Memorandum submitted by The Sustainable
The Sustainable Development Commission welcomes
the opportunity to give evidence to this important and timely
The Sustainable Development Commission is an
advisory NDPB set up by the Prime Minister in October 2000. It
has 24 Members (including the Chairman, Jonathon Porritt) from
all parts of the UK and from all sectors of society. It reports
to the Prime Minister, and the heads of the Devolved Administrations.
It is sponsored by the Cabinet Office and supported on a day to
day basis by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The Commission's role is to advocate sustainable
development across all sectors in the UK, review progress towards
it, and build consensus on the actions needed if further progress
is to be achieved. Its specific objectivesset by the Governmentare
review how far sustainable development
is being achieved in the UK in all relevant fields, and identify
any relevant processes or policies which may be undermining this;
identify important unsustainable
trends which will not be reversed on the basis of current or planned
action, and recommend action to reverse the trends;
deepen understanding of the concept
of sustainable development, increase awareness of the issues it
raises, and build agreement on them;
encourage and stimulate good practice.
The focus of the Commission's work is primarily
domestic. It is engaged in an extensive programme of work, including
projects on climate change, regeneration, economic growth, and
food and farming. The Commission's principal interests in the
Johannesburg Summit are that it will:
require the UK Government to review
its performance on sustainable development domestically; and
offer a unique opportunity to broaden
and deepen public understanding of the concept of sustainable
SDC warmly welcomes the initiative taken by
the Prime Minister in being the first head of government to make
a commitment to attend the conference. The five sectoral initiatives
undertaken by the UK Government on sustainable energy, financial
services, water and sanitation, tourism and forestrywill
be important new partnerships for sustainable development within
the UK, as well as establishing international leadership on these
This short memorandum both provides an overview
of recent UK performance on sustainable development, and highlights
some particular conclusions about current UK performance, which
we have drawn from our work to date.
"Whatever our background, occupation, expertise
or lifestyle, we [SDC Members] have one thing in common: a passionate
determination to see sustainable development embraced as the central
organising principle underpinning all our lives." Jonathon
Our overall conclusion is that the UK has undertaken
many worthwhile initiatives over the last few years, especially
through the development of institutions and systems to promote
sustainable development. However, we are as yet nowhere near the
kind of structural and policy changes that will need to be made
to the economy and to society to deliver sustainable outcomes.
While this government has done more than any
before in the UK to promote the concept of sustainable development,
and has been particularly strong on the social agenda, it has
not yet embraced sustainable development as a central driver of
policy formulation. Nor has sustainable development been accepted
by the public on a political level. The key Rio principle, "Think
global, act local" has been adopted only in a very patchy
way, and tangible government leadership is needed to deliver the
real outcomes that the Rio process demands.
Much worthwhile institutional machinery has
been put into place over the last few yearsincluding the
creation of the Environmental Audit Committee. In 1997 the Government
set up a dedicated Sustainable Development Unit (SDU), charged
with embedding sustainable development throughout government policies
at all levels. SDU has grown over the last decade into an influential
and authoritative resource, and the scope of its activities has
increased in recent years. Whether or not it will retain its authority
following its transfer to DEFRA remains to be seen, though we
are encouraged by the extent to which DEFRA has embraced sustainable
development through its aims and objectives.
A major success of SDU has been the progressive
incorporation of sustainable development criteria into public
spending decisions. All government departments are now required
to put together sustainable development reports as part of their
bids for the 2002 Spending Review. SDC would like to see this
process go further with the publication of individual Departmental
sustainable development reports.
The publication in 1999 of the strategy document
"A Better Quality of Life", and subsequently
of a major set of sustainable development indicators in "Quality
of Life Counts" were also major steps forward. While the
indicators themselves were interesting enough, more significant
to us was the very broad government commitment to take action
where indicators were headed in the wrong direction. We welcome
the fact that indicator sets are now available at regional and
local level, and updated annually through a transparent reporting
process involving the use of a well-structured and accessible
Individual Departments are also starting to
report on their sustainable development performance. DTI's sustainable
development strategy is currently going through its first review
process, and strategies are under development in other Departments
including DEFRA and DTLR.
At a Ministerial level, the collective structure
for handling sustainable development has evolved considerably
over the last few years. The original "Green Ministers"
Committee, which focussed largely on housekeeping issues, has
now been reconstituted as a formal Cabinet sub-committee, with
a broader remit to promote sustainable development in policy as
well as operations. SDC regards this as a welcome development,
though it is still too early to judge its success. An annual audit
of all departmental performance on the basis of sustainable development
indicators would be a useful task for the strengthened Committee.
Looking at outcomes rather than inputs and processes,
the picture is somewhat more mixed. There is much good to be congratulated,
especially on the social angle of sustainable development. The
most recent data published by DEFRA suggests a pattern of improvement
in dealing with income disparities and failings in the education
system (see chart below).
SDC welcomes the commitment of the current administration
to improving public services, and to tackling poverty and social
injustice. We recognise that this is a huge agenda, and that there
is much more to be done. Indeed, with poverty and social justice
both likely to be major themes for the Johannesburg summit, it
is timely to remind ourselves that it is not just an issue for
developing countries, but very much still on the domestic UK agenda.
For example, over 80 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi people
and 40 per cent of African-Caribbean and Indian people live in
households that have incomes of less than half the UK national
Some other social indicators are also moving
in the right direction. There have been measurable improvements
in the quality of the UK's housing stock (although the UK is still
building too many new houses on greenfield sites and failing to
make effective use of its existing built infrastructure and missing
opportunities to embed energy and eco-efficient measures in new
stock). Initiatives such as the development of the Spatial Development
Strategy in London demonstrate the potential for achieving more
in terms of encouraging long-term sustainable patterns of land
use and urban development.
In other areas, UK progress has been less impressive.
Despite a proliferation of individual initiatives, we are still
some way away from the major structural changes which will be
needed to our economy and to our way of life to ensure sustainable
livelihoods for us and for generations to come. To take some of
the most pressing examples:
While climate change is unlikely to be on the
agenda for the Johannesburg summit, it is nonetheless the single
most significant environmental social and economic challenge facing
the world today, and a good test of how far individual countries
are rising to the challenge of sustainable development.
Largely as a result of the "Dash to Gas",
the Government's short term performance on climate change is reasonably
good, and it looks set to meet its formal Kyoto targets, if not
the domestic goal of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions
from 1990 levels by 2010. Looking beyond 2010, the public policy
levers which would be needed to ratchet down production of greenhouse
gas emissions have not been put into place. The UK's current performance
on renewables is poor, and the current target that 10 per cent
of electricity should be supplied by renewables will not be met
unless institutional barriers like the New Electricity Trading
Arrangements are addressed.
We welcome the recommendation in the recent
report by the Performance and Innovation Unit that the Government
should adopt a target of having 20 per cent of electricity generated
from renewable energy sources by 2020: if adopted by the Government,
this will be an important incentive to innovate and invest in
renewable technologies. Furthermore, SDC would like the Government
to champion local community energy schemes, and make carbon reduction
a key element of local strategic partnerships.
The government's initiatives to date have focused
on production-side measures, and have not effectively tackled
consumption. In 2000, the landmark energy report by the Royal
Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) recommended that
the UK Government should adopt a strategy which puts the UK on
a path to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by some 60 per cent
from current levels by about 2050. SDC would like to see the Government
accept this recommendation, and do so in time to announce at or
before the World Summit.
SDC would like to see a transition from the
Climate Change Levy to policy based on a combination of emissions
trading (with the progressive introduction of permit auctioning)
and an upstream carbon/energy tax. Starting in 2002, we plan a
series of studies looking at how deep cuts in carbon emissions
(along the lines of those recommended by RCEP) could be achieved
at different geographical levels within the UK.
Although its direct economic significance has
diminished in recent years (contributing only 4 per cent of GDP
in rural areas of England), farming remains a hugely important
activity to the character and culture of the UK. Farming shapes
over 70 per cent of our landscape, a higher proportion than any
other OECD country. The rural landscape created by farming activities
creates the physical conditions necessary for the success of other
sectors, especially tourism, and has important impacts on recreation
and enjoyment. Farming also has impacts on our health, through
the nutritional quality of the produce which reaches our tables.
What happens on farms has major implications for both our local
and global environments.
In the 10 years since Rio, food production has
remained a sustainability black spot, both in the UK and the EU.
The current CAP production subsidy regime has blighted taxpayers
and farmers alike, encouraging farmers in the direction of ever
more intensive production, with associated damage to farm environments
and rural communities.
The Curry Commission on the Future of Farming
and Food recently recommended a move away from production subsidies,
and towards a system of rewarding farmers for the provision of
environmental and other public benefits. While major structural
change will require re-negotiation of CAP, as an interim stage
Curry recommended that the UK Government should increase the amounts
of money diverted from direct payments to farmers and into environmental
schemes. The Sustainable Development Commission has warmly welcomed
this recommendation, and urges the government to implement it
The process of consumption has negative social,
economic and environmental effects, both in the short term (waste)
and the long term (resource use, greenhouse gases, land take).
The central sustainable development challenge of achieving a step
change improvement in our resource productivity has not been tackled.
Levels of household waste continue to rise inexorably, and the
Government's waste strategy sets targets which have no prospect
of being met.
SDC endorses the principles enshrined in the
EU Landfill Directive and awaits a much more comprehensive approach
to recycling and reuse of wastes. This programme should provide
robust incentives for waste reduction and reuse, linked to local
spending programmes and neighbourhood liveability initiatives.
Like many other commentators, SDC was deeply
disappointed by the outcome of the recent study into resource
productivity by the Performance and Innovation Unit, particularly
by the reluctance to commit to long term targets for resource
productivity in particular sectors. Without such targets, industry
will have little incentive to innovate in order to deliver the
necessary shifts in technology. SDC would like to see long term
targets for resource productivity by sector introduced as soon
as they can be developed.
A strategic priority for SDC is to look beyond
the conventional resource productivity agenda and consider in
more detail the relationship between economic growth and sustainable
human welfare. We will be publishing some new thinking on this
issue in summer 2002.
The provision of transport infrastructure and
services is a means to an endaccess to goods, services
employment etcnot an end in itself. Inadequate transport
policies have the potential to frustrate progress on many other
key sustainable development imperatives, such as energy consumption,
high quality local environments and public health.
Road traffic growth is one of the Government's
Headline Indicators but, despite the commitment mentioned above
to take action when indicators are headed in the wrong direction,
little has been done to halt this trend. SDC was disappointed
by the abolition of the fuel duty escalator. Although we recognise
public hostility to high fuel prices, SDC believes that a more
imaginative and ambitious package of economic instruments could
have mitigated impacts on low-income and rural drivers.
SDC would also like to see a much greater emphasis
put on the promotion of walking and cycling, to meet both environmental
and health promotion objectives. We see this as a crucial aspect
of the liveability initiative that should enable local spaces
to be greener and safer for people to walk in. Greater links need
to be made between the land use planning process and transport
development, which would help achieve those aims.
Governance is a major cross-cutting theme for
sustainable development, with international as well as national
aspects. The Commission reports jointly to the heads of the UK
and Devolved Administrations, and welcomes the greater accountability
that devolution has provided for policy makers in the very different
parts of the UK.
SDC believes that people everywhere need to
be engaged, empowered and inspired if the UK is to have any chance
of achieving sustainable development. A key target group has to
be children. Welcome progress has been made on environmental education
and on putting citizenship in the national curriculum. However,
much more could done to engage children, listen to their views,
and seek to develop new models and methods for active citizenship.
The progressive disengagement of the UK electorate
which we have seen accelerating in the 10 years since Rio, at
national and local levels, is a matter of concern to SDC. SDC
would like to see the Government address the deterioration of
democracy by setting out a new model of participation and partnership
with clear accountability, and then instigating a major capacity
building programme to ensure that it can be delivered. This needs
to involve five key elements: transparency in government, effective
public participation, balanced stakeholder debate, shared responsibility,
and democratic accountability.
Effective governance is not just an issue for
governmentsbut for business, trades unions, and other key
actors in the sustainable development world. For example SDC has
been urging DTI, in the context of the current review of Company
Law, to put into place a regime of mandatory social and environmental
reporting for major companies. SDC believes that, without mandatory
social and environmental reporting, it will be very difficult
to hold major companies to account for the sustainability of their
The transition to a low carbon economy will
be a major challenge for employers and employees alike. All relevant
stakeholders need to be involved in discussion on the labour market
implications of a low carbon economy, and the need to prepare
the transition to a new skills base.
Strong local government is a key actor in the
delivery of a sustainable development agenda. A major new initiative
is the obligation on local authorities to produce overarching
community strategies for their area, in partnership with other
key agencies and bodies (via local strategic partnerships (LSPs)).
There is much potential in this "joined
up governance" model. Yet, to date, it is not clear if or
how it will work in practice. There needs to be greater clarity
about the relationship between these community strategies and
other strategic architecture at local government level, such as
the Local Agenda 21 (LA21) strategies which flowed out of the
Rio conference, and the health and wellbeing strategies. We do,
however, welcome the proposal in the recently published Green
Paper on Planning for greater integration between Community Strategies
and Local Development Frameworks.
It is too early to judge how successful LSPs
will be in promoting integrated solutions to local problems. But
we are concerned that partners are not under any formal duty to
take part in the LSP process, and by the absence of guidance on
how LSPs should be made accountable to the public. Coupled with
the lack of skills within local government in partnership working
and effective consultation, there is a risk that all that will
be produced in some authorities is a bureaucratic quagmire with
little tangible or accountable product.
There is also a risk that, in the transition
from LA21 to community strategies, local authorities will focus
exclusively on short-term delivery targets, crowding out sustainable
development commitments. Following the Prime Minister's successful
challenge to local authorities to propose LA21 Strategies, SDC
would like to see the Prime Minister challenge local authorities
to ensure that all community strategies embed the sustainable
development principles which have been at the heart of LA21.
UK POSITION AT
If the UK can demonstrate commitment to greater
progress in some of these areas, adding to its international standing
from increasing development assistance and meeting its Kyoto targets,
it will be ideally placed to influence the international agenda.
Kofi Annan has set out a ten-point action plan for the Johannesburg
Summit. The UK has a key role to play in nearly all of these,
but from SDC's experience and work in the UK, we suggest a focus
on three would make sense:
making globalisation work for sustainable
changing unsustainable patterns of
production and consumption;
providing access to energy and improving
In all of these areas, the UK has the potential
to make a positive contribution and to shape the agenda. As a
major player in the global economy, with a capital city that is
one of only three truly world cities and financial centres, UK
has a large responsibility for the direction of globalisation.
Again as a major developed country, the UK contributes to unsustainable
production and consumption patterns, including in relation to
energy. Having made significant progress, as we highlighted earlier,
in achieving linkages between social justice and economic development,
the UK needs to go one step further and demonstrate its commitment
to the third pillar of sustainability, the environment.
The Prime Minister's world leadership role in
terms of seeking peace could be well complemented by a leadership
role for sustainability. There is little point having a politically
or militarily safer world if in the long term it remains on an
unsustainable economic, social and environmental trajectory.
The Johannesburg Summit will offer a unique
opportunity for sustainable development to be grounded within
the domestic UK political agenda. Many of the challenges listed
above are politically difficult, and have not yet really been
fully explored through a process of public debate. SDC urges the
Committee to encourage Ministers across the range of government
to take on a leadership role in explaining and articulating sustainable
development as it relates to specific policy areas and challenges.
One major speech by each Cabinet Minister on a sustainable development
theme during 2002 would be an excellent place to start.
Chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission
4 Social Exclusion Unit 2000 Minority ethnic issues
in social exclusion and neighbourhood renewal Cabinet Office. Back