Tactics that pollute the truth

Scaremongering is causing policy errors that undermine our economy and environment. Adrian Wilkes says all costs must be fully examined.

Since the Industrial Revolution, industry has been polluting for free — because no [legally recognised] individual has property rights to our communal beaches, rivers and air.

Private costs are borne by the public. Only government action can correct this. But it will not act if it is given a distorted version of the facts — and, alas, it is regularly misled by scaremongering about the costs. As a result, inaction hurts us all, UK industry included.

The most-used lobbying tactic is, in the words of one chemical industry association (currently spending $50m — that’s around £26m — to weaken the EU’s REACH Directive on chemicals controls), to ‘conduct and publicise an economic-impact study to dramatise the potentially devastating impacts to industry and consumers’.

Such scaremongering has persuaded Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that deregulation is a top priority because environmental protection is damaging UK industry. But where is the hard evidence? The CBI told the Commons Select Committee that it did not know of any company that had left the UK because of environmental regulation.

Scaremongering is leading to huge policy errors that will undermine our economy and environment. Government economists must start properly assessing all costs and benefits.

Pollution imposes economic costs. It increases the burden on the NHS; drives up the cost of scarce natural resources; cuts yields from agriculture and forestry; damages such ‘third party’ industries as insurance and tourism; harms occupational health.

Conversely, there are direct benefits from environmental protection. First, because waste production is only inefficient processing, environmental policy spurs innovation and waste minimisation/eco-efficiency.

Second, tackling environmental challenges also creates huge new business opportunities. The world market for environmental goods and services is currently estimated at $515bn.

But the UK is lagging well behind the US, Germany and Japan — which have implemented high environmental standards without damaging competitiveness.

Blair and all the other EU leaders have endorsed the Commission’s new ‘Environmental Technology Action Plan’ to promote the international competitiveness of my industry.

But this commitment is being undermined as they have also enthusiastically backed the Lisbon Strategy’s ‘competitiveness agenda’, downplaying social and environmental protection while showing little interest in Holland’s far-sighted initiative for a ‘clean, clever and competitive’ industrial strategy, recognising that eco-efficiency will be a key element in future international competitiveness.

The CBI (and UNICE in Brussels) claim that environmental policy is bureaucratic and costly. Sadly, polluting industry’s scaremongering is not usually analysed critically — to reveal it for the sham it is.

Defra’s recent ‘Evaluation of the Air Quality Strategy’ reveals the scale of the error. It concluded that the real costs of cutting air pollution from the transport and electricity sectors were £5,000m — compared to original estimates of up to £52,512m.

EIC’s advice to Blair and Brown is to unmask the phantom of the deregulation lobby and look at a full and accurate assessment of all the benefits of environmental protection. Nobody in favour of intelligent policymaking could argue with that, surely?

Adrian Wilkes is Chair of The Environmental Industries Commission.