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Paul's blog: quality of life is about more than work-life balances

If I said 'Quality of Life' to you, what would you think of? Would you immediately reflect on the health of the planet and all its occupants?

Paul Toyne is head of sustainability at Bovis Lend Lease

I suspect most of you would consider issues such as work life balance, how much time you spend commuting or travelling to the gym and how many holidays to warmer climes you can afford to take this year.

You might be surprised to learn that UK Government uses Quality of Life indicators as an indication of how well it is delivering sustainable development. It first launched them in 2005 and these indicators have subsequently been used by local authorities and various commissions, so they have some traction outside central governmental dictats.

Now, what do these indicators cover and how meaningful are they? The indicators are supposed to provide a picture of the UK's environmental, social and economic wellbeing, and include some measure of the personal wellbeing in the population, for example, overall life satisfaction. The latest set of 68 indicators covers issues as diverse as health, housing, jobs, crime, education and the environment and shows 'traffic lights' to signal where things are getting better, worse or staying the same. If you want to know take a look on www.sustainable-development.gov.uk/progress/index.htm.

So why do I mention this? Well, this September the Conservative Party launched its very own Quality of Life report, which aims to inform its policies on the environment. The report's name reminded me of the Government's indicators, whilst its contents triggered a fundamental debate within the party and one that is vital to the future of the construction industry. The debate has of course been long running with those of us involved in delivering sustainable development; which is: how best to balance economic competitiveness with improved social and environmental performance. Put simply if you cut costs on social and environmental issues you can make more money (in the short term!!).

So would the necessary level of regulation required to improve the environment damage or damage profit margins and the economy as a whole? Senior political leaders within the Tory party clearly thought so, citing how damaging it would be to restrict airport growth and impose 'green' tax increases for air travellers (this despite the growing concern that increased aircraft emissions pose a rising threat to our ability to stabilise the CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere). The counter argument put forward by opposing party members was that an expansion of aviation is incompatible with any serious environmental policy, but would this ever win the hearts and minds of the voting population either in politics or in a company's stakeholder community?

This in a nut-shell describes a huge dilemma being played out across the world. It is our ability to find the right balance moving forward that will determine how successful we are at reversing global climate change, deforestation, desertification, biodiversity loss, declining fish stocks and so on.

When I discussed the problem with a senior economist he replied "go for creating wealth, then when you are making your money spend some on correcting the problem!" Helpful? Probably not, as in the real world, effective compensation of environmental problems seldom occurs. Sir Nicolas Stern, author of the Government's The Economics of Climate Change report - also somewhat imaginatively referred to as the Stern Report - and a well-respected economist, suggested the need to address climate change now, whilst it was still affordable and while it would not be a burden on economies. His analysis suggested that if we agree to keep the global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, by stabilising CO2 equivalents to 550 ppm, then the likely costs of mitigation are likely to be around 1% of global GDP by 2050, with a range from –1% (net gains) to +3.5% of GDP.

So what would you do to reverse the broader environmental situation? Get all the nations of the world together and try to agree a strategy? Perhaps develop a framework and set targets for which the nations are accountable for? Sounds good, but it's been done before at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit where all the nation's leaders got together and came up with a number of international conventions, ranging from biodiversity to climate change. So problem solved? No. Why not? Because every time, national interests come before international and global interests. For example, the recent US policy promotion of home grown biofuels as a mechanism for reducing America's addiction to oil and improve its energy security is more about protecting or securing local jobs then the environment. The amount of fertiliser, water and transport energy negates any perceived environmental benefit. Similarly in the UK, expanding airports provides regional economic employment – and it protects our status in the world roll call of economic powers.

Economic well-being is an important component of sustainable development, but needs to be considered alongside social and environmental considerations. So far the evidence suggests we have failed to get the right balance….how can we put aside our differences so that equitable solutions that benefit man-kind prevail? That is the challenge for all of us.

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