Sustainability

'Urgent governmental reform' needed to protect the environment and economy

Urgent governmental reforms are needed if the UK is to meet its green commitments and deal with urgent environmental issues that could otherwise ‘cost billions to fix and put long-term economic stability at risk’, a report from conservation charity WWF-UK has warned.

WWF-UK calls for urgent government reform

WWF’s ‘Greening the Machinery of Government’, a 60-page report authored by independent environmental policy analyst Duncan Brack, a former Special Adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), argues that political short-termism has led to ‘piecemeal approaches to dealing with species and habitat loss, pollution and climate change’.

It states that the failure of the machinery of British government to treat environmental objectives on a par with economic and social aims means that environmental factors and outcomes are ‘routinely ignored or downplayed’ compared to economic or political priorities, to the detriment of the country.

As such, Brack puts forward a range of recommendations to the future government that could help protect the environment and the economy.

Report details

The report reads: ‘In practice, the three pillars of sustainable development – economy, society and environment – are not being pursued with equal priority. Too often, the economy is seen as completely separate from the environment, and protecting the environment is seen as a cost and a burden…

‘At base, this is due to three underlying problems. First, the role that natural capital plays in sustaining the economy and human well-being is systematically undervalued in government decision-making. Second, British government decision-making is notoriously prone to short-termism, whereas many environmental impacts only become evident after a long period. And third, since environmental costs and benefits are generally underrated, the central government departments that promote environmental policy are generally small and of low political status’ yet environmental policy cannot be realised by environment departments by themselves.’

For example, Brack highlights that the projected share of total energy investment and transport spending on ‘high-carbon fossil fuels, roads and airports’ for 2014-15 has risen from 15 per cent to 49 per cent, which – he contends – will not only taking long-range targets like the 2023-27 carbon budget target out of reach, but also cost the UK money: ‘Improving urban air quality alone’, he contends, ‘could save up to £20 billion in avoided health costs’.

Report recommendations

He therefore argues that government should set up a new Office of Environmental Responsibility that would oversee a 25-year plan on the environment and hold the government to account, and enhance the Environmental Audit Committee to scrutinise actions from outside government.

The report also states that the environment should be treated as a ‘top-tier issue’ along with social and economic concerns, which would strengthen economic performance and social wellbeing.

Other recommendations include:

  • joining up government action on improving resource efficiency and bringing about the circular economy through an an Office for Resource Management;
  • creating a statutory independent Natural Capital Committee, overseeing progress towards long-term aims (set out in legislation) and interim ‘budgets’ or targets for natural capital, including natural resources, biodiversity, habitats, air and water;
  • establishing ‘strong and consistent political leadership and commitment’ to protecting the environment;
  • bringing environmental risks (such as flooding and climate change) under the UK National Security Strategy’s remit, and having them discussed regularly with the National Security Council;
  • appointing a Cabinet-level Chief Secretary for Sustainability in the Treasury, and Minister for International Environment in the Foreign Office;
  • opening up decision-making to public input and scrutiny, including re-establishing the Round Table on Sustainable Development; and
  • improving civil service capabilities, including creating a Government Sustainable Development Service.

'A blueprint for greener government'

Speaking of the report, WWF-UK Director of Advocacy Trevor Hutchings said: “This is a blueprint for a greener government and a stronger economy. All those vying to form the next government should embrace these sensible recommendations.

“If backed by real political will, these reforms would ensure Whitehall works more efficiently to deliver sustainable growth. They would help address threats to our environment and put our economy – which is dependent on the goods and services that nature provides – on a more resilient footing.”

Pressure to reform mounting

WWF-UK has become the latest organisation to call for a parliamentary office dedicated to coordinating the UK’s environmental and resource security policy recently.

In 2014, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) suggested in its ‘State of the Nation’ report that an Office of Resource Management could help tackle a ‘lack of government coordination’ on the matter, which was later echoed by a group of senior Conservative MPs who warned that without greater resource efficiency, Britain would lose its ‘status and competitiveness in the global economy’.

Furthermore, earlier this month, the Circular Economy Task Force (CETF) called for government to set up a national resources council to combat the threat of dwindling resource supply.

This was quickly followed by a paper being launched in parliament by the Material Security Working Group (MSWG), a partnership of packaging, resource and manufacturing organisations, reiterating the need for a central Office of Resource Management to help protect the UK from resource supply risks.

And, this morning, the results of a new industry poll conducted by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), were released, showing that 96 per cent of the 405 UK-based environment and sustainability professionals surveyed thought the incoming government ‘should commit to delivering a cross-sector sustainability skills strategy’. This would ‘embed and mainstream environment and sustainability skills throughout all education and training schemes’ to bridge the current sustainability skills gap and enhance productivity.

Josh Fothergill, IEMA’s Lead on Skills for a Sustainable Economy, commented: “Our members have voiced a clear message to the next government, that it has a responsibility to set clear expectations, guidance and frameworks for sustainability skills.

“Failure to do this within the next parliament will mean the UK will be behind the line – perhaps permanently – so this is a very real priority.”

Read the WWF-UK report, ‘Greening the Machinery of Government’.

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