Written by Staff Writer at CNN
More than 3,000 years ago, in the remains of China’s Zhou Dynasty, one ruler instituted a policy that remains as important in the face of man’s frequent onslaught on the environment as it was then: an “environmental protection law” that has been tested almost continuously ever since.
Under this Law of the Iron Horse, every landowner is required to provide for his or her neighbor’s protection and that of the environment. The law was updated in 1950.
And yet, on the ground, legal obligations prove difficult to enforce. What if the obligations of environmental protection cannot be met, and the law is not enforced? What if we fail to follow the law, since it is such a non-transferable right?
Stuart Wood, a professor at University College London, offers an explanation of how and why this makes good economic sense.
“The reason we support environmental laws is to encourage and enable good behavior,” says Wood. “A key provision of the EPA’s [Environmental Protection Agency] 2006 emergency waivers is that countries must enforce the relevant laws and standards that will reduce pollution. In other words, we know there is not enough pollution to warrant not enforcing the law. On top of that, (this obligation) does not deprive anyone of economic benefits that can come from being environmentally responsible. For example, we know from the EPA’s work that there are important economic benefits that could result from reducing smog, given that states that have enacted stronger standards have had more air quality improvements.”
Government officials and industry leaders will agree that too many people, and too many of the planet’s ecosystem services, are being depleted because of unfettered growth of the economy, particularly in developed countries. Environmental measures that are merely interpreted and implemented without enforcement risk leaving untouched many systems that support human health and wealth — including a healthy biodiversity.
But the imposition of environmental laws from a government — or the amendment of existing ones — may be difficult if there is a lack of will on the part of the industries involved, or, simply, an absence of enforcement resources.
“‘Without enforcement,’ Wood writes, “the business case for effective control of global warming loses credibility.” Such a decision has the tendency to undermine the sustainability of business and economic development across the world. But this is not true at all for a framework that sees environmental laws as a component of good governance and good business practices.
Wood draws on the example of companies in Rio de Janeiro that are being put to shame by regulations put in place by the City of Rio de Janeiro in the wake of the World Cup. These regulations require car companies to identify which car models “air transport companies and limousine services use on a daily basis, their trajectories, power and mileage characteristics and what the emitted pollutants are,” according to a statement from the Rio de Janeiro city government. The car manufacturers will then be required to identify where in the city they are authorized to build new roads, and to submit plans for implementing measures to reduce air pollution that air transport companies use.
The drivers of economic growth
Wood cites the example of companies whose environmental responsibility policies are found on their websites. Having recognized that the conservation of the planet, and therefore corporate sustainability, is embedded in core business principles, these companies are able to ensure the rule of law can be enforced without compromising long-term competitiveness, earning commendation in numerous rankings and awards. Wood cites the example of WWF’s Good Business Awards, which praised more than 15,000 companies around the world that were deemed “beyond business” and which have “ideas that go beyond their bottom line.”
Lester Brown, founding president of Earth Policy Institute in Washington D.C., argues that doing business in a responsible manner is a central element of capitalist success.
“Businesses have the potential to do two things that can provide governments with the revenue to fund more environmental protection programs,” Brown says. “First, this can lead to financial and legal protection from unscrupulous regulations, such as the so-called China-U.S. “dirty loan” U.S. Superfund law, where lenders can sue banks if they fund cleanup projects and then dump the chemicals into municipal waste. A second benefit is that action on this can lead to positive public perceptions of the business which would be passed onto government revenue which could then be used to fund environmental initiatives.