This is a make or break year for sustainable development, and Britain should be leading the world in setting out an ambitious future for green growth and the environment. The Rio+20 Summit being held in June is the biggest global gathering on sustainable development since the original Rio summit in 1992. It is crucial the world community focuses on setting some serious milestones for 2015 and beyond.
Before ministers jet off to Rio, however, they should remember that sustainable development starts at home. And here they have some tough questions to answer. One of the government’s first acts was to abolish the Sustainable Development Commission, their own green watchdog. The forest sell-off, failure to designate Marine Conservation Zones, attacks on wind power, the debate over the planning reforms, all show a government that is failing to get to grips with the environment. And that is even before we mention the influence of the chancellor in this debate.
The chancellor sees the environment as a barrier to growth and thinks the green agenda is bad for business and jobs. In his autumn statement he said: ‘If we burden them [British business] with endless social and environmental goals – however worthy in their own right – then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer … And we will make sure that gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.’
Yet the reality could not be further from the truth. The UK is falling behind on green investment because of this government’s policies, not our environmental ambition. Since this government came to power, the UK has slipped from third in the world for investment in green growth to thirteenth – behind countries like Brazil and India. In 2009, investment in alternative energy and clean technology reached £7bn. That fell by over 70 per cent the year this government was elected. And the latest figures for last year seem to suggest that if there was any pick-up it was very modest, and investment levels are still considerably below where they were in 2009.
It is quite an achievement that in less than two years the government has alienated businesses over green investment; and alienated the National Trust, Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Daily Telegraph because of their plans to rip up the planning rules that have protected our environment for 60 years.
Rio+20 represents a real chance to chart a path to a safer, greener more equitable world for all, particularly the world’s poorest. The global economy is changing. The financial crisis in 2008 and the deep problems in the EU and US is evidence of this. We need to develop a more responsible economy based on long-term growth and sustainable wealth creation. At the same time creating jobs, ensuring fair and affordable access to natural resources such as water and energy, reducing inequalities and tackling poverty.
UN secretary-general Ban Kai-Moon is right when he says: ‘Despite growing global awareness of the dangers of environmental decline – including climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification – progress since the Earth Summit has been too slow. We will not build a just and equitable world unless we give equal weight to all three pillars of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental.’
GDP alone is a limited measure of growth and doesn’t take into account the other pillars of sustainable development – the social and environmental costs. Labour agrees that one of the key priorities for Rio should be to develop Sustainable Development Goals and set down serious policy milestones for 2015 and beyond. The last Labour government commissioned the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, the first ever analysis of the benefits of the UK natural environment to society and the economy.
The UK must diversify its economy at home to drive growth by investing in clean energy and lead the way in green technology and energy efficiency. Media coverage again this week shows businesses uncertain whether to invest in green jobs in the UK due to inaction by the government.
The government claims it is ambitious for change. However, on forests, on marine conservation, carbon reporting, sustainable development and food poverty, this ambition has not been matched by domestic action. We need an ambitious government that wants to lead the world on sustainable development, eradicating poverty and creating the green jobs and industries of the future. The government has said that Rio+20 has to be a workshop not a talking shop. To have credibility, it isn’t enough to talk the talk, they have to walk the walk.
Fiona O’Donnell is shadow minister for the environment and the member of parliament for East Lothian
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