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  • Writer's pictureEllie Rawden

Why is learning about policy important for everyone?

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

Policy is not something everyone understands or thinks about but it is crucial to the way our society is managed.

Policy can be a scary subject especially to individuals who are not familiar with policy processes and management systems. Policy processes deeply affect the living of the everyday, and with increasing dissonance amongst individuals within society, it is becoming more and more important for all to participate in this act and affect changes within the systems that rule our lives. Equally, the buy-in and empowerment of the public is important for policy success, in order for meaningful policy creation and integration to arise.

If we want to build a sustainable future, we must bridge the gap between the people, the environment and the policy makers.

"It is important to know how the system works because only when we understand how the game is played can we affect changes in the system"

- Zachary A. Smith

What is policy and how does it work?

There are various scales of policy, running from the international to the local. These may manifest in forums such as the United Nations or World Nature Organisation, where all involved parties agree on policy objectives. We may see policy agreements such as Codes of Ethics between non-governmental actors (WANGO) at the international, national and intra-national scale. At more local scales, we may see business or organisational policy, which feed into the operational and strategic implementation of policy objectives.

In the U.K, the government runs the country on policies to achieve governmental objectives, which may be backed up by a new law or piece of legislation to give this policy more underpinning, an example of this being the 2021 Environmental Act which will be used to underpin UK National environmental policy.

Policy, at present, tends to be evidence-informed, presenting opportunities for researchers to provide input and scientific evidence. However, it is also shaped by a number of other factors, including electoral considerations, public opinion and decision-makers’ preferences and values.

Policies are published in manifestos, white papers (which follow exploratory green papers) and in thematic policies which may focus on a particular issue. Some white papers which outline policy may outline necessary legislation to work alongside.

What do we need to know about the history of environmental sustainability policy?

Over the last 50 years, there has been a dramatic evolution in the role of policy in dealing with worldly issues, where it was hardly utilised before the 1970s. Now, The International Environmental Agreements Database (2020) counts more than 1,300 multilateral and 2,200 bilateral environmental agreements. Policy and its involvement in worldly issues continues to grow and develop, as does its role in directing the way we live and experience the everyday.

In the 1970s, the role of policy addressed specific environmental protection (see table below) i.e directly addressing air pollution (Clean air act/ EC Waste Framework Directive) with a focus on cause and effect relationships. Following this came the realisation that direct cause and effect policies were not enough to meet the pressures of issues such as over use of natural resources degradation and biodiversity loss. So, instead, we looked to focus on sectoral (diffuse) policy integration where policies relating to industries such as energy, agriculture and water were altered and managed. As environmental issues deepen further, this has again proven not to be a sufficient policy approach.

An outline of the three historical phases of environmental policy (EEA Report No.9, 2019)

What now?

Now, we are "moving away from ‘technical fixes’ and into the fundamental transformation of societal systems" (Steward, 2012). Here, the interlinkages between environment, economy and society are addressed.

An emphasis is placed on the transformation of the economy, based on new objectives such as encouraging a low carbon and circular economy. This is due to the fact that the current systems in place, which were developed to meet society's needs and growth expectations, also account for what is now much of humanity's increasing burden - in terms of extracting resources, producing waste and creating emissions, as well as creating further, more complex social issues such as increasing wealth inequality.

In this, we hope to push for an environmental sustainability-based policy approach, which incorporates elements of social justice and aims to increase public participation and ownership in the structures that rule our lives. We now must seek policy objectives that encompass long-term framings and multi dimensional goals such as those of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals (below).

An infographic of the Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2015)

The aim is to move away from a sectoral view of policy and into a sphere where policy is innovative and goal-orientated and is used to support goals such as clean energy development and climate action, with an appreciation that to do this, we must also address issues within other aspects of global systems such as gender equality and fair education. In this approach, sectors include all interested parties for mission-oriented innovation and try to align social and environmental challenges with innovation and growth objectives.

Policy, going forward, will by challenged by the need for a transition to sustainable systems of living. At Gren Habits UK, we will take a look at these policies, as well as global news, to assess the state of play in this agenda.

By Ellie Rawden ©

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