What role should government play in sustainability?
First, let’s frame the context. In my last Green Tie blog, we explored the varied definitions of sustainability and the need for context to have meaningful dialogue. Your feedback confirmed one key point: clear definition and clear context are paramount as sustainability can take on a narrow or broad meaning—we need to be precise to generate productive change.
For purposes of looking at government’s role, I’ll look at sustainability in a broad context and include the social, fiscal and environmental aspects. Clearly, this short piece cannot do justice to this broad subject, but it does start the discussion–Please let me know your thoughts on government’s role.
Simply, government’s role in society is to prevent harm and promote the common good. I submit that government’s role for sustainable society, sustainable economics and a sustainable environment falls within these bounds. Of course, the devil is always in the details- so let’s look at these two further.
Government typically relies on laws and regulations to set minimum standards, designed to prevent bad things from happening. Minimum wage standards establish a compensation floor for workers. The recently published Federal Trade Commission Green Guides outline the practices to prevent consumer deception in environmental claims. Emission limitations establish acceptable discharge levels to prevent an unhealthy environment. The Securities and Exchange Commission established financial reporting requirements to prevent fraudulent and misleading information to the public. There are many more examples of how government uses regulatory authority to set the boundaries of behavior to prevent bad things from happening.
Promoting the common good
In many cases, government tries to use the same technique for promoting the common good as they use to prevent harm–regulation. Economically, the federal government regulates through fiscal and monetary policy, thereby affecting economic growth and employment. Environmentally, regulation has resulted in curbside recycling in many jurisdictions to reduce waste to landfill and promote recycling.
However, if government wants to accelerate progress toward promoting the common good, government cannot rely on regulations alone. The establishment of voluntary measures and education can be key roles for government. In many cases, relying on methods other than regulation is outside of government’s comfort zone. We are beginning to see a trend toward government encouraging people to do the right thing through voluntary means. These include:
- Create incentives: People change their behavior when they have an incentive. They want to do the right thing to get the reward. Streamlined and expedited permitting for projects incorporating sustainable development practices, such as LEED, will encourage proponents to invest in improved practices to avoid extensive permitting. Tax credits for energy efficiency retrofits and alternative energy generation …
- Eliminate barriers: When government becomes aware of barriers to implement new practices, such as land use requirements restricting residential wind turbines installation, the jurisdiction must move quickly to remove the barriers. Technologies and practices are continuing to evolve and government needs to be agile to get out of the way of implementation.
- Develop human capital: A bill was recently introduced in the California legislature to create a Clean Technology and Renewable Energy Job Training program to expand a trained green workforce. An education populace is a prerequisite for the necessary behavioral changes and government can provide both the content and the delivery. Reducing energy demand is often not implemented because people don’t understand the importance or don’t understand what measures to take.
- Invest in technical innovation: Technology development usually takes money and the government can either invest directly in such things a contracted research and development or indirectly through tax credits and rebates. Government investment in many cases is the determining factor in project viability. Increasing energy efficiency, biofuels, wind and energy storage are all ripe for innovation.
- Lead the way by example: Government should be the showcase of sustainable practices. Government infrastructure should incorporate cutting-edge practices, such as natural lighting, alternative energy and xeroscape. Business practices should be leading edge to demonstrate viability and benefits (telecommuting anyone?)
What do you think government should do to promote a sustainable economy, society and environment?