Government prepares ground for sustainable development strategy

The Government launched a public consultation exercise in February aimed at delivering a new strategy on sustainable development by the end of 1998. To track progress, Ministers have proposed a core set of sustainable development indicators, and have also confirmed plans to widen the debate to embrace social and economic issues. Whitehall has also introduced the concept of "eco-efficiency" into the UK policy lexicon.

The new strategy is to be issued in draft this autumn. It will replace the previous Government's strategy, published in 1994 (ENDS Report 228, pp 18-21 ).

In its consultation paper, the Government says that the strategy will need to bring together policies on business, jobs, welfare, education, training and health under the banner of sustainable development, as well as addressing the traditional areas of environmental policy.1The Government's "four broad objectives" for sustainable development confirm the breadth of its thinking:

  • Social progress: Everyone should live in a clean and safe environment: "We have to reduce the harm to health caused by poverty, poor housing, unemployment and pollution," the paper says.

  • Environmental protection: Limiting environmental threats, protecting human health and safeguarding "things which people need or value".

  • Natural resources: Use non-renewable resources efficiently and ensure that alternatives are developed "in due course". Renewable resources such as water should not be endangered.

  • Economic growth and jobs: "High and stable" growth is required to ensure that everyone can share in high living standards and greater job opportunities.

    To track progress against these objectives, the strategy will identify a "handful" of key indicators. Those under consideration cover: climate change, air quality, water quality, biodiversity, the beauty and tranquility of the countryside, economic growth, poverty and deprivation, health and housing.

    The decision to develop six or seven "headline" indicators was announced last year by Environment Minister Michael Meacher. He said he wanted them to have a high profile "to be reported on the six-o'clock news, for instance, as are the key economic indicators."

    A set of some 120 indicators of sustainable development was published in 1996. These will be reviewed as part of the new strategy and are likely to be widened to measure social issues including health, education, poverty and crime.

    In a recent report on indicators, the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development said that the Government should set targets for the key indicators if it wishes them to acquire public "resonance".2 It also said that targets must be arrived at by a "transparent and logical process", and warned of the dangers that Government decisions in choosing the way indicators are calculated could be "seen as a matter of political convenience".

    "Changes in the choice or methodology of indicators...must be carried out openly and for clear reasons," the Round Table said, adding that indicators should not be changed too often.

    One area in which indicators could be used to support sustainable development policy would be in measuring the efficiency of resource use - but the Government's paper does not specifically mention such an approach. Recent work by the US World Resources Institute, for example, measured the "total material requirement" of the US, Dutch, German and Japanese economies - providing measures of the resources used per unit of economic output and linking resource use to individual economic sectors .

    Nevertheless, the paper breaks new ground in UK policy by discussing the concept of "eco-efficiency" - getting more economic output from fewer resources - as a central plank of sustainable development policy (ENDS Report 272, pp 20-24 ). The paper suggests that the concept could, in particular, inform policies on energy and water use and waste production.

    "We need to stimulate and support those influences which encourage producers to provide better goods and services while using resources more efficiently," it says.

    To advance eco-efficiency thinking in Government policy, the paper proposes measures which include:

  • Negotiated agreements with business sectors.

  • Dissemination of best practice.

  • Improved consumer information through labelling.

  • Producer responsibility and other initiatives "which ensure that sustainable development considerations are designed [into products] from the outset".

  • Encouraging company reporting and sectoral benchmarking.

    The paper gives a special mention to the need to promote sustainability in buildings and the construction industry - in particular by improving energy efficiency. However, it scarcely discusses the role of economic instruments, despite the Government's growing interest in their use.

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