When you left the department of the environment last year you said you intended to shed some of your official reserve. I would like to take you up on that because a lot of people in Britain, myself included, think that we have a pretty poor record on the environment, and I am keen to know why. Given your former role as the country’s top civil servant on green matters, and your new one as chairman of the European environment agency, you seem well qualified to tell me if I am wrong.
The challenge is to reconcile the clash between everyone’s desire for a green and pleasant land, and those same people’s desire to drive cars, keep warm and chuck out their rubbish. At present we do not reconcile the clash very well, although Labour has started with good intentions. We put up with some of the filthiest power stations and worst traffic conditions in Europe, yet we are supposed to be lovers of nature. Our previous government claimed to hate red tape, yet created possibly the most elaborate system of environmental regulation in the EU. This may be the fault of the people, but I think there is more to it than that-there are flaws at the heart of the process which almost guarantee that green policy will be confused.
One of them is epitomised by Brent Spar. It goes to the very core of the environmental dilemma: green ideals versus money. The decision to allow Brent Spar to be dumped in the deep sea followed exhaustive analysis of the cost and benefits, and was in keeping with ministers’ claims to operate a balanced environmental policy. But when it came to it, all that expensive work was to no avail. There was a public uproar; emotion carried the day; the dumping was cancelled. In the turmoil that followed, many commentators blamed the government for failing to read the mood of the public. The real point is that we lack a clear national consensus on the environment. All the interests that converge on the issue-business, consumers, conservation-clash chaotically. Brent Spar did not advance the national debate. All it left in its wake was recrimination.
Both Germany and Japan deal with their environmental problems more effectively than we do. Sweden is light years ahead of us in finding solutions to its nuclear waste problem. It is all very well for us to pride ourselves on our balanced approach. But is it getting us anywhere?
30th May 1997
You start with a rhetorical trick of the “have you stopped beating your wife” variety when you ask me to discuss the reasons for the failure of Britain’s environmental policy. I do not believe there has been such a comprehensive failure. Consider the steady improvement in our air and water quality, cleaner rivers and beaches, the increased recycling of wastes, the elimination of the CFCs that have been damaging the ozone layer and so on. Can it be that you, like many people, are impatient for immediate change and do not notice the incremental improvements?
But you are right that many problems remain. Sometimes it seems that as soon as we have dealt with one another looms up. There are also many areas where society has conflicting objectives-and no easy solutions are to be had. Most people, for example, want cheap plentiful food and a natural environment protected from chemical degra-dation. There are no easy ways through this, only a series of hard won compromises.
What we need is a flexible set of policies that can adjust to new and emerging problems, and structures that can resolve conflicts in objectives. There is a framework for this in the sustainable development strategy put in place by the last government. This is a good statement of principles, and has proved a useful tool in helping governments to allocate scarce resources in the environmental field. It should continue to be a useful framework for the new government.
If we have such a sensible framework, why do governments seem so vulnerable to outbursts of green emotion driving them off course as in the Brent Spar case? The answer is openness. Brent Spar was above all a failure of openness. Shell-and much more seriously the department of trade and industry-did not grasp what was needed to ensure proper understanding and support from all the groups concerned. A public inquiry or properly advertised public consultation before the decisions were taken would have transformed the situation. Nobody can say which way such a decision would have gone. But if the decision had gone in favour of dumping the rig at sea, Greenpeace would have been much less likely to have mounted a successful wrecking action.
The department of the environment learned by bitter experience that openness and due process is the only satisfactory way of legitimising difficult decisions. Consider the length and intensity of public debate and consultation taken over the decision to authorise the operation of Thorp at Sellafield. There were even more serious environmental issues at stake here. But the result of the department’s laborious and open process was that everyone had a chance to have their say in advance, all the evidence was carefully weighed, and the decision to operate was upheld.
Open discussion of issues and the building of consensus is made more difficult by the way in which our media operates. The sensationalism and personalisation of reporting on most issues makes intelligent public discussion difficult. So my return challenge to you, as the former energy editor of the Financial Times, is to ask how we can create a media that is capable of rational discussion on environmental policy?
2nd June 1997
The media could do more to promote serious discussion, but I am not hopeful. The press thinks that the environment is slipping down the political agenda, so it has demoted coverage. The environment also plays to the journalist’s worst instincts: it is worthy (therefore suspect) but rich in shock horror potential (therefore always bad news). I think the press is right, incidentally, in feeling that the environment has slipped as a priority, (although the new government could change that). But perhaps that is, in part, a reflection of the ineffectiveness of policy. We have not got the mechanics right. To be effective, environment policy must apply across the board; it must shape all policies. But that is certainly not the case today. Some parts of government have green issues at the top of the list, others nowhere at all. As you indicated, the key decisions on Brent Spar were taken, not by the department of the environment, but by the department of trade and industry, where the environment takes second place to commercial considerations. At the very least, the DoE should have been directly involved.
Worse examples-at least under the last government-were transport and energy. If the environment really is a priority we would surely have policies that encouraged people to use cleaner ways to get about, and conserve energy. Instead we have a system which favours the dirtiest and noisiest forms of transport-cars and lorries-and an energy policy which aims to keep electricity and fuel prices as low as possible. The public sees this and becomes cynical.
I accept that we are all hypocrites when it comes to the motor car. Traffic jams are always someone else’s fault. But that reinforces the need for leadership in this area. Left to our own devices we will always give in to selfishness-which is why we have governments to promote the common interest. In the area of social security we do it through taxation. We need a similar process on the environment to encourage individuals to adapt their behaviour for the common environmental good. This might include taxation, regulation, education. But the key point is that the measures should reflect a planned and consistent approach across the government. The public will respond if they feel that government genuinely wants to clean the country up, and I am glad to see that John Prescott seems prepared to tackle some tough issues such as company cars.
4th June 1997
Yes, I agree that there is a muddle about transport and the environment. But the fault lies in ourselves. We all want maximum freedom for our own use of our private cars. But we all deplore the congestion and the environmental damage which traffic causes in our towns and countryside. It is loose thinking to blame the government for this state of affairs, and to suppose that all that is required is a bit of clear analysis and leadership from government. The fact is that no country in the world has yet found a satisfactory solution to this question.
Nevertheless, I agree that governments could and should do more to manage these conflicts. The answer must again lie in openness and participation, especially at local level. Our towns and cities need to thrash out their own transport problems. It is only when people come to realise that some restraint on private transport is desirable for the sake of everyone in the neighbourhood that the necessary measures can win support: new forms of public transport, dedicated public sector lanes on the highways, road pricing, parking restrictions, re-zoning of development to link with public transport and so on.
The main British policy failure in this area is that we have so much weakened local authorities that they now lack the powers, resources and political confidence which they need for these tasks. If we gave local authorities adequate powers to promote sustainable development, I believe we would unleash a lot of creativity. Seventy per cent of local authorities in Britain have already made a start on this, and there have been some significant successes on local transport, on energy saving, on waste recycling and public health. The new government should give this Local Agenda 21 initiative its full backing.
Incidentally, I am writing this from New York where I am co-chairing a United Nations working group in preparation for the meeting of the heads of government in June. They will review progress on sustainable development throughout the world five years after the earth summit in Rio. And the single area of greatest consensus between environmental policy makers here is the importance of local initiatives.
6th June 1997
That sounds encouraging-except that you used that ugly phrase “sustainable development” once more. I know that this is the guiding principle of our environment policy-and of most of the industrialised world. But what does it mean? The underlying meaning of sustainable development seems to be that we live in a world of finite resources, and that we should be guided by this knowledge in everything we do. I do not dispute the finite resources, but I have a lot of trouble with the inferences that people draw from that. The most dangerous is that the human race proceeds along a single track until it hits the buffers. We consume something until it is depleted, and that is it. This ignores most of history. The truth is that virtually all living things adapt to a changing environment. Resources become scarce and force us to seek alternatives, or other resources are discovered/ invented to replace them. Those who would enforce sustainable development deny this.
A sustainable society in the purest sense would be one dominated by the fear of scarcity and deterioration. It would discourage invention because of its bias against adaptation and change. Ultimately it would be doomed. The sustainable approach is a negative one.
Having rejected sustainability, what would I put in its place? I certainly agree that a guiding principle has great value in an area as diffuse and emotional as the environment. What we need is a doctrine which recognises that resources get depleted, that things change and that necessity is the mother of invention: try creative development.
8th June 1997
I cannot agree with your attempt to ban the concept of sustainable development. I agree that there is no single way of achieving sustainability. All we ever have is a series of choices, some of which may be more sustainable, others less so. Here in New York all the countries of the world are reviewing their achievements on sustainable development since the Rio summit. We are all agreed that progress so far is painfully slow. I have described efforts since Rio as amounting to no more than “slightly less unsustainable development genuflecting to the environment” or sludge. I have challenged all the countries present to move forward to “development reconciling environmental and material success” or dreams!
Some examples stare us in the face. It is crazy short-termism for the fishing nations to allow the prime fish stocks of the world to be fished to the point of extinction. It is risky to emit more and more greenhouse gases with the threat of catastrophic damage to the world from climate change in the next century. It cannot be sensible to allow the destruction of forests around the world on the present scale, with all the soil degradation, loss of biodiversity and risks of climate alteration that go with it. We must protect our supplies of water better as desertification and soil loss spread alarmingly in many parts of the world. Obvious points, but the world finds it surprisingly hard to act on them, through ignorance or short-termism.
But there are some encouraging signs too. In many different ways and in many different places people are beginning to get the message and are changing their behaviour. The sustainability message is not a negative one, restricting and inhibiting human creativity. On the contrary it is inspiring new thinking, new solutions and new inventions. In technology, look at the progress being made with the development of solar energy, with high insula-tion glass, cleaner vehicles and so on. The environmental technology industry is now one of the fastest growing sectors of the world economy. Look, too, at the stimulus which environmental concerns are giving to many areas of basic research and development. Sustainable development may be an ugly expression, but the idea behind it is already proving an attractive theme for the new government.