Shortly after his return from last summer's Earth Summit in Rio, the Prime Minister wrote an introduction to the annual White Paper on the environment. "The Government's commitment to the environment remains undiminished," he asserted. And with the participation of people throughout the United Kingdom who share that commitment, he promised that that the Government "will turn the words of Rio into the reality of a better environment."
Almost twelve months later, those words ring not a little hollow. Our analysis opposite of the progress achieved on a sample of pledges made in the White Paper shows that even if all its many other commitments had been achieved - and they certainly have not been - the Government's record would be a dismal one.
The idea of an annual White Paper containing targets and deadlines for action was and remains eminently worthwhile. Indeed, the concept has been used on many occasions by Ministers to encourage businesses to set themselves environmental targets and report publicly on their progress against them. But a business which performed as badly as the Government has done over the past twelve months would get a panning, and rightly so.
There is also good reason to question whether the Government has properly appreciated the importance of targets in setting the UK on the path towards sustainable development. Until now, for example, it has disdained suggestions that sectoral energy efficiency targets should form part of its national strategy for controlling carbon dioxide emissions. Support for the concept of targets has come not only from environmentalists but from the Government's Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment. Its latest report (see pp 4-5 ) returns to the theme, urging the Government to set a target for energy efficiency in the domestic sector - although it must be said that the Committee itself has been conspicuously unsuccessful in its efforts to persuade several sectors of industry and the motor manufacturers to volunteer energy or fuel efficiency targets of their own.
The Dutch Government has done more than any other in developing a target-based approach to environmental policy. It has done so by means of sectoral covenants with industry - the latest being the chemical industry (see pp 16-19 ) - and it is now developing ideas on how consumers could play a part in reducing resource consumption and pollution (see pp 19-21 ). Dutch industrialists may not be overjoyed about the environmental investments they will have to make over the next 20 years to meet their sectoral targets, but they are certainly happier to be working within a framework which gives them certainty about the Government's long-term environmental objectives and the latitude to develop their own ways of meeting them, rather than being squeezed in a regulatory vice. The Dutch model is one which deserves to be treated seriously by the UK Government as it prepares its own sustainability plan.
The cycle of annual White Papers began in 1990, when the Government laid out several hundred commitments to action on the environment. Progress against these was reported in 1991 and 1992 in White Papers which also made new commitments.
Perhaps its most conspicuous failure has been in the field of economic instruments. At the instigation of the then Environment Secretary, Michael Howard, the 1992 White Paper announced a "new presumption" in favour of economic instruments instead of regulation, and unveiled a series of initiatives which, it claimed, marked "a significant advance towards more market based solutions" (ENDS Report 213, pp 20-21 ).
Little has come of those initiatives. The only economic instruments introduced since last September were announced in the March Budget. They were the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel and power, which had not been mentioned in the White Papers, and an increase in the rate of duty on petrol and diesel.
However, other promises have not borne fruit. The 1992 White Paper promised consultation papers on effluent charges to create an added incentive for dischargers to reduce effluent loads on surface waters, and on emissions trading to promote more cost-effective ways of curbing releases of acid gases from power stations and major industrial sources. Both were due by the end of 1992, but neither has been published.
In the waste management field, the Government promised to announce conclusions "early in 1993" on the use of economic instruments to stimulate recycling. Instead, Environment Secretary John Gummer passed the buck to packaging producers and users in July when he asked them to come forward by the end of the year with proposals to promote recycling (ENDS Report 222, p 31 ). And an announcement of the Government's intentions with regard to a landfill levy is still awaited.
A consultation document on changes to the charging system for water abstraction with a view to promoting water conservation was promised in 1992, albeit without a publication deadline. It, too, has yet to be issued.
In the 1990 White Paper, the Government pledged to consider the use of market-based instruments measures to prevent the creation of new derelict and contaminated land, and to encourage owners of such land to bring it back into use. This followed a review by the Department of the Environment (DoE) in 1989 (ENDS Report 176, pp 21-22). A consultation paper eventually followed in February 1992 (ENDS Report 205, pp 25-26 ). But nothing more was heard on the subject until the DoE published MINIS 14, its latest annual manpower planning document, in June. This revealed that it intends to devote 0.5 man-years in 1993/4 to the "new task" of developing "policy initiatives which impose costs of dereliction upon polluter, rather than taxpayer."
Similar slippages are evident in other areas, as the following sample indicates:
A ban on the sale of unauthorised smoky fuels within smoke control areas was promised in 1991. Consultations had already been carried out in 1986, and again in 1989 (ENDS Report 178, p 28). In the 1992 White Paper the Government promised to introduce the ban in autumn 1992. But the necessary regulations have yet to materialise.
A phase-out of polychlorinated biphenyls and their safe destruction by 1999 is required under the terms of a North Sea agreement. In 1991, the Government said it would consult on a phase-out plan during 1992. It failed to do so, but promised in the 1992 White Paper that consultations would be carried out in 1993. According to MINIS 14 a consultation paper was due in February. It has yet to be issued.
Although action has been forthcoming on many commitments in the White Papers, there are plenty more on which the Government has failed to meet its targets.
Part of the explanation can be found in MINIS 14. There, Dr David Fisk, head of the DoE's Air, Climate and Toxic Substances Directorate, reports that in both 1993/4 and subsequent years it faces a "particular difficulty" of a "declining resource base with which to deliver the substantial commitments to develop legislation that are in the pipeline." And his counterpart in the Water Directorate, Neil Summerton, notes that the burden of work has forced civil servants to work "many hours of unpaid overtime", enabling them to display their "usual uncomplaining dedication to the public service." The Prime Minister's deregulation initiative, which took off at the end of 1992, has also distracted DoE staff from work on White Paper commitments.