UK environment improving, study claims

The UK's environment is improving, not deteriorating, according to a study by the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, The Fraser Institute, and the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The study also claims that environmental quality in Canada and the United States is improving, while in Mexico, environmental quality remains stable overall with improvements in specific areas such as air quality.

Using the UK government’s own data, the 4th annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, found that objectives for protecting human health and the environment are being met, pollution and wastes are being controlled, and resources and land are being sustainably managed.

The three institutes developed a set of environmental indicators for the UK and North America in order to “fill the gap in public knowledge and perception about environmental progress, to separate the facts from alarmist misinformation, and to bring balance to the environmental debate.”

The indicators are divided into primary and secondary categories. Primary environmental indicators include information about air quality, water quality, natural resources, land use and condition, and solid wastes.

The secondary indicators include often cited environmental measures such as carbon-dioxide emissions, oil spills, numbers of wildlife species, use of pesticides, and toxic releases. These indicators are considered “secondary” since they provide only indirect information about environmental quality.

Much of the data in the report comes from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Environmental Data Compendium 1997. Where OECD survey results were unavailable, data were supplemented by information from the Department of Environment Transport Regions (DETR) in the United Kingdom or other official government sources, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment Canada.

The institutes say the indicators are designed to help the public assess more accurately the state of the environment in several key areas: air quality, water quality, natural resources, land use and condition, solid wastes, energy, pesticides, toxic releases, and wildlife.

While the indicators include local or regional environmental issues, such as the air quality of selected cities, the goal of the study is to provide a “big picture” of general environmental trends in the countries studied. The report does not attempt to develop indicators for global controversies such as tropical rainforest deforestation, climate change, and bio-diversity.

The following are some salient points for the UK:

  Overall, environmental quality improved 10.4 percent in the UK relative to conditions in 1980.

  Air pollution from sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulates, and lead has decreased considerably.

  The ambient level of sulphur dioxide decreased by 92 percent between 1976 and 1996.

  Ambient lead concentrations fell 90.1 percent between 1980 and 1995.

  Contaminants in fish found in the North Sea have fallen dramatically since 1982. For example, PCBs found in North Sea cod declined 75.8 percent between 1982 and 1996.

  Forests are increasing in the UK as growth exceeds the harvesting of trees.

  The amount of land set aside for parks, wilderness, and wildlife is increasing.

  The amounts of toxic chemicals exposed to the environment is decreasing.

  Critical wetland habitat is not declining.

Environmentalists have accused the report of over-selectivity in its choice of indicators, accusing the three institutes of being funded by big business.

“This report is politically motivated, and as a result misleading,” Duncan McLaren of Friends of the Earth’s Sustainable Development unit told edie. “It is promoted by organizations which are funded and supported by big industry, which wish to weaken regulations and undermine the democratic process.”

McLaren points out that the report ignores increases in carbon dioxide concentrations because global warming is seen as an unproven theory.

The report’s fundamental failing, according to McLaren, is that it concentrates on local environmental quality. “The broadly accepted analysis is that the environment is getting better in the developed world because we are exporting out environmental problems to the poorer countries. Economic activity has shifted to those countries, with heavier, more polluting industries relocating… while raw materials are increasingly sourced from outside the rich countries.

“This set of statistics has nothing to say about other countries or about overfishing of ocean fish stocks, for instance. In that way, this is an extremely partial account. That is not to say that some of the local improvements aren’t welcome. They are, but the report is motivated by the desire to remove the regulations that generated the improvements in the first place.”

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