Government should take the lead in pushing for sustainable development in business

The Government should be taking the lead in encouraging sustainable development in the UK, but businesses need to commit to their responsibilities, and support initiatives, according to a conference examining progress since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

At the conference held by the United Nations Environment and Development (UNED) UK Committee on 20 March, designed to open up dialogue and establish the UK’s stance at the Rio +10 Summit to be held in South Africa in 2002, delegates expressed concern at the slow progress made over the last decade.

However, according to John Speirs of Norsk Hydro (UK) Ltd, there is now a wide acceptance within business of responsibilities towards sustainable development, particularly among large firms. Involvement in initiatives is more difficult for small firms due to their lack of facilities and resources, said Speirs, but there is a growing willingness towards partnerships with organisations such as Jonathon Porritt’s Forum for the Future, which assists companies in becoming more sustainable.

In the last decade, the Rio Summit has resulted in a number of changes for the better within the UK, said Chris Newton, Head of Sustainable Development at the Environment Agency, pointing, in particular, to water quality, the climate change strategy, and funding for environmental initiatives. On a regional level, there has been good integration of environmental policy, with the development of the Environment Agency and the DETR, together with increased co-operation with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Treasury, he said. There is also a broader view of quality of life, which now includes environmental and societal indicators as well as economics.

However, the UK now needs to go beyond the demands of Kyoto, to a 60% reduction in greenhouse gases, said Newton, and plans should be made to fill the gap that will be caused by the ending of nuclear power. There also needs to be more emphasis on resource efficiency, on the lifecycle of products, as well as a reform of the current agricultural system, and an effort to include all of UK society in Agenda 21 issues. “Agenda 21 has not really engaged the public,” said Newton. “We need to learn to join up our society to take action at home.”

The lack of education in the UK on sustainable development, both within and outside schools, was of great concern to the conference. Delegates pointed out that the concept of sustainable development is confusing and complex, with different meanings held in the minds of different people, with even its name failing to specify what it involves. “People are not turned on by sustainable development,” said Charles Secrett, Director of Friends of the Earth.

Responding to concerns that non-governmental representatives would be excluded from the new South African talks, Sheila McCabe, acting as spokesperson for Environment Minister Michael Meacher, and Head of Environment International, at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), stressed the UK Government will be strongly recommending the involvement of civil society at the summit.

McCabe expressed disappointment in the speed of change since the Rio Summit. “Progress has been far slower since 1992 than anyone would have wished,” she said. She pointed out that developing countries would probably not consider any further proposals until those from the Rio summit, such as aid and technology transfer, are delivered by the rich North. McCabe expressed particular disappointment with the slow start to implementing Rio conventions made by the European Union.

Although the United State’s stance on climate change (see related story) was generally held by delegates to be of considerable concern, it was pointed out that the nation is leading the way on a number of other issues arising from the Rio Summit, such as the conventions on fishing and on desertification. Nations should be concentrating on their strengths, said delegates. However, a call to excuse the US from committing to greenhouse gas emission cuts in case such a move caused a recession, which would then impact the rest of the world, was widely rejected. “To suggest that the world’s largest economy should be given a little more rope is dangerous because it’s not just going to hang itself – it is going to hang everybody,” said Andrew Simms, of the New Economics Foundation, and representative of Oxfam at the 1992 summit.

UNED UK is keen to encourage those interested to become involved in the preparation for Earth Summit 2002. Further information on the process is available on the UNED’s websites, or from Gregoire Le Divellec, UNED Forum Administrator, 3 Whitehall Court, London SW1A 2EL, telephone 020 7839 1784, email:

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