Government needs to use sustainability indicators to set itself targets

The UK Government has received praise for its development of indicators to chart progress toward sustainable development, but now the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development says the Government should begin to use the indicators to set targets.

“Some explicit accountability is required to support the Government’s undertaking that it will adjust its policies to take account of the messages emerging from the headline indicators,” states the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development’s (RTSD) assessment of the Government’s indicators (see related story).

RTSD also argues that for several indicators, the Government has given itself a higher grade than it should have when it published Quality of life counts last year. RTSD believes that the picture is much more bleak in some areas than the Government would like to admit, particularly:

  • climate change
  • road traffic
  • agriculture
  • waste production

Climate change bigger challenge than Government admits

In the area of climate change, the Government has given its policies a ‘green light’, but RTSD disagrees. “In our view the Government is misleading itself and the public in showing a green signal for climate change. It should be red,” reads the report. “Much of the reduction in UK emissions so far has been the result of unrepeatable ‘wind-falls’ such as the switch from coal to gas for power generation and the decline of heavier energy-intensive manufacturing industry. Meanwhile consumer behaviour in domestic energy use and in transport patterns is offsetting the gains made by technical and structural changes.”

Echoing the views of Sir Tom Blundell, chair of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (see related story), RTSD points out that Kyoto targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions represent just the beginning.

Policies haven’t yet had impact on road traffic

Another indicator over which RTSD believes the Government has miscalculated, is road traffic. The Government has given itself an amber light on road traffic – pointing out that engines are more efficient, nitrogen oxides emissions and particulate emissions have declined – but RTSD argues that the gains have not been great. Traffic volume is still rising, CO2 emissions are not stabilising and the goal of decoupling economic growth from traffic growth has not been achieved.

RTSD urges the Government to set targets for reductions in road traffic growth and CO2 emissions before it pats itself on the back for progress in the transport sector.

Agriculture is biggest threat to biodiversity

Even the Government admits that agriculture’s impact on wildlife is so worrying that a red light for the indicator is warranted. Populations of farmland birds are continuing to plummet and RTSD wants to see the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food use targets for improvements in bird populations as a way of assessing “the adequacy and sustainability of the totality of their farm policies”.

RTSD insistence that farmland bird populations represent a biodiversity crisis is backed up by the Countryside Commission’s most recent report on the English countryside (see related story).

Levels of waste production are still unknown

RTSD agrees with the Government’s assessment that household waste production trends warrant a ‘red light’ and that insufficient data makes assessments on the levels of industrial and other types of waste impossible.

The next step should be, according to RTSD, ensuring that data improvements are made quickly so that targets and timetables can be created.

Commission on Sustainable Development

Worrying that the UK’s sustainability indicators will lose credibility unless they are put to use, RTSD alludes to the imminent establishment of the Commission on Sustainable Development (see related story) and the hope that the commission will create new momentum.

The commission was announced last year and its work was originally planned to begin this month. Now, its first meeting is likely to take place mid-way through the summer. A Department of Environment official told edie that interviews for the chair of the commission have taken place and that an announcement should be made in June. A further 15 members will be decided on in July and “we expect the first meeting to be held in late July or early August”.

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