Page last updated at 22:47 GMT, Thursday, 23 November 2006

Sustainable development: Big not boring

Jonathon Porritt (Image: Sustainable Development Commission)
Jonathon Porritt

Sustainable development is not a "boring catch-phrase for sad gits with nothing better to do with their lives", says Jonathon Porritt. In this week's Green Room, he explains why it holds the key to a better future, and why politicians ignore it at their peril.

Forest (Image: Science Photo Library)
Until we learn to pay a realistic price for all the benefits and services we derive from nature, we will never get ourselves on to a truly sustainable path

"If you want to keep your guns, your property, your children and your god, then sustainable development is your enemy!"

I just love that quote from the American Policy Centre.

It reminds me that sustainable development is not some boring catch-phrase for sad gits with nothing better to do with their lives, but a rumbustious, ideologically charged "big idea".

If America's die-hard, red-neck fundamentalists are now likening sustainable development to earlier threats to the American way of life (such as communism, presumably), then shouldn't we all be taking it a lot more seriously?

I may be biased (it would be very odd if I was not as chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, the UK government's independent watchdog), but I cannot help but wonder how much longer politicians will go on ignoring the overwhelming benefits of using sustainable development as "the central organising principle for the whole of government".

All talk

It is not that sustainable development does not already feature in government processes today. It does - and not just in terms of the UK government's overarching Sustainable Development Strategy, "Securing the Future".

Tony Blair playing cricket in Downing Street (Image: PA)
Tony Blair talks a good game, but has not bowled over campaigners

Indeed, there has been an absolute explosion in the language of sustainable development (as in the Sustainable Communities Plan, sustainable procurement, sustainable housing, the decade of Education for Sustainable Development and so on and on).

And whilst it is true that language almost always precedes any commitment to action, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are now persuaded, in this instance, that linguistic usage has become not so much a precursor to action as a substitute for it.

Such cynicism may be a little premature. NGOs may give little credence to this, but the UK has an excellent international reputation for the way it has set about mainstreaming sustainable development across government and the wider public sector.

Every government department, for instance, has to produce its own Sustainable Development Action Plan; has to deliver against a number of environmental and social targets every year; has to account for sustainable development in its policy-making processes.

Most of the UK's regulators now have a formal sustainable development duty, as do our Regional Development Agencies. These things may not as yet be delivering the goods, but the architecture is at least there to enable things to happen more effectively in the future.

On some issues I would argue that the private sector is already miles ahead of the UK government

In terms of the private sector, UK-based multinational companies also have an excellent international reputation - in terms of promoting ideas like socially responsible behaviour and corporate community investment.

Campaigners and activists are driven (necessarily) by the need to hold companies to account for their failings, as they aggressively prioritise the private interests of shareholders over the public interests of society at large, but that does not mean we should ignore all the good corporate practice initiated and developed here in the UK.

Indeed, on some issues I would argue that the private sector is already running miles ahead of the UK government. On climate change, many leading companies have been investing in energy efficiency and reducing CO2 emissions for many years.

It is good that the government has now set a target for total carbon neutrality in central government buildings by 2012, but I am not sure the same combination of sticks and carrots exists in the public sector as is already being displayed in the private sector.

This is one small reflection on the substantial gap here in the UK between the impressive international leadership the UK government has been engaged in, and the less than impressive - indeed, downright mediocre - delivery here in our own backyard.

Climate shadows

The publication of the Stern Review must surely change all that. This blockbuster piece of work - commissioned by the Treasury, and launched by Gordon Brown, as well as Tony Blair - removes any residual vestiges of the kind of Nimto (Not In My Term of Office) thinking that we have seen too much of over the last few years.

Sir Nicholas Stern

The review put the costs of not dealing with climate change at anywhere between five to 20 times as much as the costs of getting serious about it; the economic case has now been made out as robustly as the scientific case.

Beyond all this, there is of course a danger that the much broader sustainable development agenda - in all its complexity - may be overshadowed by climate change.

That would be unfortunate. After all, climate change is just one symptom (albeit a very big one) of what happens when the pursuit of economic growth as we know it today leads to the inexorable liquidation of the natural capital of which we are all still totally dependent.

Sir Nicholas Stern was right to describe climate change as "the greatest market failure the world has ever seen", but the whole global economy represents a massive market failure in those terms.

Until we learn to pay a realistic price for all the benefits and services we derive from nature, we will never get ourselves on to a truly sustainable path.

But there is no need to get too gloomy about this. Things are changing; our politicians are competing to see who is the greenest of them all; leading companies are already repositioning themselves to compete in a carbon-constrained world. We just need to push it all along about 10 times faster!

Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission

He is the author of Capitalism as if the World Matters, published by Earthscan

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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