Looking through green glasses

The biggest political challenge of the 21st century is to empower citizens to make decisions for change.

Green politics are not as new as they seem. As long ago as the middle of the 19th century, English authorities reacted to air pollution problems by evoking what came to be known as “the precautionary principle” – trying to avoid action that may later prove to damage health. Now, in a major step forward, this approach has been written into the Biosafety Protocol agreed earlier this year.

The challenges to our common environment are wordwide. We must create a binding global order which gives a high priority – even precedence – to protecting the environment and human health, and respecting animals. For me, one of the most essential tasks is to remedy the worldwide free trade rules. No power on Earth, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), should ever again be able to state that international agreements on combating climate change, for example, can only be considered if they do not contradict the free circulation of goods, capital and services.

Few decision makers recognized the underlying potential for conflict when the WTO was established just over five years ago. Today awareness is growing, following some environmental trade wars. Tens of thousands of citizen activists travelled to Seattle last November to demand an assessment of the effects of previous trade-liberalisation rounds before any further steps were taken. Few still think that globalisation will automatically benefit everyone, or contribute to the achievement of all valuable human goals. On closer inspection, it has proved to create problems and possibilities, like almost everything else.

Connecting people

Modern technologies, for example, might help indigenous and other local people in remote regions who are threatened with violence because they oppose the ruthless exploitation of natural resources by multinational oil industries. Connections between indigenous people and environmental activists in wealthier parts of the world have helped us understand that environment and development are two sides of a single coin. We must urgently convince companies, banks and government agencies of the need to reconcile them.

Increasing participation is an essential part of any effort to heal our planet. Everyone is a constituent and resident of a local community. If they can overcome the widespread feeling of being disempowered at home, their capacity to make changes in a wider context will inevitably increase. The right of access to environmental information is a necessary step in giving citizens influence. Everyone should also have the right to environmental justice, the right to take any suspected violation of the rules on the protection of the environment to court. International agreements on environmental rights, such as the Arhus convention, must be extended to all countries.

Modern constitutions acknowledge the right of citizens to a healthy and clean environment and in return impose on them a duty to protect it. A constitutional amendment of this kind was established in my country, Finland, in 1995. Already it seems to have made a difference, by successfully balancing the previously relatively unlimited rights of landowners.

It is not just governments who are realizing that they must involve citizens in making decisions on the environment through participatory reforms and more transparent administration. Companies are also facing the pressure, as politicians have transferred many of their powers to the imperative of global markets. Even the most powerful multinationals have had to face their vulnerability to their clients and others.

The lessons that Shell learned over its plans for the disposal of the oil platform, Brent Spar, and in its relations with the Ogoni people in Nigeria seem to have had some impact on the whole oil industry. But company codes of conduct and other declarations must go beyond just words. Oil, logging and mining companies should be obliged to publish their plans for activities in faraway rainforests, and become accountable for their actions. Ethical investment funds are gaining in popularity, but the real challenge is to convert all investment funds and banks to ethical and
responsible behaviour.

Competitive advantage

Market forces, however, are offering solutions as well as causing problems. As a member of the European Parliament, I have seen how a growing number of companies actually welcome strict environmental laws and rules. This is scarcely surprising, since respect for the environment is becoming a new area of competitive advantage. And why not, if a company has invented a new technology which saves not just natural resources or energy, but money too?

It all depends on the rules. Companies are not likely to protest against environmental obligations when a ‘level playing field’ has been established for everyone. It is a pity that political decision makers have not been able to proceed far with market instruments aiming at environmental protection, such as levies and taxes on pollution or the use of scarce resources. Introducing them would also pave the way towards creating more jobs, as the tax burden on labour could be correspondingly reduced. Some countries have taken modest steps, but they will not flourish in the absence of similar measures in other countries and regions. The ultimate aim should be to have global rules on taxing pollution and the use of non-renewable natural resources such as fossil fuels.

Many steps were taken, in the last years of the century we have just left, to integrate the concern for the environment into all aspects of decision making. But many worrying trends are still worsening. Transport as a whole has not become more sustainable, although emissions from private cars have been cut to a small fraction of what they once were. The planet’s thermometer is still rising as the growth of greenhouse gas emissions continues. The number of environmental refugees has swollen, as ecological living conditions have become intolerable. If we look through green glasses, we can see that almost every development in the world has an environmental dimension.

Participation for change

How can it be that so many worrying trends have not been reversed, despite an undisputed increase in awareness? I tend to believe that any progress depends on trying to return influence and power to the people. I do not believe that people are greedy or hostile towards changes in their lifestyles. Rather, I believe that most people wish to participate in such a change if their fellow citizens do so too. Thus, participation in decision making requires dialogue, often missing in our atomised communities.

Everyone must be empowered to feel that he or she can make a difference and have an influence, both locally and globally. The biggest political challenge of the 21st century is to give birth to such a decision making structure. And there should be no doubt about the need to place the environment at its very centre.

Heidi Hautala MEP, is the president of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. She is a former member of the Finnish parliament and a former chair of the Green party in Finland.

Our Planet – The United Nations Environment Programme magazine for environmentally sustainable development, Volume 11, Number 1/2000, pp. 10-11