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Environmental Policy

OECD Countries Fail to Make Headway on Conservation

November 4, 2014 | by ALISON SINGER

Waste collection truck in Dublin, Ireland, May 2013 © Canadian Pacific via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Environmental policy in the OECD largely stagnates. While financing and enforcing policies is essential, geographic and demographic factors also play a role for countries’ success in conservation issues.

Despite the constant global conversation about environmental issues, particularly climate change, there has been little change in the environmental indicators of OECD countries in the past three years. This is one of the findings of the latest edition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project which examines governance and policy making in countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU).

The study’s indicator for environment seeks to measure how effectively nations’ environmental policy protects and preserves the sustainability of natural resources and quality of the environment. It shows that between 2011 and 2013, the majority of OECD nations largely stagnated in their environmental policy.

Iceland saw the greatest increase of all 41 countries in the assessment, 1 point. Finland and Mexico showed the largest declines of 0.5 points respectively. The small overall change indicates that OECD nations are not successfully implementing new policies to protect natural resources and the environment.

Nations that did show signs of improvement, such as Iceland and Ireland, were perhaps more successful due various geographic and demographic factors. Ireland, for example, instituted a carbon tax in 2010, but as their greenhouse gas emissions are only 0.1 percent of global emissions, this policy is largely symbolic, though it has contributed to cleaner energy. In 2013 Ireland introduced a draft Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. The small nation seeks to produce 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

Iceland also made significant steps in its environmental policy in 2013, passing a new act that strengthened its environmental protections. The country passed a resolution mandating which hydropower and geothermal resources can be used for power generation. Perhaps most importantly, Iceland finally addressed the long-standing erosion of its soil.

It’s important to note that both Ireland and Iceland are relatively small nations with extensive hydroelectric energy sources. Renewable energy policies are imperative across the globe, but geographic location obviously makes a difference in how easily such policies are implemented. Countries with extensive sunlight, hydrologic opportunities, and potential wind generation sites will find it easier to develop renewable energy in financially viable ways. This in turn leads to more political support for such policies, as the public sees potential for job increases and private investment.

Financial crisis might have fostered stagnant environmental policies

Besides the physical characteristics of renewable energy potential, countries must have the financial possibility to invest in renewable energy. The years between 2010 and 2014 saw much of the world slowly recovering from a financial recession. In times of financial strife, people often subordinate environmental concerns, focusing more on the immediate needs of food and shelter. It may be that the relatively stagnant environmental policies in much of the world are also a product of the financial times.

Of course it is not only financial hardships that creates challenges to policy implementation. Japan, for example, was an early global leader in terms of pollution policy and energy conservation. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, however, forced the country to rethink its energy portfolio, and all nuclear reactors have been shuttered since. It does, however, appear that nuclear energy will remain a part of the energy mix, but this could change if another disaster strikes, or the public is unwilling to face the risk. Additionally, Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen since the recession, and it is important for the country to focus on reductions.

Mexico, which together with Finland saw the largest reduction in its environmental policy indicator of all 41 countries in the SGI 2014, faces significant environmental issues, from water and air pollution in urban areas, to deforestation in rural areas. The country appears to take environmental issues seriously, but this has yet to translate into policy implementation. Additionally, even when policies are implemented, enforcement is often lacking. The Federal Law of Environmental Responsibility entered into force in July 2013, and created a “polluter pays” regulatory framework. If this law is adequately enforced, it may change Mexico’s environmental policy landscape, but that remains to be seen.

The stagnation in national environmental policies in the OECD and the EU is worrisome, but it is hopefully a product of a move towards regional policies. Because of cross-boundary pollution issues, such as migrating air and water pollution, it often makes sense for regional policies to alleviate environmental problems, as opposed to national policies.

Collaboration may become more common in the environmental realms, with fisheries treaties, carbon trading schemes, and regional pollution reduction policies being examples of some of the ways in which the world is addressing environmental issues. As climate change discussions ramp up, it will be interesting to see if the nations of the world can cooperate across geographic and political boundaries to protect our planet.

Alison Singer lives in Washington, D.C., where she works on environmental issues.

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Related | SGI

Study: SGI 2014
The latest edition of the Sustainable Governance Indicators