Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)

  1.  The RSPB welcomes the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry. The RSPB is Europe's largest wildlife charity with over one million members. We manage one of the largest conservation estates in the UK with more than 150 nature reserves, covering more than 100,000 hectares.

  2.  The RSPB is part of the BirdLife International Partnership, a global alliance of independent national conservation organisations working in more than 100 countries worldwide. The BirdLife International Partnership strives to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, working with people towards sustainability in the use of natural resources.

  3.  The RSPB's policy and advocacy work covers a wide range of issues including climate change, energy, education for sustainable development, fisheries, trade and agriculture. The RSPB also provides financial and technical support to BirdLife partners in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia and supports community based projects to help deliver local benefits from sustainable natural resource management.

  4.  In addition to our ongoing efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment domestically and internationally, we are engaged in five major activities targeted directly at the WSSD itself.

  5.  Within the UK, the Government has made considerable progress in developing structures responsible for deliver sustainable development (eg the UK sustainable development strategy and its associated headline indicators, the establishment of the Sustainable Development Commission, the Green Ministers group, the sustainable development unit at DEFRA, amongst others).

  6.  This has led to some important improvements in the process of policy formulation. Departmental spending reviews, for example, are now subjected to a sustainability assessment. They have also had some effect in raising the profile of sustainable development, though mainly within the policymaking community rather than the general public. On particular issues, and within particular sectors, these structures and processes have resulted in more sustainable policy (eg the renewables obligation, the climate change levy, the CROW Act, etc).

  7.  However, to a considerable degree, sustainable development still stands outside mainstream policymaking, rather than being fully integrated. For example, whilst Treasury evaluates the impact of explicitly green measures, it does not assess the impact of the great majority of fiscal measures. Departmental spending is assessed for sustainability in advance, but not reported on and evaluated against sustainability criteria after the fact.

  8.  In addition, in most sectors there are examples where the benefits of policies which contribute positively to sustainable development are reduced by their co-existence with policies which have countervailing or negative effects. In the energy sector, for example, achievement of the Government's Kyoto and carbon dioxide reduction targets has been made more difficult by the form of NETA, by the absence of a statutory sustainable development duty on the economic regulator, and by the temporary moratorium on gas fired power plant construction. Even policies intended to reduce carbon emissions (eg the climate change levy and the emissions trading scheme) are designed in ways which will not maximise carbon reduction benefits. The result is an overall energy strategy which lacks the kind of coherence that the unifying objective of sustainable development would give to it. Waste reduction policies suffer from a similarly piecemeal approach that makes appropriate Government targets unlikely to be met in practice.

  9.  In some very important sectors, such as transport and planning, there is little indication of progress towards sustainable development at all.

  10.  These shortcomings suggest that, in spite of genuine steps forward, sustainable development is still not the driving principle for policy formation. There is still not the political will to place sustainable development at the very heart of policymaking. The concept of sustainable development, for example, is noticeably absent from the recent green paper on planning. To the extent that sustainable development has become an important principle of policymaking (eg in the context of devolution), it is often the result of work by NGOs, the UK Roundtable on Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Commission, the RCEP etc, rather than by Government itself.

  11.  Partly for that reason, Government needs to show greater political leadership in promoting the concept of sustainable development to the general public, in order to create the space and opportunity for civil society to consolidate the message.

  12.  On the UK's international policy generally, there is a need for a balanced approach to environment and development that recognises the synergies between them. Just as poverty alleviation is a moral imperative in its own right and offers the best route to relieving pressure on natural resources, so sustainably managed natural resources (including biodiversity) are a primary means of alleviating poverty. This type of synergy provides the rationale behind the International Development Target for natural resources (reversal of decline by 2015). The global (economic) value of biodiversity is immense and increased support for the Darwin Initiative would go some way to helping to protect it. Very rarely do environmental and social-economic goals conflict irreconcilably. Education for sustainable development, which is a key component of the RSWB and BirdLife's WSSD activities, can help to bridge environmental, social and economic gaps, where they exist.

  13.  In terms of domestic preparations for WSSD, Government (especially DEFRA) has funded and created good opportunities for the involvement of the environmental community in both the domestic and international agenda-setting process, but has itself kept quite a low profile, perhaps because it is under-resourced in this area.

  14.  The UK's international role leading up to WSSD has been relatively strong relative to that of other nations. However, it will be important for the Prime Minister to follow up on the indications in his environmental speeches last year that he will personally attend the summit and play an active role leading up to it, for example by ensuring UK ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and driving it through the EU, as well as by promoting the importance of sustainable development and the summit to the British public.

  15.  With respect to the WSSD itself, refinements to Agenda 21 are clearly important, but we should not assume that climate and biodiversity are adequately dealt with through their conventions, or that forests are adequately protected. Johannesburg should at least give impetus to a review of the adequacy of the climate and biodiversity conventions.

  16.  In spite of progress made at Rio, we have clearly gone backwards globally in many aspects of sustainable development and need both political leadership and public relations tools of global proportions to start to reverse these trends. Even if Johannesburg is unable in itself to reverse negative global sustainability trends, it should at least lead to international public and political recognition that some trends (eg biodiversity conservation) are negative, and to the establishment of ongoing international processes for monitoring these and raising their profile with a view to making substantive policy initiatives within the next few years actually to reverse the trends. A set of global headline indicators, similar to those used in the UK, might serve both these purposes. The idea could be proposed at Johannesburg and the indicators themselves developed over the next five years.

February 2002

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