Gummer admits to `green' failure

Bleak indications: Report reveals halting progress in bid to leave environmental legacy
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The Independent Online
NICHOLAS SCHOON

Environment Correspondent

In a painful exercise in openness, the Government yesterday admitted to the world that Britain was failing to safeguard the environment for future generations.

John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, published 120 green indicators. By his department's reckoning, at least a third of these showed a deteriorating performance over the past 25 years. Another third brought good news, while the remainder were either indifferent or could be interpreted both ways.

As revealed in yesterday's Independent, households, movement of people and freight transport have made no gains in energy efficiency at all over the past 25 years, while manufacturing industry does use less fuel.

One indicator shows that while the real cost of rail and bus fares has grown faster than the rise in incomes, the cost of motoring has fallen, explaining the huge switch from public to private transport.

In the main, the indicators reveal the halting progress the UK is making towards achieving sustainable development - benign economic growth which does not harm future generations' prospects by handing down a degraded, polluted planet with depleted natural resources. Only one tenth of the Government's 120 total have a target, an improved figure ministers aim for, attached to them.

Mr Gummer said yesterday that the Government was determined to make sustainable development ``the touchstone of the UK's policies''. A debate over what the indicators revealed would help politicians, business people and consumers to play a part.

``This marks a step change,'' Mr Gummer said. No other nation had published such a broad range of indicators linking economic growth with environmental damage.

They cover topics as diverse as recycling, the health of trees and soil, UK oil and gas reserves, the decline of wild plants and animals and the disappearance of hedgerows.

Most types of air and water pollution measured by the Government have fallen markedly in the past 25 years. But fish stocks in the North Sea are falling, and are only at about 40 per cent of what scientists say is the ``minimum biological acceptable level''.

The Department of the Environment would like the public to pay the same attention to these statistics as it does to the Government's closely watched monthly economic indicators.

But it will be some time before that happens, if ever. For the department only intends to publish the green indicators once every two years.

Its first report costs pounds 25 and the width of topics covered is so wide that it make simple, straightforward judgements unreliable.

The commitment to devise and publish the indicators was made more than two years ago as a follow-up to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.

Alex Macgillivray, an expert on green indicators at the London-based New Economics Foundation, said: ``This report represents a huge amount of work and the Government deserves credit for producing it.

``But it's hard to make an overall conclusion. The lack of targets is a major failure.''

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