Approaches to sustainable environmental policy

  • Dr. Franziska Wolff

More acceptance for environmental policy

The challenges faced by environmental policy are constantly changing. The research project “Environmental Policy in the 21st Century” has therefore spent the last few years examining various challenges in depth, with the aim of weighing up the strategic options for action.

The key results and recommendations have now been summarised in a policy paper, which builds on the comprehensive research report with the similar title “Perspectives for environmental policy: Approaches to tackling new challenges” and sums up the results of five studies that were carried out in the course of the research project.

Specifically, it sheds light on the following questions: What dynamics are at work, and what can we learn from past circumstances for the future? To what extent can narratives and discourses be used strategically for environmental policy? What opportunities and risks are attached to the economisation of the environment? How can environmental policy deal with the apparent contradiction between sustainable development and individual consumer freedom? How can environmental policy be designed so as to contribute to sustainable development generally, including in countries of the Global South?

Fundamental strengthening of environmental policy is necessary

The challenges and approaches to future environmental policy considered vary in many respects. What can be said, however, is that future environmental policy should address a range of action areas which have not been dealt with effectively, if at all, so far. These aspects include passing effective regulations on intergenerationally equitable consumption and lifestyles, controlling the pricing and levels of environmental consumption, managing economic growth and free trade, regulating vested rights, and institutionally prioritising environmental policy.

The agenda-setting for these new policy fields benefits from powerful narratives and ethically informed arguments. Economic incentive instruments such as taxes and levies, subsidies and liability rules can still be used in future, but the employment of more controversial economisation practices should be weighed carefully and designed intelligently. In parallel with all of this, international development impacts must also be taken into account.

Even more fundamentally, environmental policy absolutely must be strengthened in order to master the challenges it faces in the 21st century. Sustainable environmental policy must be in a position not only to define ambitious goals but also to put them into practice.

Publicly acceptable ethical principles as the basis

Because strong environmental policy is presumed to interfere more with citizens’ interests and preferences, it must constantly re-legitimise its principles. For that purpose, the acceptance of environmental policy should be increased – for example by means of a robust knowledge base. But at the same time, acceptability should be a focus because knowledge alone does not change the way people behave. Ethical arguments play a major part in this, in relation to consumption for example.

<link publikationen p-details perspektiven-fuer-umweltpolitik-ansaetze-zum-umgang-mit-neuartigen-herausforderungen>Policy paper (in German) “Perspektiven für Umweltpolitik: Ansätze zum Umgang mit neuartigen Herausforderungen” [Perspectives for environmental policy: Approaches to tackling new challenges] by the Oeko-Institut in cooperation with the Environmental Policy Research Centre at the Freie Universität Berlin, the Institute of Environmental Social Sciences and Geography at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, the German Development Institute and IFOK GmbH, commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency.