Environment more amber and red than green

There is a view that the generous embrace of the term "sustainable development" has left the environment struggling to get a look in among more high-profile economic and social issues - and a contrary view that sustainable development is all about the environment.

It may be coincidence, but the latest annual report on the sustainable development strategy, published in March, showed that progress on the economic and social fronts was considerably superior to that on the environment.

The Government uses 15 headline indicators to measure the strategy's progress. Four of these have two components each, so there are in effect 19 indicators. Ten of these 19 are environmental.

According to the Government's "traffic light" summary, four indicators are currently at red, of which three are environmental. Another five are at amber, of which another three are environmental. So six of the nine indicators on which there has either been no progress or a significant decline since 1999 are environmental.

Ten indicators are at green. Only four of these are environmental - and for three of these the trend was already going the right way well before the strategy took effect.

  • Climate change has been given a green light because emissions of the "basket" of six greenhouse gases regulated under the Kyoto Protocol declined by 17% between 1990 and 2002, and by 7% when a 1997 baseline is used.

    An alternative way of looking at the trend since the strategy would put it in a less flattering light. In 1999, emissions of carbon dioxide amounted to 151.1 million tonnes (as carbon). They have increased in three of the four years since then, and amounted to 152.3 million tonnes in 2003 (ENDS Report 351, pp 11-12 ).

  • Air quality has a red light - though in this case the Government has reacted to a single year's adverse data to give it that ranking.

    The red light reflects the impact of last year's hot summer and other pollution episodes which caused the number of days with moderate or worse urban air pollution to increase to 50, compared with 20 in 2002. The number of rural air pollution days was the highest since the data series began in 1987, rising from 30 days per monitoring site in 2002 to 63 last year.

  • Traffic intensity - vehicle kilometres per unit of GDP - declined by 11% over the period, and so has a green light, though the trend has gone into reverse in the last couple of years.

  • Traffic volume, on the other hand, has a red light. It increased by 20% between 1990 and 2003, and there was no let-up over the shorter period 1998-2003, which saw a 7% increase.

  • River quality has been on an improving trend since the early 1990s, thanks largely to the unfreezing of investment in sewerage and sewage treatment which water privatisation allowed. It has a green light.

  • Wild bird populations have been given an amber light, on somewhat tenuous grounds. Between 1990 and 2002, populations of farmland and woodland birds declined by 18% and 11%, respectively. Between 1998 and 2002, farmland birds increased by 5% - whereas woodland birds declined by 3%.

  • Land use is the only indicator which has a green light due to a clear improvement since 1999. In 2002, 64% of new dwellings were built on previously developed land or by conversion of existing buildings - compared with 56% in 1997.

  • Household waste has a red light because the quantity per inhabitant which was not recycled or composted increased by 3% in the five years to 2001/02.

  • All waste arisings and management, on the other hand, has an amber light on the grounds that the amount of waste not recycled in the three years to 2000/01 remained steady at 135 million tonnes.

    The picture is certainly not one to warrant complacency. Whether the current indicators say very much about the UK's sustainability "gap" is another issue altogether.

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