Passing the buck: the politics of sustainable development

Environmental groups have been feeling a little demoralised of late. They are beating themselves up for having failed to win over public opinion to their cause. You can’t blame politicians for failing to campaign on an environmental programme, so the argument runs, if voters have yet to accept the need for one.

At a Demos seminar a few weeks before the general election campaign, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett complained that NGOs had failed to get climate change high enough up the agenda. Delegates from environmental groups appeared to accept that there had been a failure to win hearts and minds and that it was their job to put things right. Thereby, the buck was passed from politician to NGO.

To an extent, environmental groups have become a victim of their own success. Because they are seen as "owning" the environmental agenda, it is difficult for politicians to share the same air space. The natural reaction is for politicians to step aside, take a managerial view of their statutory and administrative responsibilities - and wait to see if public opinion requires any acceleration of the pace.

All this might be fine - if it weren’t for the sheer scale of the political, economic and social challenges facing the world, linked to the use of fossil fuels.

Tucked away in Labour’s manifesto (see pp 22-24 ) is a commitment to get "back on track" towards the target of a 20% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010, and the statement that "a 60% reduction by 2050 remains necessary and achievable." The Conservatives also appear to support these targets.

To his credit, Tony Blair has pledged to champion the climate agenda on the international stage this year. The issue chimes with Mr Blair’s desire to assume moral leadership, and he has been impressed by the scientific evidence now amassing on the need for action. However, neither he nor the other party leaders have begun to spell out the challenges implicit in delivering a 60% target or in stabilising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Evidence abounds that market intervention on a colossal scale would be needed to deliver a truly low carbon economy - not least because of adverse trends in consumption. The latest data from motor manufacturers show that, despite an EU voluntary agreement, the fuel consumption of cars sold to private motorists in the UK actually increased last year (see p 10 ). And a Government study of the market for televisions has concluded that energy consumption is set to double by 2020 in the rush to embrace digital technology - equivalent to a 14% increase in total domestic power consumption (see p 3 ).

A hallmark of the environmental agenda in the general election campaign is the surprising degree of consensus between the leading parties. Little in the manifestos is likely to stir controversy - although the Conservatives’ proposals to slash funding for the Environment Agency and English Nature have not helped build their credibility on the environmental front.

Overlooked, however, is that any serious attempt to tackle the unsustainable trends now before us would require action of a kind that would test the mettle of any politician. Responsibility to find a way forward on these issues - and to engage successfully with the general public and with business - cannot be placed at the door of the environmental NGOs.

An immense challenge for whoever wins his place in Downing Street on 5 May will be to take on board the environmental agenda and develop a long-term programme. The Prime Minister’s failure to reach out and discuss these questions during the 2005 election campaign will not have made this looming crisis in British politics any easier to address.

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