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If the sustainability of the planet depends on the action of human beings, good government of human beings ought therefore to be crucial for sustainability. However, only recently has good government started to be considered fundamental for ensuring environmental sustainability.
I propose here to summarize the studies which have tried to show the effect that good government of the public sphere has on the environment. Which governments are best for achieving sustainable development?
I shall concentrate on two aspects. The first is the hardware of good government, which we know as “governance,” “state capacity” or “quality of government.” Regardless of the label, the hardware of good government refers to those public institutions which act with impartiality, not favoring the private interests of anyone who offers bribes or has connections to a political party, or because of their skin color or the language they speak. Countries with impartial public institutions are able to adopt better policies of sustainability, and to implement them efficiently afterwards. But every hardware needs its software. Good institutions should house good decision-makers, with politicians who apply a philosophy appropriate to sustainability. By “philosophy” I do not mean an ideology, although I do not deny that ideology may play an important role. The philosophy I am referring to is something deeper that flows beneath ideologies: how far do politicians dare to explore new approaches to sustainability without prejudice? Unlike the hardware, for which we have relatively precise measurements of the effects it has on sustainability, the effects of the software are harder to calibrate. However, I would like to stress how important it is that politicians should be open to experimentation, to testing measures that depart from their ideological scripts, when it comes to policies of sustainability.
Let us begin with the hardware, the quality of government. The wave of research which has explored the consequences of impartial institutions over the last two decades has also reached the shore of sustainable development. The twenty-first century has witnessed a growing concern with the governmental characteristics that most critically affect the capacity to achieve sustainable development.
The first lesson, but perhaps not the most important, is that democracy matters. Democracy is the first aspect of a government we consider. Are the leaders of the country chosen by means of elections? (And, it should be added, elections that are free and fair, since polls are organized by most countries today, but many continue to be marketing operations rather than competitive exercises.) This is most certainly important, as was already indicated by the pioneering researchers into the effects of institutions on sustainability. In comparison with dictators, democratically elected governments have a broader temporal horizon. Parties in government are worried about long-term problems, like sustainability. Dictators, on the other hand (with some exceptions like Singapore and other rare examples of the phenomenon known as
“developmental dictatorships”) generally worry about today, scorning a tomorrow when they do not know if they will still be in power. Authoritarian leaders are especially unconcerned with sustainable development if they, their families and their closest supporters control major sectors of the economy, a very habitual phenomenon. Dictators will give precedence to the extraction of profits from these sectors, often related to natural resources and polluting technologies, over sustainable and inclusive development. Their development is, by definition, exclusive.
And there is evidence that democracy helps sustainable development. Observation of other factors shows us that democracies reduce emissions of CFCs and sulfur oxide, and with them levels of pollution; they are more inclined to adopt national legislation in support of international treaties like the Montreal Protocol; they were the quickest to ratify the United Nations framework agreement on climate change; and they protect a larger percentage of forest cover. The more democratic your country is, meaning the more competitive and less fraudulent its elections are, the greater the probabilities of achieving sustainable development.
Two important provisos must be mentioned here. In the first place, not all democratic régimes have the same balsamic effect on sustainable development. Parliamentary democracies generate policies that are more respectful to the environment, but presidentialist régimes often adopt policies as lax as those of dictatorships. For example, parliamentary groups, whether of a single color or multi-party coalitions, have a greater capacity to raise taxes on fossil fuels than executives in presidentialist systems, who have to negotiate with a potentially hostile legislature. The snag, obviously, is that the scope for governmental abuse, or even the undue appropriation of funds, is greater in parliamentary systems. For a parliamentary democracy to commit itself to sustainable development, then, formal and informal controls over the government must be effective.
The second proviso is that the electoral system itself may also have an influence. In majority election systems, such as the first-past-the-post constituencies of countries with an Anglo-Saxon tradition, parties tend to concentrate their efforts on key districts, with more sensitivity to local issues than to the general interest. Lobbies that represent specific industries are more influential in majority election systems, and so are able to obtain less stringent environmental rulings than in proportional representation systems. Having said this, studies indicate that even though a proportional system may have advantages over a majority one, the really important thing is that there should be free and competitive elections. Where there is a genuine democracy, regardless of whether we vote for a candidate in a particular constituency or for a party in general, there are more likely to be policies aimed at achieving a sustainable development.
If we examine comparative indices of sustainability, it becomes clear that democracies, and above all parliamentary democracies, favor sustainable development. For example, the indices of sustainability or environmental action are invariably headed by long-established democracies like Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Germany or Australia, and some newer but consolidated ones like Spain and Portugal. However, a growing number of researchers stress that while democracy is necessary, it is rarely sufficient in itself to explain the implementation of policies for sustainable development. Something else is needed.
What is necessary is that a country’s institutions should act impartially and incorruptibly. This is perhaps the key to understanding the differences between countries when it comes to fomenting sustainable development: how corrupt are the politicians and civil servants? Study after study shows that after controlling all kinds of factors linked to polluting emissions, the latter still increase drastically with a country’s levels of corruption. Corruption raises the emissions per capita of carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide and other air pollutants. There are various mechanisms through which corruption harms environmental sustainability. First of all, corrupt politicians in permissive legislations are more liable to allow themselves to be persuaded by interest groups. Second, the implementation of environmental legislation is much more relaxed, or non-existent, in places where public employees are ready to take bribes, or, as occurs in many countries, where they demand a cut in advance in return for looking the other way during environmental inspections. In the case of Southeast Asia, it is well known that entrepreneurs often find it cheaper to buy off officials than to comply with environmental regulations.
The more democratic the country, the greater the probabilities of it achieving sustainable development
Corruption also has two important indirect effects on the environment. The first is that the abscence of corruption moderates the negative effect of the shadow economy on levels of pollution. This is not a minor issue, since the shadow economy represents around a third of world GDP and rises above 50 per cent in many emerging nations, which suffer especially from degradation of the environment. Moreover, the underground economy, from leather tanning to urban transport and illegal factories, spreads particularly in activities with a high potential for pollution. Traditionally, studies had concentrated on the dire environmental consequences of the shadow economy, such as the adaptation of propane among illegal brick manufacturers in Mexico. However, recent publications have broadened the focus by pointing out that the effect in question depends crucially upon the level of corruption of the public administrations. When the entrepreneurs of the black economy are faced with public officials ready to take bribes, they are able to ignore environmental regulations. By contrast, an honest public administration minimizes the negative effects of the shadow economy as regards corruption. This has important consequences for the design of public policies, above all in emerging countries. While we cannot put a stop to the black economy all at once (although the goal is a worthy one, and achievable in the medium term), we ought to focus our efforts on the prevention of administrative corruption.
The second indirect effect of corruption upon sustainable development is produced through foreign investment or commercial liberalization; in other words, through globalization. The level of corruption limits the effects that opening up a country’s borders has on its sustainable development. If corruption is low, globalization has a positive effect on sustainability. The arrival of foreign capital leads governments to adopt policies that are more respectful to the environment. On the contrary, if the level of corruption is high, foreign investment has negative instead of positive effects. Governments, willing to sell legislation to the highest bidder, pass laws that are detrimental to sustainability. The consequences of these results go further than policies of sustainability. If we wish to understand why globalization is so poorly regarded in some countries, we should look at the level of corruption they possess.
All this is especially important if we bear in mind that levels of corruption vary dramatically among countries. This is true even in the context of capitalist democracies, where one might expect fewer differences. In the European Union, for instance, we find some of the least corrupt countries in the world according to every indicator, such as the Nordic countries, together with some nations that rank lower than eightieth or ninetieth in the world. Some of the latter are ex-Communist nations, like Romania or Bulgaria, but others, like Italy and Greece, are culturally closer to us. Besides, if there is one thing we have learned by studying corruption in recent years, it is that there is no reason why levels of corruption should be on the descent, even in democracies. As we are shown by the experience of Latin America in the twentieth century, and by some transitions to democracy in recent decades in both Europe and Asia, corruption can easily end up living side by side with regular elections. Votes do not flush corrupt politicians or civil servants out of public institutions. On occasions, corruption is a mechanism for remaining in power by distributing favors.
The positive note is that corruption can be ended, unlike other factors affecting sustainability such as a country’s level of socioeconomic development or its cultural values. However, a great deal of political determination is necessary, and social pressure is needed from both civil and entrepreneurial organizations in denouncing the harmful effects of corruption on sustainable development. But is it possible to minimize opportunities for corruption in a country? And how is this to be done?
Fortunately, more and more evidence is reaching us every day of the kind of reforms that are effective in reducing levels of corruption. In general, measures to prevent corruption work better than measures to punish it, such as tougher penalties or the establishment of anticorruption agencies and other organizations devoted exclusively to fight against fraudulent activities. The preventive measures which reduce corruption most effectively are those which insert automatic control mechanisms in public decision-making. The first of these is transparency. This is not total transparency, which could have harmful consequences, but a reasonable amount of transparency which would permit access to information on public decision-making (environmental reports spring to mind), with few restrictions on interested parties, such as journalists and activists. The second measure is to establish public decision-making systems in which people with different interests, such as politicians who owe themselves to their party or civil servants who owe themselves to their reputation (and not to political favors), have to reach decisions jointly. In this way, some exert control over others and vice versa. The effects on corruption of such systems of “separation of politics and administration” are very substantial. Moreover, they are not costly in economic terms, though in political terms they might be.
Following on from this, I should like to add a final reflection on the importance of the software, the will of the politicians, in producing a good government committed to sustainable development. Let us take a specific example. Traffic congestion charges are paid by the inhabitants of Gothenburg, Stockholm, Oslo, London and other cities, though the number of such cities overall remains small. Extremely small, in fact, if we bear in mind the growing urban concentration of the world’s population. As experts generally say (and there are some first-class ones in Spain, such as Daniel Albalate and Germà Bel), the level of consensus among economists on the benefits of a congestion charge is inversely proportional to its acceptance among the public and the politicians.
How to win greater acceptance for policies of sustainability that are at first sight unpopular? And how to encourage other sustainable policies, such as partially replacing motor traffic with bicycles in city centers, which may also spark resistance? I think the experience of the Nordic countries is illustrative of the political philosophy, the software, which has to feed public action. Parties owe themselves to their voters and to their ideologies as political organizations. This is quite true, but so too is the fact that governing with a rear view mirror, looking back at what yesterday’s voters wanted instead of worrying about collective welfare in the future, torpedoes innovation.
If there is one thing policies of sustainability need, it is innovation. And to innovate, one must be open to different options. If the Nordic conservative parties had been excessively concerned with satisfying the interests of their voters in the residential suburbs, they would not have supported the introduction of congestion charges. A similar point may be made of the social democrats. Even in a city like Gothenburg, which revolves around its car industry, they managed to conquer historic inertia and ideological resistance in order to oppose a congestion charge that affected most the drivers with least resources.
Policies that favor sustainability need to break away from ideological restrictions and from a “stethoscope” politics constructed on the basis of opinion polls. They need to incorporate a wider range of players, such as experts and representatives of civil society. And they need to experiment. The results of a public policy in a phenomenon as complex as sustainability, with its confluence of so many unpredictable factors ranging from the climate to the economy, cannot be known until it has been implemented. Sustainable development demands that we risk making mistakes.
Holds a doctorate in political science from Oxford University and the Instituto Juan March, and a master’s degree in public administration from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and ESADE. This lecturer and researcher specializes in the comparative analysis of public policies, the functioning of state administrations, and the causes and consequences of corruption. He currently works with the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg. He is a member of the Piedras de Papel group (eldiario.es) and contributes regularly to El País and other media.