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Relying on voluntary measures won’t solve environmental problems

4 November 2015

Jessica Abbott
Assistant Investigations Officer

Regulations play a vital role in protecting nature and the environment in the UK and across Europe, indicates a new RSPB report, published today.  However, concerns about the costs of regulation to business have increasingly led both UK and EU policymakers to promote the use of voluntary alternatives to regulation in seeking to achieve environmental policy objectives.

To date, a lack of evidence has hampered efforts to prove the value of regulation when protecting wildlife and the environment. To fill this void the RSPB has today published a new report – Using regulation as a last resort? The report, which assesses the performance of voluntary approaches, has reviewed the effectiveness of over 150 voluntary schemes across a range of sectors and issues to determine how well they perform.

This research shows the impact of most voluntary schemes is limited. Over 80 per cent of schemes were found to perform poorly on at least one key measure. The majority of schemes set unambitious targets, with many also failing to achieve ‘unambitious’ targets.  In addition, many schemes were undermined by low rates of private sector participation and the resultant lack of a ‘level playing field’ for those participants seeking to improve their performance. The research found nothing to support the claim that voluntary approaches can be an effective alternative to regulation.

The RSPB’s Donal McCarthy is the report’s lead author. He said: “Our report is the largest assessment examining the performance of voluntary schemes. Our findings confirm that relying on voluntary action alone is insufficient to tackle the serious market failures that exist when trying to curb environmental destruction and degradation. Without environmental legislation, wildlife right across Europe would be in a far worse state, exploited for short-term gain without proper consideration of the long-term consequences.”

A key example highlighted in the report is the voluntary ‘codes of practice’ for tackling the spread of invasive non-native species – one of the key threats to wildlife. These codes have consistently failed to deliver, and new binding legislation to tackle the problem was introduced last year.

Similarly, the failure of a voluntary agreement with retailers to substantially reduce the number of single-use plastic carrier-bags given to customers has recently resulted the introduction of mandatory charging in England, following the success of this approach in significantly reducing use in other places, such as Wales.

In another example, over two decades of reliance on voluntary action by industry has failed to deliver on the UK Government’s own targets for reducing the use of peat-based composts, in spite of the best efforts of some producers and retailers. Donal McCarthy added: “From waste and energy efficiency to pollution and pesticides, voluntary approaches are consistently performing below expectations.”

In relation to the cost-effectiveness of voluntary schemes, one of the most widely cited advantages of voluntary approaches, McCarthy noted: “Although the use of voluntary approaches has the potential to reduce some costs, the design, negotiation, and implementation of voluntary schemes can involve considerable public and private expense.  There is no guarantee that costs will be lower under a voluntary approach.”

Despite these headline results, the report recognises that voluntary action by those in the private sector seeking to improve their environmental performance should be strongly supported, given the potential for significant improvements to be made by those businesses who acknowledge the need to act sustainably. Nevertheless, McCarthy notes: “There are limits to what is possible based on voluntarism alone given the commercial pressures that all businesses face.”

The report highlights that well-designed voluntary schemes work best when there are clear incentives for participation and performance improvement, normally where a close alignment exists between commercial drivers and environmental benefits.  According to McCarthy: “Recommended best practice design features for voluntary schemes include clearly defined and credible targets, transparent reporting requirements, independent monitoring mechanisms, and appropriate incentive structures.”

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Conservation Director concludes: “The failure of the voluntary approach to site protection in the UK and Europe was a key motivation underlying the introduction of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives from the 1980s.

“These policies represent the cornerstone of efforts to halt the decline of wildlife and special places. Thanks to these vital laws, the losses of important wildlife sites have declined dramatically. There are clear lessons from the success of these policies that provide a robust yet flexible legal framework for achieving sustainable development at the same time as providing a level playing field for businesses and certainty for those that want to do the right thing.”

The report can be downloaded here


1.            The RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity with more than one million members. For over 100 years, we have been at the forefront of campaigning for policies that protect wildlife, special places, and the wider environment. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

2.            According to the UK Government’s Better Regulation Framework Manual: “It is Government policy to regulate only as a last resort, having demonstrated that satisfactory outcomes cannot be achieved by alternatives, self-regulatory or non-regulatory approaches.”

3.            For the report, each scheme was assessed against three performance indicators that together determine scheme impact: target achievement (the extent to which scheme targets were realised), target ambition (the stringency of the scheme targets relative to the policy objective), and level of uptake (the industry participation rate). Each performance indicator was assessed based on information obtained from existing scheme assessments and published reports. The results were as follows:

*             64% of schemes assessed in relation to target achievement performed poorly, meaning that they failed to achieve the majority of their targets (or, where relevant, compliance rates greater than 50%). 78% of schemes assessed in relation to target ambition performed poorly and 57% assessed in relation to level of uptake performed poorly.

4.            The majority of the schemes assessed came from EU countries (58%), and over a quarter came from the UK (29%). The results showed that:

*             There was no significant difference in the relative performance of UK and non-UK schemes.

*             Schemes from EU countries performed significantly better than schemes from non-EU countries, but the vast majority (over 75%) of schemes from EU countries still performed poorly on at least one performance indicator. Over half failed to achieve the majority of their targets (or, where relevant, compliance rates greater than 50%).

5.            In order to obtain as complete a picture of performance as possible, the report looked at both environment-related schemes (68%) and non-environment-related schemes (32%) to see if any lessons could be learned. The results showed that:

*             Environment-related schemes performed significantly better than non-environmental schemes, but the vast majority (over 75%) of environment-related schemes still performed poorly on at least one performance indicator. Over half failed to achieve the majority of their targets (or, where relevant, compliance rates greater than 50%).