?
To operationalize SDC’s demands, let us call the size of the
economy Y (its change—the growth—is then dY), the number of
employed persons L, and the per capita production Y/L. Obvi-
ously, the number of jobs can only increase if the economy grows
faster than the production per capita—then more workers are
needed. Formally speaking, this reads d(Y/L) < dY. Similarly,
with R the resource use, Y/R is the resource productivity of the
economy. If it grows faster than the economy Y (formally, if
d(Y/R) > dY), the total consumption of resources decreases. Thus
we get the inequality of sustainability:
d(Y/L) < dY < d(Y/R)
This formalized way of expressing SDC’s demands provides a
yardstick: If the condition is fulfilled, growth may be sustainable.
If it is not, the current growth is definitely unsustainable. Conse-
quently, at any given rate of growth, policies are needed to
improve resource productivity through efficiency standards, eco-
nomic incentives, and relevant research with subsequent innova-
tion—and to limit the increase of production per capita. The lat-
ter comprises two factors, labor productivity per working hour
and the hours worked per employee. The need for compensatory
working-time policies arises from the increase of labor produc-
tivity. (Otherwise international competitiveness is considered at
risk, although today labor costs make up for less than one-fourth
of total corporate costs, whereas materials represent about one-
half, and energy, on average, 2 percent.9Nonetheless, business
continues to focus on reducing labor costs.) A similar inequality
can be formulated to address what SDC considers the most press-
ing challenge to social sustainability, “the wide range of income
inequalities in the United Kingdom, which are among the highest
in Europe.”10 Thus, reflecting on the synergies between labor and
resource productivity, the income allocation mechanisms, and the
issue of working-time regimes should be part of SDC’s recom-
mendations.
Two Key Challenges: Comprehensive Policies
and Rethinking the Economy
SDC does not operationalize its socioeconomic demands in the
report but instead formulates qualitative criteria. First, it calls for a
viable and effective, sustainability-oriented public sector, includ-
ing health politics (public health and healthy living); SDC regrets
the loss of government steering capabilities caused by the exces-
sive privatization of the public sector. The report also calls for long
term–oriented, ambitious, coherent, and effective policies for min-
imizing climate change, including reducing the perceived need to
travel (for instance, by settlement planning and education).
Regarding sustainable production and consumption, SDC recom-
mends that demanding targets for the business sector be set and
comprehensive plans with regulatory and fiscal instruments con-
sistently implemented. And business itself should monitor and
publish such results, says the report. Finally, for consumers alike,
SDC calls for demanding targets to be set and communicated by
government and supported by education and a public debate on
43 ENVIRONME NT OCTOBER 2004
VOLUME 46 NUMBER 8 ENVIRONM ENT 44
the benefits of more sustainable consumption patterns.
While many of these criteria have radical implications, some
are not specific enough or do not go far enough. SDC deems that
it is crucial to foster trade, aid, and spending in support of global
sustainability, for example, but the report’s treatment gives no fur-
ther specification than the target of 0.7 percent of gross domestic
product. Its call for investments in resource saving would not
solve the United Kingdom’s pressing waste management prob-
lems, and its discussion of employment focuses on employability
(qualification, training, and career development)—effectively
avoiding any mention of the relation of economic growth patterns
to per capita production increases and income distribution. In
addition, the report’s recommendation of demanding targets for
consumers and for the business sector to pursue sustainable pro-
duction and consumption did not have any concrete suggestions.
On the other hand, the report does identify different business
sectors that are in urgent need of change. For this to occur, SDC
recommends that the government establish clear long-term goals
and timetables for change—and then move steadily to implement
these. To moderate the inevitable concerns about the impact on
jobs, SDC considers it vital that employees and their trade unions
are involved in policy development and implementation.
Throughout the report, SDC shows a high degree of trust in the
idea that, if only awareness were to be enhanced by education
(including teacher training, higher levels of education, and exami-
nations at all levels) and better information (through, for example,
labeling, media outreach, or sustainability indicators), business-
es—and in particular, consumers—would be willing to change
their behavior. Unfortunately, international experience shows the
limited effects of consumer awareness for the environmental
impact of household consumption.11 Similarly, small firms in the
United Kingdom—responsible for 60 percent of all industry’s car-
bon dioxide emissions and commercial waste generation—are
unlikely to adopt environmentally friendly practices based on vol-
untary action:12 Some sticks and carrots will be needed.
Getting the Framework Right
Radically rethinking the model of economic development is
part of a broader concept of institutional change that SDC calls
for. This includes the promotion of coherent sustainable develop-
ment strategies for the English regions, Northern Ireland, Scot-
land, and Wales—and the need to harmonize local efforts, region-
al planning, and national policies. (Rather detailed assessments
and recommendations are provided.) It also remains open how
opinion formers, policymakers, and decision takers could be con-
vinced to work together in the recommended partnerships for sus-
tainable development: For most of them, this would imply a rad-
ical change in the orientation of their work and the visions they
follow. Such a change is not easy for those influential groups, par-
ticularly because the admission of past mistakes might undermine
their claim for future leadership.
Regarding consumption, SDC has no operational suggestions
on how to decouple the “unsustainable levels of consumption
from real developments in people’s quality of life.”13 It is well
known today that only three consumption clusters—housing,
mobility, and nutrition—are decisive for the environmental
impact of households.14 Health and public life—which includes
fire brigades, police, and military forces—are the environmental-
ly relevant clusters of state consumption. SDC gives valuable
advice for nutrition and suggests ways to reduce mobility needs,
but it neglects housing—the environmentally dominant con-
sumption cluster. Regarding state consumption, it addresses
health care but neglects public life. Perhaps a critical assessment
of police and military forces from a sustainability point of view—
including the social, economic, and environmental impacts of
their activities—seemed inappropriate in the current situation of
global interventions. (Peace and security is mentioned as a sus-
tainability concern but without any reference to the United King-
dom’s responsibilities.)
Summary and Conclusion
All in all, the report rightfully claims that the United Kingdom
has made considerable progress toward sustainability. Having
said that, SDC is just as right to point out the discrepancy
between need and deed, and it is also justified in its criticism that
the government has downplayed the immense (and partly still
growing) size of future sustainability challenges, has lacked
ambition and coherence, and is missing a set of teeth that would
give sustainability plans a cutting edge in key policy areas. In its
call for a more ambitious, vigorously implemented sustainability
strategy—particularly regarding the prominence given to rethink-
ing the central role of traditionally defined economic develop-
ment for government politics—it touches upon one of the key
obstacles for sustainable development.
However, although SDC addresses the issue of resource pro-
ductivity, it falls short of suggesting similarly comprehensive
policies for satisfactory employment and income distribution.
Similarly, where it has addressed sustainable consumption, it
refers only to a part of the environmentally dominant consump-
tion patterns.
SDC’s appraisal represents a major step forward, stressing the
need to engage the whole of U.K. society. This is especially true
of its policy recommendations. The commission rightfully urges
to overcome the strategy of small, undemanding, incremental
steps, which it recognizes as the strategic basis of the govern-
ment’s sustainability policy. Nonetheless, even SDC’s suggestions
do not comprehensively cover the essentials of sustainable devel-
opment with detail and rigor, and some crucial sustainability
demands are hardly touched upon at all. We must try still harder.
Joachim H. Spangenberg is vice president of the Sustainable Europe Research Institute,
Vienna, Austria, and professeur invite at the Centre d’Economie et d’Ethique pour l’En-
vironnement et le Développement (Center for Economy and Ethics for Environment and
Development), Université Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France. Past positions
include director of the Wuppertal Institute’s Sustainable Societies Program, biotechnol-
45 ENVIRONME NT OCTOBER 2004
ogy policy research with the Institute for European Environmental Policy, and work as
secretary of the social democratic faction in the German parliament in the 1980s. As a
volunteer, he serves on the executive committee of INES, the International Network of
Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility. Current research work focuses on
integrated concepts of sustainable development, deriving concepts, scenarios, and indi-
cators for sustainable development, sustainable consumption, and the future of labor in a
sustainable economy. Spangenberg has authored about 300 publications, including 18
books written, coauthored, or edited in eight languages. He can be contacted via e-mail
at Joachim.Spangenberg@seri.de.
NOTES
1. Regularly updated information is available at http://www.sustainable-
development.gov.uk/. In particular, see Sustainable Development Commission (SDC),
Indicators of Sustainable Development,http://www.sustainable-development
.gov.uk/indicators/index.htm (accessed 4 August 2004).
2. Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Sustainable Devel-
opment Indicators in Your Pocket 2004 (London: Defra, 2004)
3. SDC, Shows Promise. But Must Try Harder (London: SDC, 2004). Accessible
online via http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/news/resource_download_search.php
?attach_id=SMDOB79-7JQMZFE-1OHI1PA-UFRDL3I.
4. Ibid, section 66.
5. Ibid, section 35.
6. Social progress here refers to measures taken within the United Kingdom to
tackle deprivation and poverty and to regenerate the most deprived communities
7. The Climate Change Levy (CCL) is a tax on the use of energy in industry,
commerce, and the public sector, with offsetting cuts in employers’ National Insur-
ance Contributions and additional support for energy efficiency schemes and renew-
able sources of energy. CCL came into effect April 2001 for all nondomestic energy
users.
8. The Landfill Tax is intended to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill by
changing the economics of waste management so that less environmentally damag-
ing options—such as recycling, composting, and energy from waste plants—are no
more expensive than landfill. Parliament’s Environment, Transport and Regional
Affairs Committee concluded from its hearings that the tax on active waste would
need to rise from its present level of £10 (approximately US$18) per tonne to a
level of £30 (US$55) per tonne—reaching £20 (US$37) per tonne over the next five
years. The staged increases in the Landfill Tax announced in the last budget will
bring the standard rate of tax to £15 (US$27) per tonne by 2004.
9. H. Fischer, “Leute rauswerfen kann jeder” (“Firing People Is the Easy Way”), DIE
ZEIT,27 June 2002, 18; and H. Fischer, K. Lichtblau, B. Meyer, and J. Scheelhaase,
“Wachstums- und Beschäftigungsimpulse rentabler Materialeinsparungen” (“Growth
and Employment Impulses of Profitable Material Savings”), Wirtschaftsdienst 84, no. 4
(2004), 247–54.
10. SDC, note 3 above, section 137.
11. E. Holden, “Towards Sustainable Consumption: Do Green Households Have
Smaller Ecological Footprints?” International Journal of Sustainable Development 7,
no.1 (2004): 44–58.
12. The study will be accessible at Kingston University, Small Business Research
Centre, Recently Completed Research,http://business.kingston.ac.uk/sbrc.php?item=3 (a
note is now found under Current Research at the same URL).
13. SDC, see note 3 above, section 118.
14. J. H. Spangenberg and S. Lorek, “Environmentally Sustainable Household Con-
sumption: From Aggregate Environmental Pressures to Priority Fields of Action,Eco-
logical Economics 43, no.2–3 (2002): 127–40.
AD
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Die Industrie ist ständig bestrebt, die Materialkosten von Produkten und den Materialeinsatz der Produktion zu senken. Welche gesamtwirtschaftlichen Effekte sind von einzelbetrieblich rentablen Materialeinsparungen zu erwarten? Unter welchen Bedingungen entstehen neue Arbeitsplätze? --
Accessible online via http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/news/resource_download_search.php ?
  • Shows Promise
SDC, Shows Promise. But Must Try Harder (London: SDC, 2004). Accessible online via http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/news/resource_download_search.php ?attach_id=SMDOB79-7JQMZFE-1OHI1PA-UFRDL3I. 4. Ibid, section 66.
Leute rauswerfen kann jeder" ("Firing People Is the Easy Way
  • H Fischer
H. Fischer, "Leute rauswerfen kann jeder" ("Firing People Is the Easy Way"), DIE