Sustainable solutions and the unsustainable divide

OECD Forum, 15th May, 2001: SD Roundtable on OECD Evironmental Strategy for 21st century; Moderator: David Anderson
OECD Observer

OECD governments should do far more to “green” their public procurement practices and support sustainable development by example. This was one of the key calls made during a sustainable development round table at Tuesday’s OECD Forum 2001. The call was made by John Hontelez, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), who welcomed the OECD’s new environmental strategy, but found some areas such as procurement wanting. Sustainable development was seen too much by OECD as being in parallel to growth and trade liberalisation, rather than as an overarching theme, Mr. Hontelez said. He challenged the OECD to an ambitious target: To stop the growth in kilometre freight transport by 2010.

Elias Efthymiopoulos, Greece’s deputy environment minister, focused minds on the energy and transport sectors, which were responsible for a large share of environmental problems in OECD countries. Car ownership was set to nearly double worldwide in the next ten years, for instance, and this required action. Energy taxation was one approach, but it had complications (possible negative effects on inflation, growth and jobs in the short term at least), and there was no consensus on how to apply it or indeed agreement on whether they would work. In the meantime, energy saving processes could be promoted via tax incentives for instance, while encouraging innovation in new technologies.

This session on the OECD’s environmental strategy for the 21st century produced a deluge of questions from the floor, concerned at slow progress by governments on meeting environmental concerns, and ---- in the words of one panelist – “outrage” at the Bush administration’s attitude on climate change and its rejection of the Kyoto protocol. Mr. Hontelez said other countries could not accept that the country most responsible for emissions should not be part of the solution. He argued that Americans were hostage to a small elite of powerful industrialists and that US attitudes could change.

Education, leading to heightened individual and community awareness about ecological dangers, was broadly seen as valuable in influencing public opinion. Reg Green, a senior representative from the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers (ICEM) argued that workplace training was key, since workers’ knowledge is then transposed into the community at large. The worker was an essential part of any sustainable development strategy.

Business representative Christopher Boyd (BIAC and Lafarge) agreed. Indeed, business was generally behind the OECD’s approach on sustainable development, which would help bring sustainable development into the mainstream of government thinking, where it was most lacking up until now.

But as for improved pro-environment measures by business and industry, instruments and incentives were judged to be the best means of bringing about action, he said his members preferred voluntary guidelines to legislation and coercive measures. The former encouraged a maximum “can-do” co-operative approach, whereas imposed legislation prompted companies to do what was minimum to comply. Why tax energy, for instance, which would penalise intensive energy suppliers like Lafarge, rather than creating incentives by making alternative solutions cheaper? As long as businesses remained unconvinced that green taxes were for more than just raising government revenue, they would be against them. To a question from the floor, Mr. Boyd said Lafarge was perhaps ahead of the curve on sustainable development but was by no means alone among businesses. Mr Boyd saw sustainable development as an opportunity, but the market and in particular, innovation, not government heavy-handedness, was the way to make progress. OECD should encourage innovation more. Energy taxes distort prices, while ridiculous subsidies of “unsustainable” industries, had to be reformed.

Moderator David Anderson said as a minister he observed that there were three ways to cope with environment issues: through education, coercion and by using incentives. He believed this was also the case with the question of sustainable issues.

A Canadian trade unionist, from the floor asked for an end to the divisions between Europe and North America over Kyoto. Seen from Europe, Kyoto was a very different agreement and Europeans should look at the more complex US and Canadian situations with a little more discernment. David Anderson agreed, but Mr Hontelez said that the US, whose large quantity of CO2 emissions had risen rather than fallen, had to be fully involved.

A participant from the floor could not understand why climate change was barely mentioned in the OECD environment strategy. Mr. Anderson said that climate change would figure in the OECD Environment ministerial the following day. He and other ministers were waiting for the US position to be clarified, which he expected very soon. He reminded the floor that President George Bush agreed openly that climate change was a major world challenge, and while he regretted the US’s withdrawal from Kyoto, especially as those in the agreement now only accounted for a third or so of global greenhouse emissions, it was a fact of life that just had to be dealt with.

©OECD Observer May 2001

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