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Tuesday, 28 March, 2000, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
UK lags on riding 'green wave'
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By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The largest social science research initiative ever undertaken in the United Kingdom says industry and government alike are failing to exploit the potential of science and technology to protect the environment.

The initiative is the Global Environmental Change Programme (GECP), a 15 million undertaking funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, involving 350 researchers across the UK.

Their work has covered several policy areas, including environmental taxation, the politics of genetically-modified food, and the effectiveness of global environmental agreements.

The programme's findings are summarised in three reports:

  • environmental decision-making under uncertainty
  • governance of the global environment
  • sustainable production and consumption.
Together they show that there is great scope for innovation by industrialists and politicians in harnessing science and technology for environmental protection.

The GECP director, Dr Frans Berkhout, introducing the reports at a Parliamentary briefing, said there was a strong role which government could play.

"Many businesses have adopted greener management, but this has had little impact on the products they produce and the ways in which they design and produce them.

Incentives needed

"Greening has not yet reached the heart of the innovation process in British companies. There are tremendous untapped opportunities in a period of rapid technological change.

"Businesses respond to market signals and incentives. At the moment, there are few economic incentives to encourage businesses to treat environmental costs seriously.

"Government should be setting tough strategic goals backed up by strong regulation and an integrated set of incentives."

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Paper-making could save energy
The GECP says that research and development "can transform our ability to address seemingly intractable problems".

It says many studies of the costs of addressing environmental problems ignore the role of innovation in producing cheap new solutions, and tend to:

  • overestimate the costs of addressing environmental pollution
  • underestimate the value of investments in R&D
  • provide excuses for delays in implementing policies which could help to drive the innovation process.
A fellow of the GECP, Professor Dennis Anderson, former chief economist of Shell, said: "Public and commercial investment in R&D in the UK is very low by comparison to other OECD countries.

Lost lead

"This means, for example, that despite its commitment to tackling climate change, the UK spends less per person on energy-related research than any of our competitors.

"We have already lost our leading role in wind power technology, and we are now set to lose out on vital new sustainable technologies such as fuel cells and solar power."

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The GECP says new growth markets also include cleaner vehicles, such as hybrid and electric cars.

And it sees big opportunities through sustainable innovation in established industries - for example, big energy efficiency gains are achievable in paper production, it believes, through the adoption of new techniques.

It also says government can stimulate innovation through green taxes, developing its commitment to shift the burden of taxation away from "goods" like employment onto "bads" such as energy use and pollution.

Low science spending

Dr Paul Ekins, of Keele University, said: "Our research demonstrates that the UK could reduce its greenhouse emissions by 60% by 2040 without great economic disruption.

"A thorough-going environmental tax reform could produce major economic, environmental and social benefits at the same time - lower emissions, warmer homes, up to one million more jobs, and world-class business innovation."

The GECP says the annual increases in spending on the National Health Service announced by the Government last week are more than the total annual expenditure on science in the UK.

Dr Berkhout said: "With clean technologies presenting one of the fastest-growing global markets, the UK must not miss the green wave.

"Bringing the environment to the heart of science policy will be good for British science and good for UK plc."

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