Developing a UK sustainable development strategy together

Developing a UK sustainable development strategy together

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the consultation on developing a UK sustainable development strategy. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary, Professor Andrew Miller and the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands, with the assistance of a number of Fellows with considerable experience in this area.

Integration of approach is central to sustainable development and therefore the development of a UK Strategy is to be welcomed. Central to the formulation of sustainable development policies will be the evaluation of potential outcomes from different approaches. However, the consultation document is very generalised and lacks detail as to how the commendable objectives are to be achieved.

The specific aspects of the consultation paper are now addressed below.

The approach to a new strategy

What do you think of our approach to the content and structure of a new strategy?

An important step has been taken in setting out the new framework of an overall UK strategy with separate ones designed to reflect local conditions and aspirations in the four countries.  However, sustainable development applies across the globe, and the UK must also acknowledge its contribution to unsustainable development internationally through its consumption of world resources.

The important issue of leadership is rightly recognised by the new strategy. Many fine words have been spoken in the last decade that have not been followed up by supporting actions.  Above all, political leadership is required and while the UK lead on climate change is to be applauded, domestic Scottish leadership on sustainable development has been confused and ineffective. There is a continuing need for a cadre of decision makers across government and the private sector who are familiar and comfortable with the concept of sustainable development and able to bring it into their daily work.

Real action is also needed in demonstrating what the outcomes should look like.  Much has been done to move in this direction and there are examples of good practice that need to be promulgated. The use of the footprint concept to bring home the necessity of encouraging sustainable consumption is rightly gaining popularity as it has a resonance with the wider public. Approaches that help people see how their personal actions count and can make a difference are important in moving the UK forward.

What is sustainable development, and how do we do it?

Is an explanation of what sustainable development means based on the UK Government’s four objectives approach of the 1999 strategy useful?

The 1999 UK Government inclusion of ‘high and stable economic growth’ as one of the four objective, alongside social progress, prudent use of natural resources and effective protection of the environment, was flawed as it implied ‘business as usual’ i.e. economic growth at the expense of the natural environment rather than seeking to decouple these. The Sustainable Development Commission hierarchy is clearer and recognises that to have economic growth and social stability, we must have a sound environment.

What should be our vision of sustainable development for the UK ?

There must be recognition that a degraded environment undermines all the other aspirations of sustainable development. The vision should recognise that we are already on a highly unsustainable path in a global context though our consumption patterns.

What should be the guiding principles for UK decision-makers, and how can they be made widely practical and relevant both within and beyond government?

Government needs to provide leadership, justifying decisions on the basis of sustainable development. Decision makers need to address the fact that waste is increasing, air travel and car use are increasing and energy demand continues to rise.  These are fundamentally unsustainable whilst at the same time biodiversity is declining and key habitats and ecosystems are diminishing.

Are there any social, economic or environmental limits that must be protected in all circumstances?

The application of the precautionary principle and the need to identify and remediate polluted areas would be a valuable start. Too little is known about contamination levels in the UKs waters, air and soils and recently high levels of pollutants have been found on St Kilda despite its remote location.

Setting priorities

Are the four priority areas identified above the right ones for the UK as a whole to focus on over the next few years?

The four priority areas of climate change, sustainable consumption, environment and social justice, and helping communities to help themselves are probably the right ones although it is questionable as to why environment is specifically linked to social justice.

What issues do you think are important, or better dealt with, only within the  separate UK Government, Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly Government or Northern Ireland strategies, or at a regional or local level?

Most issues have a national ( UK ) as well as a Scottish context. Climate change, the environment and sustainable consumption need to be dealt with on a UK level with a Scottish and local focus. However, community issues would be better addressed at Scottish and local levels. Topics such as biodiversity and protected areas (SSSIs) need to be addressed at local, national ( UK ) as well as at European levels.

Climate change and energy

The need to improve energy efficiency and increase the use of renewables is stated but to match energy demand (even in the best scenarios for reduced demand), new nuclear build and fossil energy with carbon capture and storage (CCS) are going to be needed beyond 2020 to meet the UK 2050 60% CO2 reduction target. Therefore, the section on climate change and energy needs to present the whole picture with the above technologies being bridging technologies during the mid to late 21st century to meet CO2 reduction targets. A focus should also be given to potential measures for alleviating the impacts of global warming.

Solar energy could be a good option if new, more efficient, cells can be produced and introduced into small factories and houses as a boost to grid energy. Generation efficiency will be important, in particular in the field of Combined Heat and Power (CHP). However, it must be taken in conjunction with the issue of increased end-use efficiency since it is there that potentially very large improvements in the network can be made.

How can more people and organisations be encouraged to consider the impacts of climate change on their activities, and to respond to them? What are the opportunities for, and barriers to, progress?

The principle being used under European Emissions Trading where large point sources (i.e. fossil energy power plants) are given quotas could be extended from the supply to the demand side, i.e. to organisations and individuals where trading could then take place.  However, for such schemes to work either on a macro or micro scale will come bask to the value put on CO2 which will increase as the shortfall in making progress to 2020 and 2050 targets becomes more apparent. Thus, organisations and individuals would face operational/lifestyle choices on energy use (transport and electricity) to meet appropriately set quotas on emissions.

Social behaviour and attitudes are probably the most under-researched, yet possibly the most important feature of all.  The behaviour of customers in the energy market in the past has largely been influenced by self-interest and a media-driven reaction against nuclear energy. However, the long-term and sustainable future may only be guaranteed by a change in social behaviour and attitude. This is an area where we can learn from experience and research in other countries and, indeed, can trade experience and understanding. The success, or otherwise, of different government regulations must be studied and compared with the success of educational programmes which are designed to engender understanding and ownership.

The use of tools such as Strategic Environmental Assessment, if done properly, can also assist.

Sustainable consumption, production, and use of natural resources

What steps do you think government, business, and others should be taking to promote a more innovative, competitive, resource-efficient, low-waste, economy whilst also improving our environmental performance?

Government needs to provide leadership to other sectors especially business, to find ways of ‘doing more with less’. There are examples such as the BEDZED project in south London that demonstrate the way in which social and environmental policies can be successfully linked. Government also needs to examine ways of working with the ‘grain’ of the market to avoid perverse subsidies and externalised costs. Tools such as environmental footprinting have a substantial contribution to make, both in identifying areas that need action and in measuring progress.

The promotion of sustainable (eco) bulildings should also be considered. Although the study of energy efficiency is, to some extent, included in the curriculum for the relevant professional disciplines, more needs to be done on designing buildings for efficient energy use, and designing equipment for higher efficiencies and longer life.

What areas of consumption do you think need to be tackled first?

The whole field of transport is one which needs to be addressed. For example, the move towards rail rather than road transport for movement of heavy goods and the electrification of the railways are two fields which will require significant research in the future, as well as the creation of a truly integrated transport system.

Helping communities to help themselves

What can be done at a national or local level to improve support for community action and participation in all areas?

One key need is to maintain social/health services in rural areas. It may be more cost effective to have fewer and larger post-offices, but there is a very strong social argument for the maintenance of post-offices in small rural areas. The same argument applies to the provision of health centres. In essence, encourage people to stay on in small communities through the maintenance of services.

Changing behaviour

How is the UK likely to be most successful in achieving the behaviour changes that will be needed if we are to move toward long-term sustainability, and what would be the right balance of measures by government and others?

There are links between sustainable production & consumption and social exclusion & global trade patterns that need to be acknowledged and addressed at government level. Attitude changes will also only come about through an increased public awareness of sustainable development and this needs to be addressed to a much greater extent at all levels of education.

How can communication and raising awareness support government and others’ efforts most effectively?

Information, education (in both the broadest and formal senses), use of economic instruments, use of the planning system for detailed actions and effective, focussed regulation are all useful tools.

Beyond the UK – sustainable development in Europe and internationally

What are the top international and EU priorities for sustainable development that should be dealt with in the new sustainable development strategy?

Britain has a moral obligation to contribute its scientific and engineering expertise in defining and managing solutions to these problems at a global level. Many of the countries that are likely to be affected by rising ocean levels are coastal states in the developing world with access to very limited technical resources. Pairing or twinning arrangements with a designated European Union member country should be devised by the European Commission to ensure access to the required expertise at an early stage.

It is important that the legitimate demands of the “developing” world for similar standards of living to those enjoyed elsewhere be recognised and action taken appropriately. To this end, the research and development of alternative sources of energy, such as solar and other renewable energies, become priorities because the likely points of production lie, for the most part, in areas adjacent to the population centres of the “developing” world.

Measuring our progress

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current sustainable development indicators, and how they are used?

A major inconsistency in current government thinking, which is reflected in the indicators listed, is the treatment of air traffic.  On the one hand, measures to reduce road traffic emissions are being promoted but air traffic is being expanded.  The problem is that international action is required to properly address CO2 emissions from air traffic but Government could at least make a start by considering UK internal flights.

The Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly are also looking at the use of the ecological footprint as an indicator. This approach has much to commend it as it brings into sharp relief the issue of unsustainable consumption.  This approach has been developed by WWF and takes measurement away from GDP into a truer reflection of environmental and social costs of consumption and production.

What needs to be monitored and measured UK-wide?

In terms of monitoring, data on CO2 emissions by type (domestic, transport, industry etc.) and region are required. Monitoring also needs to focus on specific delivery actions and targets.

Additional information

In responding to this inquiry the RSE would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Energy and the Environment (December 1998); New and Renewable Energy (May 1999); Non-Food Crops (May 1999); Scotland’s National Waste Strategy (July 1999); Energy and Natural Environment: A Way To Go (September 2000); A Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture (September 2000); Wave and Tidal Energy (February 2001); Fuelling the Future (March 2001); Proposal for a Directive on Environmental Liability with Regard to the Prevention and remedying of Environmental Damage (September 2002); The Practicalities of Developing Renewable Energy (October 2003) and Inquiry into the future of the renewable energy sector in Scotland (February 2004).


Follow Us: