Changing track, changing tack; Dutch ideas for a robust environmental policy for the 21st century

03-10-2013 | Publication

The positive effects of environmental policy in the past do not guarantee adequate results for the future. Present and future environmental challenges require new approaches, primarily because the old policy repertoire does not fit our modern network society.

In the essay ‘Changing track, changing tack’, PBL summarises 40 years of Dutch environmental policy and draws lessons for the future; lessons that may also be interesting to other countries in the developed world. Looking back, we learned that the Dutch approach to environmental problems has been very successful in improving environmental quality, reducing the environmental health burden and neutralising the deterioration of Dutch nature. No more smog episodes, dirty, smelly surface waters or housing projects on contaminated soils. These and many other successes seem to be forgotten. Celebrating them may boost public opinion about environmental policy, something that is greatly needed, today, to build political support for the development of a new approach.

Environmental protection requires international cooperation

Present and future environmental challenges lie in curbing climate change, loss of biodiversity and resource scarcity. As these issues manifest themselves on a global level, a globally coordinated effort is required to address them effectively. This, to date, has proven extremely difficult for governments to realise. While liberalisation of international trade in commodities and financial services, over the past decades, has been extremely successful, this was much less the case for coordination of environmental policies, despite substantial efforts by the EU and UN bodies. National governments are faced with the classical prisoner’s dilemma: results can only be achieved when everybody cooperates, but as soon as they do, pulling out becomes even more profitable (in the short run). In the past, governments have been able to overcome this dilemma through binding arrangements for all parties involved; initially, only within national jurisdictions and from the 1980s onward also within the EU. However as the EU expanded to 28 Member States, and private businesses expanded into global production networks, the politically acceptable grounds for binding arrangements have deteriorated. Simultaneously, public trust in government agencies and in the scientific knowledge on environmental processes has diminished, eroding the political basis for effective policies even further.

Ten ideas to modernise environmental policies

Does this mean that governments are left empty-handed? Not in the least. The essay presents 10 ideas for governments to modernise environmental policies. Some elaborate on strong features of the network society; for instance, by disclosing information on environmentally harmful activities or by disseminating information on innovative technologies that help to protect the environment. Governments also have a role to play in stimulating technological and social innovation, especially in market-based economies.

Public debate

With its 10 ideas for modernisation, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency intends to initiate new public debate on the future of environmental policy; a debate that will create a common understanding of the challenges that lie ahead, to develop a shared analysis of the barriers to be overcome and of the options to do so. The national government is no longer in the position to develop well-thought-out environmental policies on its own, as it could 20 to 30 years ago. With its shrinking capacity, government will need to prioritise its activities and develop ways to tap into the experience and knowledge of companies and citizens.