Developing UK sustainable development strategy together: SGR Response

Responses to the consultation on the UK Government paper, Taking it on - Developing UK sustainable development strategy together, in May 2004 and July 2004

The ‘invited’ consultation which we took part in was divided into 2 online sessions. The aim of the first session was to answer some or all of the 42 questions posed in the consultation document by 28th May. 150 organisations (including SGR) responded and their responses were summarised by the organisers in a further document. 3 further questions were asked following on from this summary document (Session 2), with a deadline of 31st July. Below are the submitted SGR responses to the 2 sessions.

In Session 1, we responded to 10 of the 42 questions, focussing on the areas closest to SGR’s main activities.

Our responses to both sessions are short due to very tight word limits imposed by the online process. It was very difficult to present our views adequately within these limits, hence we had to be selective about which aspects to focus on.

Response to Session 1 - May 2004

Vision for sustainable development (Q2, Q3)

Sustainable development should be about delivering a high quality of life across society while minimising environmental impacts. Economic development should be pursued only in a way which is consistent with this broader aim.

Guiding principles (Q4)

We agree with nine of the ten suggested guiding principles. The tenth, ‘Creating an open and supportive economic system’, is potentially in conflict with some of the others. It should explicitly mention that economic development should be compatible with social and environmental objectives, in particular including measures which prevent domination of markets by large private interests.

Barriers to progress on climate change (Q9)

In order to tackle the very serious problem of climate change, we need a much more concerted effort devoted to tackling greenhouse gas emissions from road transport and aviation which continue to rise. Indeed, current Government policies, which are supportive of the building of new roads and airport expansion, run counter to other climate change policies. A range of measures is needed including, in particular, the strengthening of public transport (especially much-neglected bus services); and a marked increase in the price of air travel.

Promotion of a more innovative, competitive, resource-efficient, low-waste economy whilst also improving our environmental performance (Q11)

Sustainable development, rather than economic growth, needs to be made the driving force behind applied science and innovation (as we have argued in our response to the recent consultation on the Government’s proposals for a 10-year science and innovation strategy). This means:

  • founding or expanding cross-disciplinary research centres with a social and/ or environmental focus;
  • providing greater support to small businesses/ innovators with a specific environmental/ social focus;
  • shifting the focus of innovation so that less of it is based on cutting-edge experimental science (with its greater uncertainty concerning risks) and more is based on simpler, intermediate technologies;
  • switching much of the large Ministry of Defence science and technology budget to areas with a specific environmental/ social focus;
  • providing greater financial/ political support to emerging renewable energy and energy-efficiency technologies, and sustainable agriculture (eg organic farming).

Encouraging consumers to choose more sustainable goods and services (Q13)

In this area, there needs to be:

  • clearer and more accurate information on the human health, environmental and broader social impacts of the goods we buy;
  • greater use of economic instruments such as taxes to make sustainable consumption easier and cheaper;
  • much stricter regulations on the marketing/ advertising of goods and services which have especially high environmental impacts.

Areas of consumption to be tackled first (Q14)

The focus for the policies and measures in this area should be on goods and services with a high environmental/ human health impact. Choice of such goods and services should include consideration of any scientific assessments of their impact (eg through the use of Life-Cycle Assessment), but it is likely that priorities will include cars (especially those with low-fuel economy); air travel; electronic equipment; junk food; and goods transported over a large distance.

Top international and EU priorities for sustainable development (Q22)

  • Climate change: encourage, in particular, those countries with large per capita emissions of greenhouse gases to take much stronger action.
  • International security: improve international security and hence support sustainable development by providing much greater support of non-violent conflict prevention initiatives, rather than giving support to the use of unilateral military force.
  • International trade: reform international trade rules such that they support environmental and social goals, especially in Developing Countries, rather than act against them.

UK assistance to other countries to help achieve sustainable development (Q23)

In order to promote sustainable development internationally, it is essential to work for long-term peace and security (as the consultation document acknowledges). The UK Government needs to integrate this thinking into its military and security policies, in particular through a large-scale shift of resources from the development and deployment of military technology to measures aimed at peace-building. As part of this change, there need to be far stricter rules on the export of UK armaments and other military technology.

Strengths and weakness of current indicators (Q38)

  • The choice of indicators should reflect the prioritisation of quality of life and quality of environment. In particular, the Gross National Product per head is a poor indicator - it can and does show positive change due to economic activities which reduce quality of life and/ or quality of environment. Hence it should be replaced by, for example, the Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP) per head, as advocated by the New Economics Foundation.
  • The current UK indicators do not adequately reflect the environmental damage that the UK is causing internationally, mainly through overconsumption of resources. Use of an indicator such as the Ecological Footprint (which is used as a headline indicator in Wales) is needed.

Response to Session 2 - July 2004

What comments or observations do you have about participants’ responses to the questions in Session 1?

Those respondents who argue for the continued prioritisation of economic objectives do not appreciate the severe damage being caused to the global environment nor the high levels of global inequity. The single most important aim for the UK sustainable development strategy should be to ensure that at least equal resources are devoted to environmental and social issues as to economic ones.

There are two issues which we would like to emphasise as they have received little attention to date. Science and innovation policy continues to be dominated by narrow economic/military priorities (as outlined in the recent 10year strategy). Sustainable development needs to be made the focus instead. Current military and security policy is also incompatible with sustainable development. It should take more account of the role of unsustainable resource use in contributing to conflict. Some of the large funding devoted to the military could be better spent on international sustainable development.

What specific actions, between now and 2010, would convince you that serious progress is being made on sustainable development?

In Science & Innovation Policy

  • set environmental and/ or social aims for all Government innovation grant schemes;
  • create and implement a strategy for the rapid and significant reduction in Ministry of Defence R&D funding and reallocation of the finance to areas which directly contribute to sustainable development, especially areas such as sustainable energy and sustainable agriculture.

In Military and Security Policy

  • rapidly reduce the multi-billion pound funding for offensive military activities and technologies (eg nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, arms export subsidies) and use the freed finance to directly support conflict prevention and sustainable development, eg by reducing UK dependence on natural resources from unstable political regions and by helping developing countries ‘leapfrog’ unsustainable consumption patterns.

What will get sustainable development thinking and understanding into the mainstream?

A single composite indicator of environmental damage would make both policy-makers and the public aware that current levels of UK consumption are far from sustainable. The Ecological Footprint is the most well developed such indicator, but it is difficult to explain. However it could be used as the basis of a clearer indicator, ie ‘Number of Planet Earths needed if everyone consumed at the average UK level’. This has been used in an informal way by many commentators, and so is likely to get wide recognition. Some further methodological development must be undertaken, however.

Government needs to give more support to independent public interest organisations such as environment/community groups in their attempts to get across the sustainable development message. This is key as information coming from the Government can be treated with suspicion. A critical difficulty faced by these public interest groups is lack of resources, especially funding, which Government could provide.


  1. For more details on the consultation, including the consultation document, see: