When the 1999 sustainable development strategy was criticised for being short of specific objectives and targets and lacking in policy innovation, Environment Ministers and officials had their fall-back position prepared. The strategy's real significance, they countered, lay less in its content than in the process which had gone into its drafting - the roping in of other Departments and getting them to buy into the sustainable development agenda as never before (ENDS Report 292, pp 17-20 ).
Five years on, the message from Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett at the launch of a consultation on a new sustainable development strategy was very different - not to say contradictory. "We need to be better, bolder and more focused on outcomes, not process," she said.
Actually, process - both within and beyond Whitehall - will remain important if the new strategy is to have a chance of delivering more than its predecessor. But no amount of process will make up for critical deficiencies elsewhere - notably a lack of clarity about what the Government is aiming to achieve, and inadequate leadership and resources to lend the strategy momentum.
Poor performance from business
In working out how to improve on the 1999 strategy, the Government has set off on the wrong foot. The present consultation has been billed for a long time as "a review" - but a review, in the sense of a stocktaking of achievements and an assessment of the factors underlying the strategy's successes and failures over the past five years, it certainly is not.
This matters, because marching forward without a clear understanding of what works and what does not, and why, will guarantee that the revised strategy will come no closer to delivering the goods.
Take the existing strategy's initiatives on the business community's contributions to sustainable development. There were several of these - but they have been far from a resounding success.
Action on waste and climate continues to be driven forward. The chemicals strategy is now being reviewed in the wake of doubts about the value of the Chemicals Stakeholder Forum.
In the other two cases the follow-up has been unimpressive. The sustainable distribution strategy dropped out of view after it was published in 1999 (ENDS Report 290, pp 44-45 ) and has not resurfaced.
The sustainable construction strategy was supposed to contain targets and indicators, providing a basis for annual progress reports - but in the event none of these materialised (ENDS Report 303, pp 40-41 ). To be sure, work is under way on strategies in some sub-sectors of the construction industry, along with a fair amount of benchmarking and pioneering sustainability efforts by individual companies - but this is not the action on a broad front that the Government originally promised.
MACC2 had bolder ambitions, requiring commitments on greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and waste generation, as well as discretionary action on raw material consumption, biodiversity, green travel plans and emissions to air.
MACC2 bombed. After five years it had just 75 signatories - and 32 of these were in the public sector. In May, the Environment Department (DEFRA) finally pulled the plug, informing participants that "there is insufficient support for the scheme alongside the many other initiatives that now have currency in the marketplace." They were invited to use DEFRA's voluntary environmental reporting guidelines or to switch their allegiance to the EU's eco-management and audit scheme - though this, too, has scarcely proved attractive to UK businesses.
Despite a challenge by the Prime Minister to the FTSE 350 a year later, just 99 of these companies had published environmental reports by mid-2002, when DEFRA last looked.
The Government is now looking to its proposals for a new Operating and Financial Review to get companies reporting on environmental, social and community issues where these are "material" to their businesses (see pp 23-26 ) - but this is not the same as routine reporting using the guidelines previously put forward by DEFRA, and will bite on only around 1,300 firms.
More questions than answers
The overall picture is, to put it kindly, pretty mixed, and it begs fundamental questions such as: Were the practical benefits offered under MACC2 simply not attractive enough to encourage firms to join? Is the Government putting enough energy into getting businesses on board the sustainability train? What mix of voluntarism, incentive and compulsion would achieve superior results?
The answers do not lie solely within Whitehall, but if Whitehall has some ideas it is not sharing them more widely.
The consultation paper, while acknowledging the need to "increase the business contribution to achieving sustainable development", devotes just four waffly paragraphs to the issue before concluding that "much more needs to be done to spread best practice deeper and wider across all sectors and companies of all sizes."
It then poses two questions: "what more needs to be done" to increase the business contribution, and what actions are needed to "support, enable or require" this.
It has all the appearance of an open consultation. But the Government's approach could just as readily be seen as a reluctance to stimulate a debate with an analysis of the past five years as its foundation - and with firm new commitments as part of the outcome.
Publicity and priorities
The consultation paper is not exactly brimming with new ideas. Highlights include:
The framework will be agreed with the three devolved administrations, with a view to providing a "consistent approach and focus across the UK." However, it is not clear that this will constrain the devolved administrations, which will continue to have their own strategies and are likely to have distinct priorities and policies.
A gulf in perceptions
At the launch event, Mrs Beckett announced the establishment of a round table on sustainable consumption. Co-chaired by Ed Mayo of the National Consumer Council and Alan Knight of retail group Kingfisher, its challenges, she said, will be "creating clear and fresh thinking about influencing consumption patterns and building consensus, I hope, around what constitutes a sustainable lifestyle."
Even that small step had its critics. The Sustainable Development Commission, which was set up by the 1999 strategy, complained that setting up the round table "has taken a very long time to get sorted, revealing a worrying lack of urgency in this critically important area."
The SDC was asked to be the Government's "critical friend", but it was more critical than friendly in April. It acknowledged that there has been "some significant progress on several aspects of sustainability in the UK" over the past five years. But in an evaluation of the strategy it pointed to a "gulf" between the Government's portrayal of "reasonable progress on most fronts" and its own perception 2 (see box ). "Our own assessment," it said, "is that neither the UK Government, nor the devolved administrations nor our society as a whole have as yet fully assimilated how far the goals of sustainable development represent a radical critique of present policies and achievements, how far adrift we are from meeting our global and national responsibilities and creating a fully sustainable society, and how very much more needs to be done in engaging society as a whole in facing up to the challenges of sustainability. The commitment given so far is too generalised and too patchy to deliver the changes needed."
The SDC especially differs from the Government in its sense of urgency. "We have the impression," it says, "that the Government seeks to promote sustainability mainly through numerous small initiatives and shifts of policy, none of which is too demanding by itself, but which may cumulatively lead us to a more sustainable society in the long run. We recognise the political expediency of this model of social engineering. But we think that the situation of the world is too grave for modest incrementalism to be sufficient."
Incremental or step change?
A prime example of incrementalism at work was last year's "framework" on sustainable consumption and production. Coming four years after the sustainable development strategy identified resource efficiency as the main challenge for the new century, the document comprised a handful of short-term initiatives which will scarcely begin the journey towards its avowed goal of decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation (ENDS Report 345, pp 22-26 ).
The framework was stronger on the production than the consumption side, according to the SDC - but even on production it was "too cautious in the pace of change it envisages." A report commissioned by the SDC concluded that resource productivity improvements in energy, transport and material throughput since 1970 "have so far been totally neutralised by increases in consumption due to economic growth and rebound effects, and there is no reason to believe this will change in the future on the basis of present policy."
On the production side, the SDC sees a need for much faster change - towards "radical improvements in the energy consumption of buildings, vehicles and appliances, towards the use of more sustainable materials, towards longer-life products, and towards effective recycling or reuse of waste products." The revised strategy should set new targets and timetables for this transition.
On the consumption side, the SDC argues that last year's framework failed to explore how to decouple unsustainable levels of consumption from real improvements in people's quality of life.
The SDC has been backed by other advisory bodies. The Advisory Committee on Consumer Products and the Environment has offered many proposals on sustainable consumption and green procurement over the past two years (ENDS Report 349, pp 37-38 ) - but they have elicited very little action from Whitehall.
The least "green" of these bodies, the Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment, has also favoured a more radical approach than the Government has been willing to pursue.
In a report last year, ACBE argued that step changes in resource productivity were needed because it was only these that would secure long-term competitive advantage for business. But step change is expensive and risky, and incentives are needed to make it happen. So company investments should be supported by match funding in the form of tax credits, ACBE recommended. It suggested an investment of £1 billion over a few years "to begin to move towards a step change in resource productivity."3The debate about resource productivity says it in a nutshell. The revised sustainable development strategy could be a real driver for change - or it could, like its predecessor, influence the attitudes of a minority but fail to generate the momentum on a broad front which the sustainability ethos so urgently calls for.