Our green hopes, their empty words: The Government has consulted environmentalists at length but it hasn't listened, says Sara Parkin

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The Independent Online
LAST July I was part of a public panel invited by the Goethe Institute in London to consider the new environmental agenda in Britain and Germany. Also on the panel were John Gummer and Klaus Topfer, Germany's environment minister. Mr Gummer could only stay for a few moments but took the time he had to berate the Green movement for using obscure terms such as sustainable development and global warming. The contrast between his performance and the urbane, well-informed presentation of his German counterpart had the audience squirming with embarrassment.

However, within weeks of that meeting, Germany's much vaunted 'green point' waste-packaging recycling scheme broke down. Set up by the packaging industry itself, it quickly overwhelmed the capacity for plastic waste recycling in Germany and irritated other European countries by flooding their markets with cheap plastic waste.

Yesterday Ernst Ulrich von Weizsacker, one of Germany's most respected environmentalists, and chair of the consortium set up to manage the green point scheme, resigned angrily. He had written a paper on how the scheme might be made more ecologically acceptable, but the packaging industry had rejected it. They were interested more in the sustainability of their own industry, Weisacker concluded, than true ecological sustainability.

Germany, although ahead in many areas of environment policy, faces exactly the same dilemmas when it comes to implementing them as does the UK: both countries are finding that tacking on environmental policies to business-as-usual does not work. Recycling makes environmental (and economic) sense only after waste has first been reduced to a minimum; so expecting the packaging industry to give a lead in waste reduction is like expecting turkeys to campaign for two Christmases each year.

The two big messages from the Earth Summit in Rio were that if we want a life-supporting environment and development, then definitions of development are going to have to change, and governments are going to have to give a lead. Unfortunately, the first impressions from yesterday's publication of the British government's plan for meeting the commitments it made in Rio suggest that neither Mr Gummer nor Mr Major read the writing on the walls of Rio very carefully.

The much-heralded documents on global warming, sustainable development, biodiversity and forests contain little more than a rearrangement of previous policy, with no indication that the Government has looked at the experience of either Germany or, better still, the Netherlands. While the Dutch National Environment Policy Plan, published in spring 1989, may not satisfy the greenest of the green, it is one of the best around and it does contain what the UK one does not: targets and timetables, as well as mechanisms for monitoring and measuring progress.

Since Baroness Thatcher discovered the existence of the global environment as a political issue in 1988, green pressure groups, policy institutes and individual environmentalists have been consulted at great length by the Department of the Environment. Indeed, so many documents have been put out for consultation that one has the impression that the pressure groups have lost the lead in setting the environmental agenda, so much time has been spent responding to government demands.

So it was no wonder that hearts sank when the consultation paper for this latest mega-document was circulated last year. It read as if nobody in the DoE had ever read anything sent in by any environmental group.

Until the Government admits that sustainable development will only be achieved through significant changes in economic policy, I stay in the camp of the cynics. Road pricing, like recycling plastic, is not a strategy or a plan, it is a tactic, and like the Government's preference for VAT on fuel rather than a progressive carbon tax, I suspect it is a tactic more concerned with the current budget deficit than with any genuine commitment to tackling global environmental problems. If CO2 emissions are reduced as a side-effect, then that will be a welcome bonus.

But any reduction in emissions achieved through VAT on fuel or road pricing will be more than undone by the concerted effort of European Union countries to achieve economic growth by traditional means. In December, EU leaders agreed to major investment in a Union-wide roads programme, and the Commission is known to want an extra 55,000km (34,000 miles), 12,000km of which (7,500 miles) are to be motorways. No UK voice of protest was raised.

It is, even from the most cynical of perspectives, possible to feel sorry for the Government. No one has ever turned an industrial economy into a sustainable one before. But sympathy soon passes when I look at the large number of good ideas around for making a start. The Japanese, for example, are directing investment into environmental industries as part of their plan for economic recovery; local government in Germany has discovered that reduced energy consumption equals money saved and jobs created, as well as a cleaner environment.

There is little comfort to be gained from looking to Britain's other parties - Labour's economic policy, for example, remains as stoutly ungreened as that of the Tories. The one chink of hope lies, paradoxically, with the much beleaguered local authorities. The Local Government Management Board is amplifying Rio's plan for action, Agenda 21, to include a set of social, economic and environmental indicators. The idea is to give people a much broader picture of development so they can make informed decisions about trade-offs - between, for example, access of cars to densely populated areas and the rate of respiratory diseases among children.

Giving people the information they need so that they can judge for themselves the benefits or otherwise of any policy is, in my view, the most important environmental policy of all. But any doubt that the Government intends to remain deaf to the views of ordinary people is dispelled by the composition of the Environmental Advisory Group announced yesterday. Able though its members may be in their fields, I doubt if they will impress Kenneth Clarke with the need for a sea-change in economic policy, or the Government as a whole with the need to trust local communities to know what is best for them.

The writer is an environmentalist. Her book 'The Life and Death of Petra Kelly' will be published by Pandora this autumn.

Matthew Symonds is unwell.