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- The Main Phases of Environmental Policy Making
- What Is Distinctive About Environmental Policy?
- What Drives Environmental Policy?
- Environmental Policy: Retrospect and Prospect
For as long as humans have existed on planet Earth, they have sought to alter it to suit their purposes. In its most basic sense, environmental policy seeks to govern the relationship between humans and their natural environment. A relatively new area of state activity, it has grown enormously, particularly since the 1960s. Indeed, its spectacular rate and extent of growth has been such that it is no longer a small and fairly discrete area of policy but one that increasingly intrudes into virtually all other policy areas. At its core is an identifiable “environmental state” comprising specific ministries, agencies, and organizations whose mandate is to secure environmental improvements. Underpinning environmental politics is the tense relationship between this state and its opposite numbers representing the social and economic realms. As the following sections show, this inherent tension can be better understood first through tracing the historical evolution of environmental policy, then outlining its distinctive characteristics, and finally by identifying its underlying rationales. While this overview would suggest that environmental policy development has resulted in a great deal of state building, the overall impacts on the state of the environment are not so clear.
The Main Phases of Environmental Policy Making
One way to understand environmental policy is to trace its historical evolution. Modern environmental thought dates back to the preindustrial period. Before the 1960s, environmental policy making was primarily geared toward protecting human health from pollution and establishing designated areas of green space for leisure activities. These ends were mainly achieved by limiting pollution from point sources such as factories and establishing protected areas and national parks.
In a second phase broadly encompassing the 1960s and 1970s, environmental policy really took off and environmental pressure groups boomed. It is often said that the first evocative images of the Earth transmitted from deep space in 1968 were what really catalyzed public concern for what became known as “the environment.” The environmental state was born in this period as many jurisdictions created environmental ministries and agencies. However, these responses remained isolated, uncoordinated, and generally reactive. Policies adopted were mainly regulatory in nature, specifying process and emission standards; many were very poorly implemented.
In the 1980s and 1990s, environmental policy entered a third phase. The sector witnessed a huge expansion in the scale of the new environmental states, which sought to address problems in a more preventive manner at source. Old ways of thinking (such as “pollution control”) duly gave way to new ones (“ecological modernization” and “sustainable development”). Rather than promoting end-of-pipe standards, these sought to embed environmental concerns within wider systems of human production and consumption. More specifically, they supplemented “command and control” regulations with new environmental policy instruments such as eco-taxes, voluntary agreements, and product-labeling devices. The new environmental states also began seeking innovative ways to cooperate on addressing cross-border pollution and resource overexploitation. A number of international environmental agreements mushroomed in this phase, and supranational bodies such as the European Union began to assume an ever-greater role in environmental problem solving, as shown by Andrew Jordan (2005).
Environmental policy in the industrialized world is currently in a fourth phase, roughly covering the period since 2000. This phase has witnessed another set of policy developments as the implications of environmental policy have ramified into ever more cognate policy domains. In this phase, it has become even more obvious that environmental problems arise not from single-point sources such as factories and power stations but from countless everyday social practices such as travelling, shopping, and even using the Internet. State action, by implication, is a necessary precondition for progress, but society too must play its part in nurturing and delivering environmental policy.
The issue that most clearly encapsulates these challenges is that of climate change—arguably the greatest environmental threat the world has faced (Andrew Jordan, Dave Huitema, Harro van Asselt, Tim Rayner, & Frans Berkhout, 2010). Crucially, it links into many other social and economic challenges such as poverty reduction, energy insecurity, and massive biodiversity loss and is stubbornly resistant to simple “techno-fixes.” Climate change cannot, in short, be left entirely to environmental policymakers, but it demands long-term and socially transformative adjustments—a systematic “carbon revolution” no less—which mirrors the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.
It is hugely important to be aware of the differences between these phases while at the same time remaining cognizant of the underlying continuities. The best way to appreciate the importance of both is to explore what distinguishes the environment from other policy areas.
What Is Distinctive About Environmental Policy?
Environmental quality exemplifies what economists term a nonexcludable or “public” good. In other words, the benefits of higher environmental quality often accrue to the wider public rather than to specific individuals. By contrast, the costs of protection (e.g., the fitting of abatement equipment) tend to be borne by specific groups (principally those that pollute or who are prevented from developing their land). Consequently, there is a basic asymmetry between those that pollute (in the initial phases noted above, generally a minority) and those (the wider public) suffering the consequences. Polluters have strong incentives to unite and fight to protect their “rights” to pollute and have therefore tended to enjoy advantages over those enduring its disbenefits. The latter are often too widely dispersed or individually suffer too little to mobilize into a coherent group.
In the third and fourth phases, this asymmetry has arguably become less stark as mass consumption has gradually eclipsed dirty “point sources” as the main driver of environmental change. Nonetheless, the state’s role is still to mediate between those supporting and those opposing development. Because environmental damage has its origins in otherwise socially legitimate activities such as driving, using electricity, and farming, the state is routinely called on to limit any damage imposed by one section on another. Initially, this was achieved by regulating polluting activities. As regulating is a technically demanding process, the state found itself relying heavily on polluters and scientists for information and, eventually, political support. Environmentalists routinely claimed that this skewed regulation was in favor of producer interests. In Phases 3 and 4, the state has therefore come under pressure to explore alternative instruments to promote more sustainable forms of mass consumption (W. Neil Adger & Andrew Jordan, 2009).
Environmental policy tends to be heavily reliant on science, both to establish the extent of environ-mental problems and to determine how to resolve them. However, science is rarely capable of delivering clear-cut advice to policymakers in this regard. On the contrary, different interests, including governments, tend to choose and interpret scientific findings selectively in order to justify their preconceived views. These tensions are most acute when policymakers are required to go “beyond science” and address problems, such as climate change, whose causes and consequences are not precisely understood.
Environmental problems are highly expansive—they spill across political borders and create problems extending well into the future. The precise spatial and temporal distribution of costs and benefits produces alliances of self-interest, which then battle to determine the scope and content of policy. This is particularly visible in cross-national settings. International environmental policy burgeoned in the third and fourth phases noted above.
Balancing these various factors is the core policy challenge in the environmental policy sector. According to widely adopted interpretations of sustainable development (see above), policymakers should address the development needs of current generations of humans without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. While there is general agreement that sustainable development is preferential to unsustainable development, moving from the latter to the former raises difficult questions centered on justice and morality, to say nothing of due democratic process.
Fifth, environmental policy is probably unique in the extent to which it cuts across traditional sectors of policy making. One great unmet challenge identified in the third phase has been how to integrate environmental concerns into and across all policy areas. The irony is that were this to happen, there would be no need for an identifiable “environmental” policy. For the time being, this seems an unlikely prospect: Although environmental arguments tend to find a more receptive audience in policy networks surrounding environment departments, they clash powerfully with producer-oriented networks found in the agriculture, transport, and energy sectors. Environmental policymakers are attracted to integration because it potentially helps tackle problems at source. As Andrew J. Jordan and Andrea Lenschow (2008) note, the danger, however, is that the sectors may only accept integration on their own terms or, worse still, take active steps to “reverse integrate” environmental policy with their preferred (sectoral) objectives. Integration in other words, is a two-way, not a one-way, street.
Sixth, environmental policy is probably the only policy domain that seeks to actively protect non-human entities. But to what extent should moral significance be ascribed to plants and animals, especially if it involves limiting human choice and raising the economic costs of development? This has opened up many ethically charged debates between those adopting broadly anthropocentric positions and those favoring more ecocentric ones. The former regards nature as primarily a source of resources and amenity; the latter holds that the nonhuman world should enjoy much greater (and in some cases equivalent) moral significance. Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people are more ecocentric than they were in the 1960s, many (if not all) contemporary environmental conflicts are still driven by the clash between these two worldviews.
What Drives Environmental Policy?
Ultimately, the main source of environmental policy making is environmentalism, a broad social movement that emerged in the late 1960s and loudly demanded that “quality of life” issues should receive more attention. In the past, environmental concern has tended to exhibit a cyclical pattern, with particularly pronounced peaks in support in the late 1960s and the late 1980s. Closer scrutiny reveals that these short-term “pulses” often coincided with periods of economic growth and social introspection. Conversely, concern has tended to tail off during economic recession. It is not normally as pronounced in poorer sections of Western society or in developing countries, although academic views differ on this matter. Looked at over longer time periods, an underlying effect is evident—each policy phase has provided the foundations for the next. During the third and fourth phases in particular, environmental policymakers sought new ways to institutionalize environmental concern and escape what Anthony Downs termed the episodic “issue attention cycle.”
Environmental Policy: Retrospect and Prospect
Environmental policy addresses the complex and reciprocal links between the underlying structure of modern economies and societies and the quality of their natural environment. As such, it is probably unique in its breadth and its political complexity. Since the 1960s, a new “environmental state” has evolved to produce and implement it, paralleling the emergence of the welfare state in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both represent lagged and socially mediated responses to the negative effects of industrialization. And naturally, both are highly fertile grounds for political science and public policy research. But what has all this activity produced? While environmental policy has witnessed a great deal of state building, its overall impacts are still far from clear. For sure, the most damaging forms of air and water pollution have largely been contained in the most industrialized states. Yet efforts to address the creeping decline in ecosystem health reported by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) as well as to stabilize Earth’s climatic system have been continually overwhelmed by the ever-growing scale and speed of human activity. Consequently, environmental policy remains, at best, a work in progress.
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- Jordan, A. J., Huitema, D., van Asselt, H., Rayner, T., & Berkhout, F. (Eds.). (2010). Climate change policy in the European Union. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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