UK Life Quality Index Finds Environment in Flux

LONDON, United Kingdom, January 29, 2001 (ENS) - The UK's first annual report on sustainable development has good news and bad for the environment.

"Achieving a Better Quality of Life" was published last week and focuses on 15 indicators of sustainable development. These include everyday concerns like housing development, health, jobs, air quality, educational achievement, wildlife and economic prosperity.

traffic

Motor vehicle traffic in the UK in 1999 was nine times greater than in 1950. (Photo by Ian Britton, courtesy http://freefoto.com)
Taken together, these concerns form what the government calls a "quality of life barometer." This is intended to focus public attention on what sustainable development means and whether it is being achieved.

The report defines sustainable development as "the simple idea of ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come."

It acknowledges the widely used international definition: "Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The report showed positive findings for the UK's rivers and greenhouse gas emissions reductions, while wild bird populations, road traffic and waste disposal remain areas of concern.

Here are some of the report's findings, in more detail:

Climate change

Carbon dioxide (C02) is the most significant of several "greenhouse gases" which accumulate in the Earth's upper atmosphere and trap solar energy. Some scientists believe this is contributing to global warming and climate change.

The UK's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution called climate change "the greatest threat to our environment today," adding that the UK will have to cut the CO2 it produces by 60 per cent by 2050 if it is to slow down the pace of change.

The report found that emissions of the six main greenhouse gases fell by nine per cent between 1990 and 1998. These gases are CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and three halocarbons used as substitutes for ozone damaging chlorofluorocarbons.

C02 emissions fell by seven per cent between 1990 and 1998.

Air Quality

Air pollution in the UK results in the premature death of between 12,000 and 24,000 people annually, according to the report.

In urban areas in 1999, air pollution was recorded as moderate or higher on 30 days on average per site, compared with 59 days per site in 1993 and 23 days in 1998.

In rural areas, the 1999 figure was 48 days on average per site. The number of days in rural areas has fluctuated between 21 days and 50 days per year since 1987.

Figures for 1999 are higher than for 1998 because ozone levels in 1999 were higher, due in part to the warmer weather, says the report.

Road traffic

Motor vehicle traffic in 1999 was nearly nine times that in 1950, and car traffic in particular has increased by nearly 15 times. Traffic levels in 1999 were 1.7 per cent higher than in 1998, about the same as the rise for the previous year.

The report notes the link between traffic growth and the underlying rate of economic growth.

"A key objective of policy is to break that link, improving access for people and goods, whilst reducing traffic growth and tackling the impacts of congestion and pollution," says the report.

To that end, the government published the 10 Year Plan for Transport last summer - a 180 billion (US$262 billion) program to improve transport systems.

River quality

Ninety five per cent of the river network in the UK was assessed as being of good or fair chemical quality in 1999, compared with 92 per cent in 1990.

In England and Wales the percentage of river lengths which were of good chemical quality rose from 48 per cent in 1990 to 63 per cent in 1999. Nearly 95 per cent was assessed as good or fair biological quality in 1995.

Wildlife

On average, populations of common breeding birds have declined by about five per cent since the mid 1970s, but woodland and farmland birds have declined by much more - by 20 per cent and 40 per cent respectively over the same period.

Figures for 1999 show an increase in populations but this probably reflects the mild winter weather of 1998/99, says the report.

Waste

In 1997/98 it is estimated that between 170 and 210 million tonnes of waste was produced in the UK by households, commerce and industry, including construction and demolition. Nearly 60 per cent of this was disposed of in landfill sites.

Last year, Environment Minister Michael Meacher launched the government's Waste Strategy, which sets a 17 per cent target for household waste to be recycled or composted by 2004. The strategy sets out plans to recover value from 45 per cent of municipal waste and to recycle 30 per cent of household waste by 2010.

landfill

The UK is trying to get to grips with a mounting waste problem. (Photo courtesy Department of Environment, Transport and Regions)
Landfill for industrial and commercial waste will be reduced to 85 per cent of the 1998 level by 2005, under the strategy.

"The annual report shows that genuine progress is being made across all three pillars of sustainable development - economic, social and environmental," said Meacher.

"It does not paint a universally rosy picture, and nationally as in the regions there are areas where progress has been slower while significant improvements have been made in others."

Environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE) welcomed the report but said one fact was obvious. "While the economy has made progress under this government, the quality of life as measured by social indicators has not improved at anything like the same rate," said FOE executive director Charles Secrett.

"And too many environmental indicators have actually got worse. Once again, we see that an obsession with growth in gross domestic product is not enough to deliver real improvements in quality of life to most ordinary people."

Secrett said the government, whose leader Tony Blair is expected to call a general election this spring, must put radical environmental measures at the heart of its manifesto.

"If it ducks the challenge, next year's indicators are unlikely to look much better," added Secrett.

In publishing last week's report, Meacher announced that thousands of people will be polled in the coming months for a quality of life survey to gauge the nation's well-being.

Meacher

Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. (Photo courtesy Department of Environment, Transport and Regions)
"We must engage people and encourage communities to play their part in improving our quality of life," said Meacher.

"That means listening to people, to understand what quality of life really means to them."

Results from the study will be published this summer by the Department of Environment, Transport and Regions.

To view "Achieving a Better Quality of Life," visit: http://www.sustainable-development.gov.uk/ann_rep/index.htm