Despite the Rio+20 silence, sustainability is still a priority

The Rio+20 conference on sustainable development has come and gone with barely a flicker of interest in most of the UK. Other than the seriously environmentally attentive, few people will have noticed anything going on. The Prime Minister certainly doesn’t look to have suffered for his decision to stay away to focus on the Eurozone crisis.

But though it was predictable, it wasn’t inevitable that Rio would be so ignored in the UK.

It’s of course the case that the environment is a lower immediate priority for most people than the economy is. The latest Mori issues index shows just 3% identifying green problems as among the main issues facing Britain – compared with 58% choosing the economy (worth remembering that that 42% didn’t choose that either).

So by choosing not to go to Rio, Cameron was probably playing it safe. Most people were never going to notice or particularly mind.

It’s a further step in the logic that had George Osborne say last year “we are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers”. Barely more than half government MPs now think that the Coalition is living up to Cameron’s pledge that it would be the “the greenest government ever”:

But despite all that, public opinion was actually quite receptive to the UK playing a major part in the negotiations at Rio.

A GlobeScan poll puts the UK at the bottom of the table of enthusiasm for “international commitments to reduce global poverty in ways that improve the environment”, but still finds that only 8% are against any commitment. Despite the lack of media attention on the conference, nearly half said they want the UK to play a leadership role in making ambitious commitments:

In itself we can’t conclude from this that UK leadership at the conference would have been wildly popular at home. The question above leaves out the arguments against a major international commitment, like the financial costs for developed countries, which in reality would have an effect on opinion.

We can get some help from a recent YouGov poll on another conflict between biodiversity and economic interests: the debate about restrictions on commercial fishing.

The results suggest that opinion is strongly in favour on fishing bans to protect the most endangered species, and evenly split on draconian measures to help all fish stocks, like a temporary ban on all commercial fishing in EU waters. Again though, the details aren’t fully laid out, so it’s not clear that support for restrictions would hold up in the face of economic counter-arguments.

So while the polling isn’t definitive, there does look to be an unmet desire for more action to protect sustainability. It’s not a great surprise that the Prime Minister prioritised the eurozone crisis over biodiversity, but public opinion didn’t make it inevitable.

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  1. I belive there is always room for improvement and every government should be leading this in their own communities. That said I’m happy that a number of governments including the UK government have in place sustinability initiatives. Coming from a Green IT perspective I still belive there is a lot that can be done internally in these organisation and a lot of it is cost effective so by no means would impact them negatively.