Sustainability: it's in the balance

29th July 2011

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The publication this week of the government's proposed new approach to planning (NPPF) has thrown into sharp relief the many different interpretations of what it means to be sustainable

Governments, businesses, charitable organisations and environmentalists each differ in their view of the correctly weighted balance of the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit – depending on their circumstances.

It came as little surprise then, that the UK government interprets a positive attitude towards economic growth as central to a planned “presumption for sustainable development”, while charities, such as the National Trust, argue that the planning system’s primary concern should be in protecting the natural environment.

Without economic growth society cannot endure, argues government, but without protecting natural resources we cannot sustain our economy, says the charity, in a well-established debate that is played out in many organisations across the private, public and third sectors.

For those working in the environment profession this can feel like walking a tightrope. The drive to do as much as possible to tackle an organisation’s environmental impacts must be tempered by the realities of available resources.

And surely, rather than focusing on whether money, people or the natural environment is more important, the real key to sustainability is a holistic approach to managing resources.

Bjorn Lomborg, for example, famously argues that rather than spending billions annually trying to cut carbon emissions in line with Kyoto, more good could be done for society and the planet by diverting those resources to other philanthropic causes and the development of new technologies.

This week, Professor Gough, of the London School of Economics, published a paper arguing that fuel poverty would be better tackled by spending less on poorly targeted winter fuel payments and more on programmes to improve insulation.

Similarly, the government’s recent waste review was criticised for not putting in place standards that would convert waste into a commodity providing energy, recyclate and fertiliser.

What is needed, says Gough, is a better integration of environmental and economic policy.

For all its pledges for “sustainable” development, there remain serious questions as to whether the government has achieved that integration with the NPPF.

A “presumption for sustainable development”, does not a sustainable development make.

Do you agree? Why not start a discussion in the IEMA LinkedIn Group and have your say?


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