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Three R’s plus one

Recycling, reducing, re-using and renewables would be a good start for a European green agenda says Jean Lambert, London’s Green MEP

The green agenda in Europe has never been more important than it is today. Europe and the rest of the world are slowly waking up to the reality of climate change and the imminent disaster that seriously threatens our environment.

The EU agenda we see before us today risks sliding towards a more 19th century version of trade and defence. Instead it needs to be pulled into the 21st century to focus firmly on the environment, human rights and international equity. If we are to save the future of our planet and prevent the extinction of the human race, all nations must work towards the same strategy through international co-operation.

We have heard the action plans and suggested lifestyle changes that can be used to reduce the effects of climate change, but what we need to see now is real, positive action on the ground to put these into practice.

As a Green MEP I am often asked about improving environmental sustainability and recycling rates in the UK and across Europe. A number of directives designed to tackle these issues head on have been drawn up by the European Parliament, but compared to other EU countries the UK has been late in getting its act together and still flounders behind making plans that we can only hope will eventually be put into action and taken seriously.

Waste and recycling is a highly political issue. Buried or land- filled waste produces carbon dioxide and methane, both of which are greenhouse gasses affecting climate change. It is essential that we focus on reducing, reusing and recycling materials as well as using sources of renewable energy. In 2004 a mere 3.6% of the UK’s electricity supply came from sources of renewable energy and even though the UK has only 1% of the worlds population we are responsible for 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

At the start of the UK Presidency of the EU in July 2005, Tony Blair stated that climate change was the most important environmental challenge we face, yet he continues to hold back on renewable energy and appears to clear the way to embark on a new generation of nuclear energy. The EU’s recent Energy Policy Paper talks of low carbon fuels, rather than renewable energies, as a means of keeping open the possibility to fund nuclear power through state intervention; Blair is said to have heavily influenced this move. The UK Presidency was a missed opportunity; despite the efforts of Margaret Beckett there was little discernible leadership from the top. Climate change received only half a sentence in Blair’s initial speech to the European Parliament, in marked comparison to his challenge to the European Social Model.

As we reach a crisis point in climate change it is vital that the government take action to fully implement all relevant EU directives and investigate further sources of renewable energy. After all a major reason to reduce waste levels and maximise recovery of resources is to reduce our use of energy and our climate change emissions.

Today many EU countries remain one step ahead of us as they increasingly focus on the reduction of waste produced, closing the recycling loop and reducing the ecological footprint. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) has been on the table for a number of years. Many other EU countries are making good progress with implementation and trials yet the UK has delayed working on the directive and instead continue to deliver a wide range of excuses as to why they simply are not ready!

The WEEE Directive is an important piece of legislation that demonstrates to organisations and businesses that they have responsibility for the waste materials they produce. The government, however, shies away from leadership on this and fails to convey how essential the directive is in our endeavours to alter climate change.

This reflects a continuing reluctance to challenge business on wider issues of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), especially when it comes to costs, but we have to move to wider accounting methods that take social and environmental costs into account. That debate is now being pushed by the rise of the Chinese economy, and we are starting to hear rising complaints that environmental and labour standards are lower in the rising economies, and that we must take steps to raise standards internationally as we can not and should not compete on low standards. This should have profound implications for moves to control business at an international level.

The UK has one of the worst recycling records in Europe and it is well recognised that levels must increase if we are to meet the targets laid out in the EU Landfill Directive. Although the UK government is now doing more than previous Conservative governments and recycling levels are gradually increasing, we still need to encourage the use of new schemes and technologies, encourage markets for recycled materials, focus on waste minimisation and ensure recycling is a norm in mainstream society.

The waste and recycling industry is constantly evolving and over the past few years has rapidly expanded. People are becoming more aware and committed to recycling, and businesses are recognising the impact they can have by closing the recycling loop and purchasing recycled products. But what concerns me now is the preparation for future generations.

Britain’s workforce lacks the skills to meet the demands of evolving technologies and ideas – without it our progression will be extremely limited. There is not currently a coherent strategy for the training of our workforce at both EU and government levels but it is vital that Europe implements a green strategy to meet environmental goals.

Strategies for improving the environment rely heavily on training but this is all too often aimed at placing people in jobs and ignores the significant potential that exists to empower people to improve the environment. Training solely through a perspective of increasing capacity income is neither integrated nor capable of working towards a society that lives by the principles of sustainable development. After all how will the use of solar panels become part of everyday life if we cannot locate a solar panel fitter in the Yellow Pages?

Previous reports I have commissioned have demonstrated that young people are concerned about the environment, pollution and health, but training and regeneration schemes fail to take this into account. By promoting vocational training schemes for those wanting to work in the environmental sector more people will embark on green jobs and significant steps will be made to improve our environment. We must grasp this enthusiasm with both hands and use it to protect our planet.

There is no excuse for the UK to be so stop-start over environmental laws and the fight against climate change. We have had ample warning of the introduction of such directives, the immediate need to tackle waste minimisation and the climate change crisis we see before us now.

Further delay will result in tonnes of material being dumped in landfill and the climate change crisis spreading even deeper. The EU needs to revitalise the sustainability agenda if it really wants a role on the world stage and a reason to find public support. Lukewarm is not inspiring.

Jean Lambert is Green MEP for London