Moving forward through retreat

As well as raising the profile of environmental issues, climate change’s position near the top of political and business agendas is rapidly forging new links between parts of the environmental policy framework traditionally regarded as separate.

Both the national waste strategy due in late May and the water strategy expected later this year (see p 4 ), for example, will be underpinned by the primary objective of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

But with the environmental policy world expanding so fast, there are serious risks that in the headlong rush to abate carbon, serious environmental mistakes will be made.

First we had biofuels and the risk that increasing the acreage of fuel crops, both in the developing and developed world, will reduce biodiversity. Now we have the Environment Department (DEFRA) seeking to promote nanotechnology’s climate-fighting credentials before methods to assess its environmental risks have been established (see pp 44-45 ).

The head of steam behind climate change is likely to prove double-edged. There is a great opportunity for many of the things environmental groups have campaigned for over the years to finally be put into effect, but also a danger - personified in many minds by our next Prime Minister, Gordon Brown - that strict adherence to economic growth will tip the planet over the edge.

All the signs are that governments and businesses are grasping for solutions that allow continued economic growth, and that do not threaten well-ingrained patterns of consumer behaviour or proven power generation technologies.

Biofuels will not threaten the growth of car culture or the growing number of flights we take each year. As an end-of-pipe technology, carbon capture and storage - which may not even be developed in time to keep global temperatures below 2oC - reassures power generators, steel producers and cement manufacturers that they can remain wedded to plant designs that emit huge amounts of CO2 as well as other pollutants. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, around $20 trillion will be spent on energy infrastructure alone over the next two decades (see pp 10-11 ) and choices made now will help determine CO2 emission levels for decades to come.

In his recent book, The Revenge of Gaia, eminent scientist James Lovelock warned that the concept of sustainable development, with its acceptance of infinite economic growth, is doomed to failure and what we need instead is "sustainable retreat". Perhaps he is wrong, but have governments even explored the possibility that he is right?

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