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Musings on Rio+20

EcoBuild 2012 Seminar on Rio+20

With Jack Straw MP, Michael Portillo, Michael Meacher MP and Professor Jacqueline McGlade, hosted by Justin Webb

What struck me while listening to discussions at this seminar was the lack of any clear connection between political rhetoric and genuine leadership.

With the possible exception of Portillo, there was tacit consent that climate change was the intractable challenge to sustainable development for the next twenty years.  But views on how to respond to this varied widely.

No surprise there then.  But perpetual reductions in mineral and water resources, and biodiversity losses received starkly little attention.

In the context of concepts as wide ranging and interlinked as planetary boundaries to resource availability, accelerating rates of global population growth, the desire to maintain social well-being and quality of life, and the potential of technological advances in helping to align these, political leadership seemed to come surprisingly low down the agenda.

As one commentator observed, perhaps a failure of Rio 92 was in its encapsulation of the term sustainable development, and the view that jargon breeds apathy and inaction.  That intellectual elitism poses a threat to democracy whereby regulatory mechanisms to achieve ‘sustainable’ outcomes on a society-changing scale only by imposing unacceptable financial costs on the individual, is a matter for personal judgement… and is not my view.

And yet, despite high profile promises to radically alter our measures of progress away from GDP (the Big Society, and Cameron’s happiness index), and incorporate natural capital into national accounting (Natural Environment Green Paper), where do we see this political rhetoric being implemented in today’s budget announcement?

Through the Green Investment Bank, perhaps.  But surely not in £3billion of reliefs for North Sea oil and gas development, long-term support for gas as our primary energy source, reducing taxation on big business, releasing a ‘developer’s charter’ National Planning Policy Framework, and major reform (weakening?) of the Carbon Reduction Commitment.  And then of course there’s the impending review of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive, which may prove to aptly timed ahead of revisited airports policy expected later this summer, as announced today.  Given the apparent need to “confront the lack of airport capacity in the South East of England” expect to see Boris Island heading back up the political agenda.

George Osborne assures us that “environmentally sustainable must be fiscally sustainable” – but isn’t it actually the opposite?

Tags: Environmental planning, News, Policy