Mud in the waters

11th November 2013


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Related tags

  • Skills ,
  • CPD ,
  • Stakeholder engagement ,
  • Employee engagement

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IEMA

Sarah-Jayne Russell argues that to make the much-needed transition to a sustainable economy MPs must not undermine vital messages on reducing environmental impacts

The prize most coveted by politicians, so we are told, is a stable and sustainable economy. It’s what businesses want to enable growth, the public sector wants to deliver services without the threat of budget cuts and, most importantly, what the electorate desires. Voters want secure jobs, affordable homes and a bright future for their children.

As every environment professional knows, to reach a place somewhere in the vicinity of the mythical, idyllic land of Sustainable Economy, individuals, organisations and policymakers have to start thinking sustainably and begin living within our means. Natural resources have to be respected and ecosystems protected if we are to rein in the costs of energy, food and shelter. But there are significant barriers to this disarmingly simple concept.

First, there is a lack of awareness. There is ample information about the threats human activities pose to nature, but for many people it remains an issue that is remote from their day-to-day lives – something that is someone else’s problem, further down the line.

As IEMA’s call for action to boost green skills highlights, mainstream education and training are failing to join the dots between the environment and everyday life, and organisations’ sustainability ambitions are the casualty.

IEMA says many businesses cannot find the right environmental skills in their organisations to drive the sustainability agenda forward. This is in part because issues, such as climate change and water scarcity, are not embedded properly in education. Without a clear understanding of how the big “green” issues affect day-to-day life, firms find the innovative solutions to become more sustainable harder to come by.

Second, simply supplying information is not enough. Practitioners may have heard of the “information deficit”, the idea that providing data on environmental harm is not enough to inspire a change in behaviour. While many environmentalists in the 1970s and 1980s thought that apathy could be combated through more information, it made little difference.

To really change behaviour, individuals have to be engaged and fully understand the issues. Pychologist Rosemary Randall has come up with the idea of Carbon Conversations, a series of workshops where people from local communities or workplaces discuss environmental concerns. The initiative enables people to debate and learn about issues, such as waste management, greenhouse gases and energy efficiency, and has demonstrated remarkable results, with many participants pledging to halve their carbon footprints.

The final barrier, and perhaps the most depressing, is the issue of politicians muddying the waters. David Cameron’s sudden announcement to parliament that green levies should be “rolled back” to lower energy bills was ill-conceived, poorly timed and damaging to realising the dream of a sustainable economy.

The PM’s promise to cut energy costs by removing what he claims are “unnecessary” levies is undoubtedly designed to appeal to voters, but has simply spread confusion within the energy department – with contradictory statements released as to what measures will be reviewed – and stoked uncertainty among investors and the general public.

Cameron’s statement has not only undermined investor confidence in renewable technologies, but also the public’s understanding of the value of energy efficiency and the need to cut carbon emissions.

To make the shift to a truly sustainable economy, everyone needs to be both knowledgeable and engaged on environmental issues, and politicians must stop undermining this with short-sighted, election-motivated policy flip-flops.

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