Sustainable development panel seeks greening of Whitehall

The Government has been taken to task for its failure to accept the Panel on Sustainable Development's recommendations on green procurement, environmental accounts, Government subsidies and overfishing. The Panel's new report also urges new measures on marine biodiversity and a greening of the construction industry.1

The report, the Panel's fourth, is the thinnest to date on new policy thinking, and much of its value lies in its criticisms of Government responses to its previous recommendations. It tackles four new issues:

  • Marine biodiversity: The Panel points out that very few marine habitats have been identified for protection in the UK's Biodiversity Action Plan, and controls over pollution, habitat destruction and exploitation of marine resources are fragmented among many bodies. It urges the Government to conduct a comprehensive assessment of threats to biodiversity in coastal waters, and fulfil a promise made in 1994 to prepare a coastal zone policy, to be implemented by a specific Department.

    The Panel is also highly critical of the continuing lack of urgency on tackling overfishing. It repeats its recommendation that a consensus on sustainable fisheries within the UK should be developed through an advisory forum of the main interest groups - a proposal rejected by the Government last December.

  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals: The Panel has little to offer in this area, noting that "the most pressing requirement is the validation of test methods" to identify endocrine disruptors. It also suggests that restrictions on tributyltin anti-fouling paints should be extended. This is already under discussion within the International Maritime Organization (see p 13 ).

  • Green architecture: The report points out that construction consumes 350 million tonnes of materials annually, while half of Britain's energy consumption is in buildings. The construction sector is therefore "a vital area for policies to promote efficient and effective use of energy, materials and resources."

    However, the Panel's recommendations are tame in comparison to the scale of this challenge. It proposes that existing official schemes to promote good design should continue, that the energy efficiency requirements of the building regulations should be tightened - a move currently being considered by the Government (see pp 36-37 ) - and that the regulations should give "guidance" on the use of recycled materials and reduction of construction wastes.

  • Foresight: Launched in 1994, the Technology Foresight programme consists of 16 panels with representatives from industry, academe and Government charged with identifying opportunities for innovation and exploitation of the science base.

    The Panel believes that the programme's achievements have been uneven and lacking a strategic approach. It recommends that all 16 panels should have a sustainability dimension and take account of environmental as well as commercial risks in assessing technology exploitation opportunities. But its main proposal is that the programme should be transferred back from the Department of Trade and Industry to the Cabinet Office to reflect its interdepartmental and strategic character.

    The report goes on to review progress in the implementation of the Panel's earlier recommendations. These include:

  • Green procurement: One area in which the Panel sees little progress is on its recommendations for a greening of Government purchasing. The Government has, in fact, issued new guidance advocating that Whitehall purchasing decisions take account of product life-cycle costs, and set up a working group with industry to discuss green procurement (ENDS Report 273, p 28 ). It has also promised to monitor and report on its success in integrating environmental factors into purchasing decisions.

    However, the Panel expresses "serious misgivings" about the Government's rejection of a recommendation that it should set a target date from which the environmental policy and practice of firms will be a key element in assessment of all bids for public contracts. The Government said that its procurement guidance does "not permit dilution of value for money considerations by assessing environmental aspects for potential suppliers irrespective of the relevance of this to the contract." The Panel repeats its recommendation for a target date.

  • Subsidies: The Panel's third report urged that environmentally damaging subsidies - put at £20 billion per year by one estimate - should be reviewed and scaled down. A task force should draw up principles for the future use of subsidies based on the concept of sustainable development, and all proposed subsidies should be subject to environmental appraisal.

    In its response, the Government rejects the idea of a task force, arguing that subsidies "are best dealt with by those who understand the sectors in detail rather than by a central team." However, it has promised to draw up principles for the use of subsidies by April, and to subject all new subsidies to prior environmental appraisal. It also claims that each Department is reviewing its subsidies for compatibility with sustainable development as part of the current comprehensive spending review. The Panel says that it "remains unconvinced" by this "piecemeal" approach to the issue.

  • Environmental accounts: In its 1996 report, the Panel advocated the development of a system of national accounts which related economic and environmental developments to each other. A pilot set of green accounts, relating a variety of emissions to air to the value added by different sectors, was published in 1996 (ENDS Report 259, pp 16-19 ). A second set of accounts is to be published shortly, covering water resource and quality issues and trade in natural resources. The Panel welcomes this, but maintains that a comprehensive set of accounts linking economic and environmental factors is needed.

  • Energy: The Panel's third report urged the Government to develop a strategic energy policy to combat emissions of carbon dioxide, with priorities being the promotion of energy conservation in all sectors and internalisation of the costs of climate change in energy prices. It also pointed out that liberalisation of the gas and electricity markets would lead to continued energy wastage.

    The Government has largely ducked the issues. It acknowledges that current fuel prices "may not always" take full account of environmental externalities, but says that "it is difficult to assign monetary values to environmental damage". And it contends that market liberalisation will give energy companies an incentive "to cut waste in the production and transmission of energy. It would be perverse to pursue an environmental policy that did not discourage waste." The impact of lower prices on energy demand is not mentioned.

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