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Do green targets miss the point?

Richard Black | 10:19 UK time, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Probably the least surprising environmental news of the week was that European Union countries are highly unlikely to meet the international target of curbing biodiversity loss by 2010.

Unsurprising, because no region of the world is likely to meet the target.

bird picture from afpBut worth noting, I would suggest, because of all the regions, Europe, with its stable population, relatively slow economic growth, increasing forest cover and raft of environmental policies is in the best shape to tackle biodiversity loss.

If it can't be stemmed here, what hope for the rest?

Combined with the distinct feeling around the UN climate conference last week that governments are more interested in avoiding damage to their competitiveness than in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it got me wondering whether setting targets is really the best way to make progress on these issues.

The biodiversity target was agreed at the UN conference that came 10 years after the Rio Earth Summit - the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity gives this rationale:

Clear, long-term outcome-oriented targets that are adopted by the international community can help shape expectations and create the conditions in which all actors, whether governments, the private sector, or civil society, have the confidence to develop solutions to common problems.
By establishing targets and indicators, progress can be assessed and appropriate actions taken.

All true enough. But there has to be political will to achieve the targets.

Take the Kyoto Protocol. Its greenhouse gas targets were not especially onerous. A modern developed nation could easily make the small cuts mandated within a decade and a half - at a cost, of course, but they knew that when they signed up.

powerstationgetty203.jpgSome have done so; but not all. UN data shows that as of two years ago, Spain's emissions were about 40% above its Kyoto target. Austria's were 25% above, while Japan and Ireland were about 12% off course; there are others.

So clearly the mere setting of a relatively easy target does not mean that it will be met.

As economist George von Furstenberg has argued, governments have a habit of promising more than they can, or intend to, deliver. When the target date is further away than the next election, it's not a bad electoral strategy, but there is surely a tendency for the public to assume that if a stringent target has been set, the problem is on the way to being solved.

So are targets worthwhile? Would all the time and energy not be better spent simply developing and implementing policies that deliver firm benefits?

Europe is failing to curb biodiversity loss, not because of anything to do with the target, but because it doesn't yet have the right policies in place to stem all the things that drive biodiversity loss. It's even disappearing inside protected areas.

Over the next year, governments will wrangle long into many nights about another set of targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This time around, it will be even more complex, given that curbs for developing countries are also on the horizon.

Then in 2010, they'll meet to discuss why they have collectively failed to meet the 2010 biodiversity target.

Concerned observers will look, shake heads, lament the failure and demand a tougher target next time.

What is right? I don't know. But I think it's worth asking whether the whole notion of target-based environmental treaties is wide of the mark, and whether governments would be better off just taking measures that they know will work.

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