Good housekeeping on a dirty planet

The Greening of Industrial Eco-Systems - Greening the GATT: - Environmental Diplomacy - Governance by Green Taxes:

April 21, 1995


There has been a quiet revolution in academic publishing over the last few years, as instruments for environmental protection and clean-up are developed, then studied, then compared and examined, then written up for devotees and students. These books span subjects from environmentally backed revolutions in Eastern Europe to global trade, to relatively micro matters like resource use in industry and ways of paying for water in different cultural systems.

The movement towards international political consensus on environmental issues has been driven largely by activist scientists and key figures such as Sir Crispin Tickell. But developing such a consensus and turning it into trade agreements and national regulations is a slow and controversial process. It has been calculated that it takes about 20 years to move from agreed international protocols to detailed national implementation. That is not surprising in the world of international negotiations. The interesting difference about the environment is that pressure groups are driven by a sense of urgency, part altruistic, part apocalyptic, which strengthens the case. And after 20 years of the long march through the institutions, former activists are now the heads of respected policy institutes, think-tanks, or government departments.

Lawrence Susskind's book on global diplomacy addresses the problems of global environmental treaty making in a clearly written, persuasive and practical way. He assumes that the optimal aim of treaty makers should be to get to an acceptable agreement as soon as possible, wasting as little time, money and effort as possible. Susskind's work on consensus building has become famous. It would be tempting to see it as an outcome of the American belief that conflict is usually due to misunderstanding, and that it is always possible to reach consensus, - the opposite to Realpolitik. But in fact Susskind does recognise that there might be irreconcilable interests involved; his book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming guide to making satisfactory and democratically acceptable agreements, while recognising and incorporating the balance of interests at national level.

Susskind starts with the problem how, as a diplomat, do you represent the diverse interests of consumers and producers and voters and lobbyists at home, come to a stance consistent with the rest of your delegation, and then negotiate an acceptable settlement with some dozens or hundreds of other countries?

Global environmental treaties are backed by scientific data. How do the treaty negotiations deal with this? Scientists can form "epistemic communities'', groups of like-minded scientists and international officials who set a global agenda. Yet, as Susskind points out, there is a danger that such a "self appointed ad hoc group'' will be disproportionately influential, and overwhelm concerns about national interests. Then, scientists may not always be objective, and are not always trusted, although scientific disagreement can also reasonably arise from a rich and diverse research base, or from a new discipline. Susskind suggests that for science-driven but uncertain issues (global warming is the obvious example), where the "precautionary principle" is being advocated, one can build in what he calls contingent factors into a negotiated settlement; for the moment we agree this, state A, but if things get worse according to an agreed benchmark, we proceed to state B, where more intensive controls come into play.

Susskind has a chapter of extremely interesting suggestions for enabling global environmental diplomacy to reach better-quality more satisfactory settlements more quickly. He recommends that scientific recommendations be part of a national or regional peer review process, and that you should move from local and regional consensus to global consensus. Susskind's work takes place in the context of his fine work as a specialist in negotiations on environmental problems, which has helped to train civil servants in several countries, and presumably much of what he says would apply to negotiations on other, non-environmental issues. None the less, the idea that these agreements can and should be developed so efficiently is troubling. The book is seductively well written, and reasonableness itself, however, there is one position - that global treaties concerning environmental problems should not be made - that cannot be met by Susskind's recommendations. Still, it is a thought-provoking and realistic book, and if there is a suspicion of all this sweet reason, it is that trends such as the recent one in international environmental diplomacy to work to change consumption patterns, from more polluting and resource intensive to less, can somehow be lobbed into the political process without their dictatorial nature being detected.

One of the key technical problems with developing global agreements is to ensure that all producers abide by the same restrictions, to prevent exporting pollution and waste, or exporting capital to lower-cost production countries where the cost differential is caused by lower environmental standards. Agreements and regulations are needed to ensure consistency of application, and the internalisation of environmental costs. Daniel Esty has looked at the way in which environmental issues have been brought into the GATT free trade negotiations, and how the process of incorporating this inevitable intrusion has worked. If you want to know about GATT and environment, and indeed about the whole network of trade organisations, this is a very useful book. I suspect that only GATT negotiators, environmental activists at the global level and students will want to know these things, although they affect us all. Esty is experienced in GATT work and committed to environmentalism. To him it is obvious that Yellowstone should be a national park and not a Disneyland, and he does not discuss the justification for forcing this choice on the consumer, although he does justify his commitment to environment as an issue by some not-too-apocalyptic but none the less unreliable figures on depleted forests, large rises in temperature and so on.

When we think of environment, we tend to think disaster. That is what helps to force action and drive activism. But the intellectual challenge is to think in terms of pollution prevention, and here low-cost measures such as taxes and subsidies can sway consumer and producer behaviour. The comparative experience of different countries who have experimented with such policies does not always find much analysis.

We are all products of our own culture and language, and civil servants tend to look at their own national policies and experience.

This makes Mikael Skou Andersen's case studies of different national policies on water charges especially valuable. He has looked at Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands and compared the type and level of taxes, the relationship between policy development and action, and the implementation of policies. Not many writers make the jump between ideas and reality; Andersen's examination of the effectiveness of these policies makes this a truly original piece of writing.

He concludes that so-called earmarked taxes (taxes taken from specific sectors to be spent in that sector) are an effective and cost-effective financial instrument, whose use should be extended. This conclusion breaches a somewhat unspoken consensus among political economists that taxes should all go into the pot and be redistributed according to our democratic processes. Andersen shows that tying taxes to usage can work. His sensitivity to the national and cultural differences between the countries he examines makes this a remarkable work, that I cannot recommend too highly.

Pollution prevention is also dealt with by a collection of papers on "industrial ecology''. Cleaner production, or clean technology, or good housekeeping, or waste minimisation, all look at ways of reducing pollution through managerial, technological or organisational changes in the way facilities are run. Why is cleaner production not being taken up by producers more? Proponents of this ideal argue, with a lot of convincing examples, that companies can pay for waste reduction and clean up within a few years; a good pay back time by any standards. So why do they not do so? OECD studies have shown that cost and technology information dissemination is not the answer.

Probably, you need the incentive of stick and carrot; a four-year pay back for environmental improvement does not seem worth the cost in management time and effort without the stick of a regulation. This is a comment about management culture, and it should be noted that waste reduction and environmental corporate policies generally are powerful management tools; looking in detail at where things go and what they cost is not what managers normally do, and in doing so, they can find out a lot about how their company works. But pressure on management to improve corporate environmental performance also comes from the managers.

One study found that "green awareness" was greater among middle management of child-bearing age and granny aged managers, because of the pressure from young children exposed to green ideas at school. Finally, improving the corporate image through improving environmental performance is sometimes the last lurch of a dying corporate giant, a final attempt to gain face among peers, improve corporate morale, and change corporate culture. Few of these issues are covered by the compilation edited by the National Academy of Engineering in the United States, The Greening of Industrial Eco-systems.

The biological analogy so favoured by Herbert Spencer returns in this work: "the various actors in industrial ecosystems - raw material supplier or component manufacturer, consumer, waste handler or recycler - are analogous to biological organisms . . . we may speak of the industrial eco-system in terms of the whole network of industrial eco-systems''. Probably engineers like to think in this way. It legitimises their interest in reducing pollution and use of resources. The book ranges from the extremely obvious to the scientifically dubious ("Modern social systems have clearly broken away from the patterns of global ecological stability that existed during the two million years when humans lived in small nomadic bands"): it is too dense to be a good introduction to the subject, but it does contain some interesting case studies.

Anna Bramwell is author of The Fading of the Greens: the Decline of Environmental Politics in the West.

The Greening of Industrial Eco-Systems

Editor - Braden R. Allenby and Deanna J. Richards
ISBN - 0 309 04937
Publisher - National Academy of Engineering
Price - £24.95
Pages - 259pp

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