24 February 1995 - 26 February 1995

Sustainable Development: Problems, Progress, Prospects

Chair: Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO

We began our discussion - Ditchley’s first major venture into environmental issues since we talked about biodiversity in 1993 - by asking ourselves how much lasting good the 1992 Rio summit had really done. Had it durably moved governments, and changed general public attitudes, towards the concept of sustainable development?

We were minded to give a qualified affirmative. Rio had undoubtedly captured attention; its Declaration had provided a wide range of prompts to action; it had produced two good conventions (on biodiversity and climate change) and stimulated the production of further ones - for example on fish stocks and on desertification - now on the journey towards ratification; and its Agenda 21 provided a wide- ranging forward look at areas and themes to be tackled over the long haul.

But there were “buts”. We all acknowledged the force and value of international frameworks for action, both because some issues were essentially of a cross-border character and because such frameworks were often an important help to national governments towards taking the right decision despite domestic vested interests. The follow-up to Rio however awkwardly lacked, at the collective inter-governmental level, coherently-defined responsibility, strategy and dynamic. The Commission for Sustainable Development was a mechanism available to political leaders, but not a potent independent force; and its relationship with the pre-existing United Nations Environmental Programme - which had been and should remain a valuable instrument for mobilising the scientific community across borders - risked overlap or confusion. The series of international conventions, admirable in concept, mostly lacked enforcement mechanisms - witness continuing sea-dumping practices.

Some participants judged that a good deal more could and should be done, for environmental benefit, by wider institutions such as the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and, in time, the new World Trade Organisation. But the main responsibility for improvement, or its absence, inescapably lay with national governments; and approaches and performances here were, at best, uneven. Many developed-world political leaderships seemed implicitly to feel, despite routinely pious rhetoric, that “green” issues had already had their due meed of attention at and around Rio, and that there were by now relatively few votes in such matters, especially - amid widespread perceptions of economic difficulty and comparative scarcity of resources - when employment was overwhelmingly the central preoccupation (a reality which campaigners for sustainable development had to recognise and accommodate). In these circumstances willingness to face uncomfortable trade-offs was limited. Governments were tempted to find excuse in the uncertainties of much of the relevant science, and even where facts were clear and warnings unmistakable action was sometimes evaded, as the bitter example of North-West Atlantic fisheries showed. In the United States, in particular, the new Congress might well prove to be of sceptical disposition in environmental matters.

We warned ourselves against generalising too readily from developed countries to developing ones. The former - beneficiaries in large measure of unsustainable development in the past - had particular duties now of good behaviour at least for the future, both to help demonstrate what could be achieved without intolerable disadvantage and to legitimise their part in the global dialogue. Example however could not alone suffice. World-wide sustainable development inescapably raised issues of North-South as well as inter-generational equity; and though in some significant areas good practice need not be expensive - might even enhance economic benefit - in many respects it inescapably imposed costs, especially upon countries, or elements within countries, least able to afford them. The developed world needed therefore to help construct systems of incentive - by the use if necessary of aid as well as advice, though preferably by aid directed at people rather than products - which made practical sense in the real circumstances of the developing countries. In those countries the key obstacles were poverty, poor education and populations over-large in relation to resources; for them, environmental concerns mostly related to land and water, rather than air quality; and better patterns of ownership and so of stewardship were key needs.

Scientists among us noted that, despite considerable past attention, soil erosion and fishery and forest conservation were still areas of keen concern; and we heard a particularly vigorous reminder of the problems and dangers of nuclear-energy plants in Eastern Europe. We heard also stimulating judgements of where special needs and opportunities for the future might lie, for example in the exploitation of magnesium extracted from sea-water; in more efficient methods of storing and transmitting energy; and in getting away from the disposal of human waste by the use of precious water resources. A good deal of concern was voiced about the shortcomings of international data collection in matters of global impact, such as biodiversity (and also, markedly, population information at levels below national aggregates). There was sometimes little enthusiasm for the unglamorous yet essential continuing assembly of data beyond the initial capacity of research vehicles; this was an area where the choice of indicators and the organisation and resourcing of collection seemed particularly to need inter-governmental or other international action, including developed-country support to the developing both for collection and for contributing to the subsequent tasks of analysis and dissemination.

We recalled the constant problem of arriving at dependable and externally-credible evaluation techniques and assessment models for environmental effect and for the effect of policy options. Narrowly-framed economic models clearly could not suffice, notably though not only because of the reductio-ad-absurdum conclusions that could result from the wooden application of high discount rates to situations where long-term effect was of the essence. It was important also, though far from easy, to build in all the externalities (like those resulting from the current trend towards mega-cities) and all the non-marketed values, like enjoyment of the countryside. Uncertainty was inescapable, given the long timespans typically in question; and though step changes in technology and increasing wealth might agreeably invalidate some extrapolations, for example about the earth’s total carrying capacity in terms of population, unknowns might well operate in less welcome directions. Many remedial policies themselves had long implementation timescales, and some problems, left untackled, might reach cliff-edges of cost or feasibility. The precautionary principle remained a powerful imperative.

Within the developed countries there were, as many of us thought, useful advances in public awareness and attitude, but a long way still to go. Industry had commendable successes to show in certain sectors (and multi-national industry could, and sometimes did, play a valuable part in dissemination to less advanced economies) but key attitudes - notably to the use of private cars - remained hard to shift. Even where overall benefit to the economy could be demonstrated there were almost always some interests damaged, for example among older manufacturing segments, and political pressures accordingly to be overcome. It could not be assumed that the whole of industry would see environmentally-sound action as integral to their business and do the “right” thing without pressure or stimulus, which must largely come from government - preferably, we judged, by apt incentive structures rather than simply by regulation. We were reminded that “green” taxes might often best be alternative rather than additional ways of raising public resource; and that political context and presentation might often be crucial, as recent British experience over value- added tax on fuel oil perhaps illustrated.

Our discussion of the role of government noted that the most effective focus of action was sometimes local rather than central, with involved-community initiative and motivation - though even there central government action might need to set the framework. The value of non-governmental organisations - especially in collaboration - recurred continually in our debate, not only as consciousness-raisers, exposers and pressure generators but also in many fields as supporters, action-leaders and organisers.

Perhaps the most pervasive theme of all, however, was that of the need for better communication. That by no means necessarily meant, we recognised, louder communication - the environmental cause had sometimes been damaged by over-strident and over-gloomy proclamations of disaster ahead, and publics and politicians were increasingly aware of the uncertain basis of many evaluations. It was both possible and necessary for scientists and others concerned, for example in campaigning NGOs, to present uncertainty and also the inevitability of risks (as in biotechnology), and of trade-off in interests - in cool and candid ways and in carefully-precise language, without thereby at all conceding the case for hope-for-the-best inertia - sharing analysis, wherever possible, rather than battering at doors. We heard of good experience, and surprisingly wide possibilities, in exploiting diverse channels of message-transmission, though the skills required were sometimes demanding; scientists needed to communicate with leaderships and publics (and moreover with other scientists of different disciplines) in language relevant to the hearer. In addition, several participants urged that more conscious effort should go into presenting achievements and successes - of which there were good instances, as with ozone both to encourage future action and to dispel perceptions of environmentalists as automatic members of the “bad- news” community. Targets proposed needed to be operationally realistic, and wherever possible supported by feasible measurement; and the action field needed to be of manageable dimensions.

We arrived at no single tactical prescription for those concerned with sustainable development. Shock therapy, or gradualist persuasion? Just occasionally the former might actually be easier in the political scene. For the long haul, however - and our subject was above all a long-haul matter - most of us seemed inclined to the softer style, with an admixture of encouragement in among the sterner warnings. But the continuing weight and breadth of the agenda remained evident; and we knew that sustainable development was not a settled state to be reached but a dynamic condition to be maintained.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Warden, Green College


Professor Graham Ashworth CBE DL
Part- time Research Professor; Director-General, Tidy Britain

Mr Andrew Bennett
Chief National Resources Adviser, Overseas Development Administration

Mr Paul Ekins
Research Fellow, Department of Economics, Birkbeck College, University of London

Dr David Fisk
Chief Scientist and Director, Air, Climate and Toxic Substances, Department of the Environment (DoE)

Sir Charles Fraser KCVO DL WS
Chairman of Secretary of State for Scotland’s Advisory Committee on Sustainable Development

Sir John Houghton CBE FRS
Chairman, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

The MacLaren of MacLaren
Assistant Head, Environment, Science and Energy Department, Foreign and Common­wealth Office

Dr Anne McLaren DBE FRS
Principal Research Associate, Wellcome/Cancer Research Campaign Institute, and Research Fellow, King’s College, Cambridge
Dr Norman Myers
Consultant in Environment and Development

Mr Derek Osborn CB
Department of the Environment
Ms Joan Ruddock MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Lewisham, Deptford

The Earl of Selborne KBE FRS DL
Chairman, House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology

Mr David Smith
Proprietor, DGS Associates; Associate Director, ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd

Mr Brian Emmett
Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy and Communications, Environment Canada

The Hon John A Fraser
Ambassador for Environment and Sustainable Development, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa

Monsieur Jean-Pierre Souviron
President, Commission du Développement Durable

Dr Gemot Klepper
Head of Research, Environment Division, Institute of World Economics, Kiel

Mr Noel J Brown
Special Representative of the Executive Director, Regional Director, United Nations Environmental Programme, North America

Dr Michael E Canes
American Petroleum Institute: Vice President of Policy Analysis, Statistics and Information Systems

Dr Anthony A Churchill
Senior Adviser, Washington International Energy Group

Dr George C Eads
Vice President and Chief Economist, General Motors Corporation

Ms Susan R Fletcher
Senior Analyst in International Environmental Policy, Congressional Research Service (CRS), Library of Congress

Professor Neil F Harl
Charles F Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture, Iowa State University

Mr Donald R Lesh
President and CEO, Global Tomorrow Coalition

Mr Whitney MacMillan
Chairman of Board and Chief Executive Officer, Cargill, Inc

Walker F Nolan, Esquire
Executive Vice President, Edison Electric Institute

Mr Howard Ris
Executive Director, Union of Concerned Scientists

Dr Marguerite S Robinson
Institute Fellow, Harvard Institute for International Development

Dr Marea E Hatziolos
Member, Freshwater, Marine and Coastal Resource Management (Blue Team), Environment Department, The World Bank, Washington DC