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The Public Policy Process

The public policy process was the topic covered in week 11. The importance of this area to sustainable development quickly became clear. As we have learned, the four pillars of sustainability are: Environmental, Economic, Social, and Operational. The first three of these are probably the easiest to visualise because they encompass things that everybody can relate to. The operational side of things however deals with governance and policy making, things that most people wouldn’t have too much experience of. Yet this aspect of sustainability is equally as important as the other ones. You can’t have one pillar smaller than another otherwise it is not acting as a pillar.

Anyway the policy process is vital to sustainable development in that it is the mechanism that brings in the guidelines or laws regarding sustainability. Without environmental protocol, countries wouldn’t worry about carbon emissions and so we would never see a reduction in them. Without law, society couldn’t live in harmony as their would be no punishment for those who overstep the boundaries. The same is true with regard to economies. And so, if these areas are to progress in a more sustainable manner in the future, it is clear that the public policy process will play a major part in the planning and implementation of  the guidelines and laws which must be adhered to. We saw the effect of public policy first hand in Cloughjordan where the county council didn’t give planning permission for a reed bed system to deal with the towns waste even though it is the most environmentally friendly way. In order to become more sustainable, policies like this one will have to be reformed.

Sustainability Metrics

The topic of sustainability metrics covered in week 10 definitely ties in with my blog about corporate social responsibility in which I mentioned the way in which corporations can measure how sustainable they are under the Global Reporting Initiative. Bernadette presented us a measure of sustainability applied to the Limerick city and Annacotty areas. This was quite interesting in the way we got to see how the areas compared to one another with regards to the various pillars of sustainability. I think it was a good reminder of the various areas that sustainability encompasses. When we hear sustainability it is easy to associate it environmentalism and going green but sustainability is also measured on the economy, society and governance. I think it is especially important now that we are aware of these areas when you take two important factors into consideration, 1.the different notions of sustainability that exist , and 2.our economic situation.

1.Sustainability is concerned with the endurance of stocks of capital(resources).The two notions of sustainability; weak sustainability and strong sustainability, differ in opinion about how stocks of capital should be managed. Weak sustainability is not concerned about the form which these stocks of capital take, be they natural or man-made. So long as there is no reduction in their amount from generation to generation, everything is fine. Strong sustainability, aswell as maintaining capital stocks, requires that the stocks of natural capital(ecological assets) not be depleted on the basis that they are non-substitutable and are essential for life. Weak sustainability allows for the continued depletion of our natural resources and it must be said that this is the approach that is taken in the western, industrialised world at the moment. It places growth ahead of development. Contrast this with strong sustainability that would like to see greater decoupling referring to the ability to grow without increases in environmental pressure.

2. I think the concepts of weak and strong sustainability are especially relevant to Ireland when you consider our economic position. For example, An Coillte is a state-owned company that manages 445,000ha of forestry throughout the country. With the current IMF bailout of  €85 billion and the interest it will accrue, the irish government may be pressured or even ordered to sell off our forests. Once this happens we have no say in their fate, whether the practices of weak or strong sustainability are applied. In my opinion this is where the importance of sustainability metrics is really seen. Perhaps they can put a value on resources such as forests that would highlight the need to preserve them, taking into consideration not just the monetary value that some private party would pay for them but also their benefit to society and to the environment. The essential pillar necessary for this is proper governance, but who knows how much of this we can do with the IMF breathing down our neck.

References:

http://www.savannas.net/sust_faqs.htm#weak sustainability

http://2ndgreenrevolution.com/2010/09/26/the-difference-between-weak-and-strong-sustainability/

Corporate Social Responsibility

Week 9

Corporate Social Responsibility is a difficult concept to pin down exactly. It deals with the ethics of businesses, how they are managed in order to have a positive impact on society and the environment. In this way sustainability is at the heart of the concept.

The European Commission’s definition of CSR is:

A concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis”

Corporations, especially large MNCs can often be guilty of greenwashing their policies. This makes it difficult to measure their sustainability. There is however a tool that can put a qualitative figure on a company’s sustainability. The Global Reporting Initiative provides the world’s most widely used sustainability reporting framework. The reporting framework sets out the principles and performance indicators  that organisations can use to measure and report their economic, environmental and social performance. Many corporations find that financial reporting  no longer  satisfies the needs of , shareholders, communities, and other stakeholders for information about their overall performance.The benefits of the GRI Reporting Framework for corporations is that it provides; brand enhancement, protection from brand  erosion resulting from the practices of suppliers, and increased comparability.

See Examples of Greenwashing to find out who some of the main culprits are.

Some facts about CSR

References:

http://www.globalreporting.org/Home

http://www.mallenbaker.net/csr/definition.php

http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/sustainable-business/corporate-social-responsibility/index_en.htm

Consumerism and Happiness

 Week 8

We in the western world live in consumerist societies. There is a constant barrage of advertising that shows us what we need to have to be successful human beings. How to improve or homes, our comfort, our relationships, our lives overall, there always seems to be a product out there that claims to be able to do this. But if we are improving our lives in this way all the time, does this mean we are getting happier? Are we happier than our grandparents were? Are we happier than the people who live in less developed countries where society is less materialistic? 

The simple answer to the question of  whether or not increasing consumerism results in increasing happiness is no. Remember when you were a child and you begged your parents for some toy you saw somewhere, and you kept begging until you eventually got it. You were so happy with it, but then one week later you couldn’t even remember it, you wanted the next toy that took your fancy. Well it works the same with adults only the toys are much more expensive and a lot of the time purchase is based on appearance rather than entertainment value. The happiness a person experiences after purchasing a product is fleeting. Before long their happiness level returns to what it was before they had purchased it if not even lower because now they either regret wasting their hard-earned cash or they regret not having purchased a more expensive version (more expensive = better).

 Advertising has brainwashed people to the extent that they no longer know what makes them happy. The old adage that the best things in life are free is probably true. Scientists researching the area of consumerism V happiness have concluded that it is things like social interactions that contribute to happiness and not what we are led into believing through advertising. Perhaps this is why we are no happier now than our grandparents were at our age. They lived in a society where social interaction was far more prevalent. The population was more rural based, social gatherings were commonplace, dance halls were big, pubs were busier and more numerous, mass attendance was higher, creameries were plentiful. People met with each other far more frequently. Social gatherings didn’t require organising, they just happened and there was a far greater community spirit as a result. Society was far less consumerist, largely because the average income at the time didn’t permit it.  Unfortunately this sense of community spirit has diminished over the years along with overall happiness to the situation that exists today, people living in housing estates who dont know their neighbours two doors down from them.

Are we happier than people who live in developing countries?  With all our products that supposedly make life so much easier and more comfortable and more enjoyable, the answer is no, well at least according to the happy planet index. This index is a measure of human well-being taking environmental impact into consideration. It was designed to challenge  indices like GDP that do not consider happiness and health, the ultimate aim of most people. . The HPI of a country is a function of  its estimated life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint. Developed countries such as ireland tend to score poorly on the index largely due to the area of ecological footprint. Ireland is way down the list almost on a par with the war-torn region of Iraq. I would question the accuracy of this index to be honest because it suggests that the happiness of the people of a country is directly dependent on their ecological footprint. I am not so sure that people are really that concious or certainly not concerned about their ecological when it comes to personal comforts. So in my opinion the index is accurate as a measure of sustainability rather than happiness and in order for it to be a true measure of both of these things global values and ideals would have to be completely altered.

The paradox of choice is an interesting concept in my opinion and never has it been so relevant to us. I can’t think of a single product in the supermarket for which there is only one brand present. Of course, it also depends on the size of the retail outlet but as we know, most of the smaller stores in Ireland are struggling to stay afloat such is the competition from the large supermarkets. The theory suggests that too much choice is actually a bad thing as it paralyses the consumer with uncertainty and prevents them from making a purchase. This theory is widely disputed, and lets face it, just because you are faced with 40 or 50 different cereals when doing your shopping doesn’t mean you will become demoralised and not eat breakfast. However I think you can apply the theory to luxury items. You can take the famous exotic jam experiment by the psychologists Mark Lepper and Sheena Lyengar as an example. When researchers set up a display of exotic jams in a gourmet food store allowing people to taste them and giving them a coupon for 1$ off a purchase the results seemed to prove that too much off a choice was counter productive from the manufacturers perspective. With a display of 6 jams people made a purchase in thirty per cent of cases. With a display of 24 jams people tended to taste the same amount as the smaller display but only made a purchase  three per cent of the time. This is the classic case of the kid in the candy store.

References:

 www.globalissues.org/issue/235/consumption-and-consumerism

http://www.freakonomics.com/2009/12/02/is-the-paradox-of-choice-not-so-paradoxical-after-all/

http://www.happyplanetindex.org/public-data/files/happy-planet-index-first-global.pdf

http://happinesshunters.com/why-consumerism-kills-your-happiness-and-how-to-get-rid-of-it/

Tax Competition,Tax Havens and Developing Countries

week 7

Tax is the most sustainable form of income for a country. It provides the necessary finance to develop areas such as health and education. In this way the people of a country, in paying tax,contribute to the development of essential services and to the society itself. Ideally people would contribute in an equally proportional manner or at least in a way that doesn’t see the less well-off  bear an unfair amount of total tax. Today however a numer of problems exist which complicate the matter and mean that equality is not a possibility. Two of these problems include tax competition and tax havens.

Tax competition sees countries competing with one another to attract foreign investmest. This involves putting tax incentives in place that would be of sufficient benefit to the corporation that they woul choose to set up in that country as opposed to another one. Ireland’s low corporation tax rate of 12.5% is an example of tax competition.The average corporate tax rate for OECD members has fallen from 37.6 per cent in 1996 to 28.3 per cent in 2006, according to KPMG.

To the person in a developed country, tax competiton can be harmful as it results in tax burden being diverted from the corporate field to  other forms of tax placed on society with the lower and middle classes being disproportinately taxed. The greatest problem however from the point of view of global sustainability is that the poorer, developing countries find it much more difficult to deal with tax competition. This results in a lower revenue for the governments of these countries and greater dependence on foreign aid. Zambia is a prime example.Between 1992 and 2004, the total contribution from the copper industry to the Zambian treasury fell from over $200 million to just $8 million-even though copper prices had increased by more than 25%, while copper production remained relatively stable.

Tax havens are also a major problem for global development. Tax havens are regions ( “offshore”) in the world where one pays virtually no tax, offering certain wealthy client the opportunity to get around the rules and allows them to take advantage of the onshore benefits of tax (education, health), even though they do not contribute at all. In this way, the people who have the most to give, give nothing, while the lower and middle class shoulder the extra burden. Offshore finance is not restricted to small remote islands. Large cities such as London, New York and countries like Switzerland and Singapore offer the secrecy needed by these wealthy individuals or corporations. This is a major problem for developing countries because it allows corrupt rulers to abuse their country’s assets by stripping them and relocating them to these financial centres. This means that the country loses revenue, becoming more dependent on foreign aid, all-the-while their dictator (as is often the case) gains considerable wealth.Research recently conducted has shown that sub-Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the rest of the world in terms of external assets, which  exceed their external liabilities. The assets however, are in private hands, while the liabilities are the public debts of African governments and their people.

Tax is the most sustainable form of income to developing countries where the goal is surely to replace forign aid with tax based revenue. Action on tax has the potential to provide far greater gains to poorer countries than could ever be achieved by aid. But what good is this when they cannot compete.

References:

http://www.taxjustice.net/cms/front_content.php?idcat=102

Wait and See- (food production)

Week 6 with Con Traas showed us the massive amounts of energy inputs that are required to produce the food that we expect to find in the supermarket when doing our shopping. CO2 is emitted at every stage;from the fuel used in  farm machinery, to agrichemical and fertiliser production, machinery construction, construction of farm buildings and techniques such as irrigation (although not widely practised in Ireland). This is not something I would have thought about before, but I suppose it wasn’t exactly surprising either. It is not that long ago that the majority of  Irish people practiced subsistence farming,whereby the vast majority of their waking lives was spent producing the food that kept them alive. What little income people had was also spent on the bare essentials. Today we have the luxury of  spending so little of our income on food, and not spending all our time living from hand to mouth. Modern life and modern technologies that take advantage of cheap energy, have afforded us this luxury but it comes at a price. This price being, the emission of so much carbon that scientifically, is changing the characteristics of our planet, and not for the better.

So what do we do ? When we talk about energy production, there are the obvious solutions of harnessing wind and water energy to produce electricity, but what about food production. Food production is more difficult in that it revolves around cheap fuel. Farm machinery and fertilisers are essential and therefore so are the fuels that drive them. So what,(apart from the obvious and come up with a cheap, green and efficient fuel that can be used in all agricultural processes) should Ireland do to get around this problem?  Well in my opinion Ireland should do nothing. Food production and energy production are different things and in my opinion Ireland should, at this stage, concentrate on making the latter environmentally friendly and cheap. My reasoning behind this is not that I am doing an energy course and simply want a job at the end of it. No my reason is simple. Ireland needs an example, we cannot be trusted to reform food production techniques ourselves. 

Recent months have proven that we are incompetent when it comes to this sector, and the incompetency does not lie with the  farmers who implement farming practices nor with those who aspire to be the ones to produce alternative fuels. Our major drawback comes in the form of our politicians. You may wonder what politicians have got to do with food production in Ireland but as it turns out, the answer is too much. You see, Ireland is a member of the E.U. and as such must conform to E.U. guidelines, but who negotiates and makes deals with the E.U., yes our politicians. To reform food production would require legislation and negotiation of some kind involving talks about quotas etc.  Before the dissolution of the last Dáil there was a party ( based on good intentions, but ultimately  lacking in the required knowledge) called the Green Party. They gave a vivid example of why Ireland cannot reform food production techniques on a large-scale. They proposed a Climate Change Bill that had the potential to severely damage the agri-food sector in Ireland. It would have required a 40% reduction of cattle herd to meet the reductions in carbon emissions, a carbon reduction greater than that imposed on Ireland by the E.U. and one that would have damaged one of the few sectors that is targeted for bringing Ireland back to economic growth. On the bright side it would have made the party look very good in Europe. Thankfully it is Ireland that matters and we got rid of the Green’s before they could enflict long-lasting damage. I suppose one thing we could do with regards to food production in the future is try to ensure that whoever is responsible for the sector in the Dáil has some prior knowledge in the area and perhaps some understanding of a misguided deal.

So lets maintain the status quo until other countries come up with viable alternatives to producing food in a way that doesn’t damage the earth, and then we can copy their methods. If we jump in to the deep end before we can swim we may drown so lets keep our over enthusiastic politicians on a leash. Anyway international studies show that food production in Ireland on our temperate grassland systems have a much lower carbon-footprint than food production from more intensive systems in other countries. If you don’t like this solution you could always head off to the inner regions of  China and find a nice paddy field to spend the rest of your days growing rice.

Links :

 http://www.fdii.ie/Sectors/FDII/FDII.nsf/vPages/News_and_Events~Press_releases_archive~food-sector-sets-out-recommendations-for-next-government/$file/FDII%20Policy%20Recommendations%202011.pdf

http://www.teagasc.ie/news/2010/201006-22.asp