Volunteers for the green war

Britain's armed forces are reputed to have a brisk approach to selecting personnel to do their dirty business. "I want three volunteers: you, you and you," the officer in charge says to the hapless squaddies. The Dutch Government has now taken a leaf out of this book in its efforts to implement its national environmental plan (see pp 18-20 ). More than a dozen sectors of industry have been put on notice that they will be invited to sign voluntary agreements to improve their environmental performance. The invitation happens to come together with a set of official environmental targets, deadlines for achieving them, an understanding that much of what the businesses volunteer for will eventually be given legal force in their permits, and a threat that legislation will follow if they fail to sign on the dotted line. Offers like that are clearly irresistible.

Outside the armed services, the British approach is altogether a more gentlemanly affair. The question is whether it will deliver - and it is one which will be asked with increasing vigour now that the Government claims to have put in place the mechanisms to harness voluntary action by business to the environmental improvement treadmill.

One recent official initiative of this kind is a Department of Energy campaign to obtain the commitment of top management in leading companies to energy efficiency. Companies which sign up are not being asked to set themselves any particular targets, and the Department says it has no intention of introducing any policing arrangements, with the possible exception of a short and unbureaucratic questionnaire some time next year. That it may be being a mite optimistic about what this approach will achieve is suggested by the recent behaviour of two of the campaign's founder signatories, British Steel and Midland Bank (see pp 3-4 ).

British Steel's decision to switch a major bulk freight contract from rail to road without giving any apparent consideration to the energy and emissions implications has something in common with the positive action taken by the leading freight business Exel Logistics in setting itself an energy efficiency target (see pp 16-18 ). Exel's policy will cut the fuel consumption of individual vehicles within its fleet, but growth in the size of the fleet associated with business success will ensure that its overall fuel consumption and associated emissions will continue to rise sharply.

The common factor is that the economic imperatives pressing on both companies can be said to provide ample justification for decisions and policies of that kind. It just so happens that the result is higher fuel consumption and more vehicle pollution. Until the market framework within which businesses operate is altered to reflect the full environmental costs of energy consumption and other damaging activities, voluntary agreements of the British variety will be seen as a dabbling at the green margins rather than a genuine force for environmental improvement.

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