Environmental Prinicples and Policies:
An Interdisciplinary Approach

Kay Weir

Pacific Ecologist, Issue 13, Summer 2006/07, pp. 59-60

This important book is the most recent in a lengthy list of books by the prolific Professor Sharon Beder. Beder won the World Technology Award for Ethics in 2001, is among the 'Top 100, of Australia's most influential engineers', of Engineers Australia, 2004, and included in the 'Smart 100', Bulletin Magazine, 2003. Since Beder trained firstly as an engineer in Christchurch, and later moved to Australia, shifting her career into researching and teaching environmental politics, both countries can claim her as their own. She has held a number of appointments at Australian universities over the past two decades, most recently as professor in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong.

Environmental Principles and Policies is a vital book which should be read as soon as possible by everyone concerned about the environment, global warming, and human rights. It allows readers to gain an understanding of important environmental principles and how to assess policies. It's easy to read and is not just for policy makers and government officials. The environment, afterall, is everyone's business, particularly these days when so little has been done by governments to reduce emissions and the damage causing the terrifying problem of global warming. But as concern mounts about melting ice caps, increasing droughts and floods etc, governments are belatedly making some effort to implement policies. But what if the policies our governments implement are incapable of delivering the substantial reductions in pollution necessary, and in the short time, as is required with global warming?

As Beder says in this penetrating book, in most cases, the aim of economic instruments -- now favoured as ways to reduce emissions -- is to maximise economic efficiency not environmental protection.  For example, pollution charges are mostly not high enough to give  an incentive to minimise pollution, or resource use. The book is divided into 5 Parts. Each section provides information on further reading.

Part 1:  Environmental Protection Principles, including the Sustainability & Polluter Pays Principles, ecological footprint, limits to growth, liability, threats to desired levels of protection, scientific uncertainty, etc.

Part 2:  Social Principles & Environmental Protection, including The Equity Principle -- inter-generational and intra-generational equity; what should be sustained; environmental human rights; the right to know, public participation, etc.

Part 3: Measuring Economic Methods of Environmental Value, including national accounts; cost benefit analysis, environmental valuation in practise; equity, human rights, sustainability and precautionary principles, etc

Part 4: Economic Instruments For Pollution Control, including, price-based measures, tradeable pollution rights, global warming measures; setting the baseline, phony reductions, monitoring & enforcement; bad practices; the polluter pays & the precautionary principles, etc

Part 5: Markets for Conservation, including, quotas, trades, offsets & banks -- tradeable fishing rights, water trading; salinity trading and offsets etc; the equity principle & tradeable fishing quotas; equity, participation & precautionary principles applied, etc.

Economic instruments are fine, if only limited reductions in pollution are required, as Beder shows with many examples. But they tend not to work if larger reductions are needed. Open market emissions trading do not ensure total emissions will be controlled. One example Beder gives is when the German government was considering an acid rain emissions trading programme to reduce sulphur dioxide, SO2, by 90 percent between 1983 and 1998. It found there was little point in setting up markets that enable some firms to avoid making the big reductions necessary. In deciding against an emission trading programme, and using legislation instead, the German government achieved their goal of 90% reductions.

In comparison, the U.S. acid rain emission trading programme, aimed at only a 50% reduction by 2010, which meant there were cheaper ways for power stations in the US to reduce their emissions, than in Germany where every power station had to retrofit their plants.  US sulphur emissions now exceed those of the EU member states by 150% and despite national reductions, levels of SO2 have increased in 16 states and 252 out of 600 power stations increased emissions. The lesson Beder points out from this experience, is that the more rigorous the emission reduction needed, the less scope there is to find cheap solutions to sell excess allowances or reduction credits.

Another telling example shows the failure of water markets. The Murray River in Australia is dying, despite a cap and trade system operating. More than 75% of the river system‚s water is still diverted before the river reaches the sea, and the river mouth has become hypersaline with ingress of seawater. Over 300,000 trees which have been around for 300 years have died as a result of the 'human-induced perennial drought',' and an internationally recognised wetland, the Coorong may not survive. An inquiry into this failure has concluded: 'Market trading by itself is inadequate to meet environmental needs.'

The strong message to be drawn from this essential book is that it is we, the people, who must take responsibility and make it clear to governments that policies set now, must suit the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in, and not be written to protect the now false economics of the free market. If we allow the latter to happen, we will be responsible for imperilling all life and future generations. The hard lesson to learn for conventional 'economists', who still have the ear of governments is that the environment is the progenitor of the 'economy' and not vice versa. Everyone needs to read this book to become informed and active about the issues.

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