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Relying on voluntary measures won't solve environmental problems

Last modified: 04 November 2015


Voluntary approaches to measures such as recycling have led to mixed results, with some sectors missing targets by a wide margin

Image: Andy Hay

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

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