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Environmental competitiveness

[ Summary ]


Chapter 1:
From exploiting resources to environmental competitiveness


1.1 Brief overview


a) Growing role of the public authorities

    For a very long time, man’s relationship with his environment has been limited to exploiting the local natural resources. At best there were concerns about renewing such resources, especially farmland, water, pasture and forests. These resources were therefore maintained directly by the community or the local authorities, or even by collective forms of management, with individual, family and collective rights and obligations clearly defined.

    With the rapid development of industrial society, the environment was exploited on a larger scale and the central government and local, regional and intermunicipal authorities gradually took over from traditional forms of management:

    • From a legal standpoint, the rights relating to individual ownership were extended, leaving owners free to exploit their land as they saw fit and to make any investment in it that they wished (with legal authorisation compulsory only for building dwellings, setting up industrial activities or exploiting the subsoil).

    • From a management standpoint:

      • the management of water and forest resources was taken in charge at levels that were to a greater or lesser extent decentralised (national water and forestry services, regional, departmental or municipal administrations, etc.);

      • the government assigned itself the task of managing the public infrastructure and living environment (paths, roads, public facilities, etc.), also at various levels (local, regional and national);

      • in addition, waste management services were set up (for household and industrial waste).

    Since the last World War, the worsening environmental problems caused by agricultural intensification, industrial development and pressure from tourism has only strengthened the role of the central government and/or the local, regional and intermunicipal authorities:

    • New legislation has emerged to limit forms of environmental degradation (e.g. water pollution), to protect the architectural heritage and to regulate land use.

    • New restrictions on exploitation have been introduced, in particular with the establishment of protected areas (national or regional nature reserves, biosphere reserves, etc.).

    This form of environmental management still characterises today’s society, in that:

    • The public authorities are responsible for environmental management;

    • The central government is often perceived as a bureaucratic machine that imposes restrictions on exploitation, which arouses opposition rather than cooperation (e.g. the frequent opposition of farmers to the establishment of protected areas);

    • Associating the idea of a resource with the idea of “potential to be exploited” on an individual basis has become the accepted rule virtually everywhere. This has led to the neglect of resources that have no, or have lost, their economic interest. The dilapidation of certain areas, the existence of derelict industrial land, the failure to maintain buildings and the historical heritage, etc. are all illustrations of this.

    In some countries, the introduction of the principle of planning and regional development has led to a more integrated approach to the public management of space, but it did not always consider the importance of preserving landscapes. Institutional divides sometimes resulted in a piecemeal approach and hence to disparate space management tools. It was also common for local councils, which are traditionally responsible for local infrastructure, to take action largely without consulting the institutions responsible for managing natural resources.

    However, a gradual awareness of these problems has resulted in the creation of ever more elaborate provisions and regulations.

    This overall trend conceals differences between countries and between areas:

    • in some countries environmental policies are more or less centralised, coercive and interventionist, whilst in others they are, on the contrary, decentralised: competence for regional planning and development policies may belong to different levels, including local management level;

    • the sense of a collective asset is more developed in some regions than in others;

    • the extent of exploitation and degradation of natural resources differs widely from one area to another. Some areas have had to turn the battle against soil pollution caused by intensive agriculture into a key element of their development strategies, like in the Netherlands, whereas isolated areas are often relatively well preserved.

b) Outdated environmental management methods

    Over the past 15 to 20 years, new trends have emerged.

    • Due to its scale (accumulation of waste, nuclear and oil incidents, consequences of intensive agriculture, etc.) and geographic scope (pollution knows no boundaries), the impact of human activities on the environment has demonstrated the need for new intervention measures.

    • The necessity of an environmental management system extending beyond geographical national boundaries [1] having been established in the 1970s, the issue of the relationship between the international and local spheres and between international commitments and local constraints has been stated in new terms, as evidenced by Agenda 21 for example (see box).

    • The public authorities have gradually abandoned their monopoly over environmental management in favour of setting up consultation procedures, sometimes moving to a certain degree towards sharing responsibilities, which has once more given the various players a place and role (communities, business firms, etc.). This trend has led to the introduction of the “polluter pays” principle and the precautionary principle [2]. Likewise, in pursuance of Article 3 of Regulation R 1259/99, which came into force in the European Union, direct payments to farmers are now conditional upon their compliance with environmental rules [3].

Agro-environmental clauses in the Common Agricultural Policy

Since 1992, the European Community has supported agricultural production methods that respect the environment and biodiversity.

The rural development policy for the post-2000 period confirms the key role of farmers as paid suppliers of environmental services, going beyond good agricultural practices and compliance with basic legislative standards. In the new generation of rural development programmes, agro-environmental measures are therefore the only measures to be compulsory for the Member States (however, they remain optional for farmers). The planned subsidies are granted to farmers who sign up to agro-environmental commitments for a minimum period of five years. Where appropriate, a longer period may be established for certain types of commitment, based on their impact on the environment. The subsidy is allocated annually and calculated on the basis of loss of earnings and additional costs resulting from the commitments, as well as from the need to provide a financial incentive.

  • The public, increasingly confronted with environmental problems, has set about seeking solutions at all levels. Proof of this is the proliferation of environmental organisations, not only local ones (pressure groups fighting pollution or a project they consider to be potentially harmful, associations for safeguarding a natural heritage, collective management of a collective asset, etc.), but also national and international organisations (WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc.).

  • The Rio Conference has taken on board the concept of sustainable development, which, in Europe, has led to environmental issues being taken increasingly into account in policymaking, as well as in the gradual implementation of Agenda 21. However, evaluations carried out into the subject have shown that there is still a long way to go (see box).

c) A new approach to the environment...

    The seeds of a radically new approach to the environment have therefore started to germinate and this approach should take firm root as time goes by.

    Indeed we are moving from an approach that treats natural and heritage resources as a reserve that can be drawn upon in order to fuel economic activities, to an approach wherein the environment is considered as a collective asset, which whilst being essential to certain economic activities, is also a factor in the quality of life that needs to be safeguarded for the welfare of future populations.

    The architectural heritage, not limited merely to buildings of historic interest, has itself become part of this collective asset. Reviving villages, salvaging abandoned houses, reconstructing historic buildings, renovating derelict industrial land, etc. have therefore all become increasingly shared concerns.

    As a result, natural and heritage resources have acquired value in unprecedented areas:

    • due to the image they create, these resources contribute to the quality of products and services. Proof of this is the way in which producers and distributors are exploiting the image of a healthy and natural environment to vaunt the quality of their products to consumers;

    • they contribute to the aesthetic quality of the living environment which, though not a concern in the past, has today become an increasingly shared value, in terms of the landscape, architecture, town planning, etc. In this area, natural resource management is decisive: vegetation becomes a key element of the aesthetic quality of natural or cultivated areas or of built-up areas, associated with traditional or more modern architecture.

d) … involving new ways of managing natural and heritage resources...

    This new approach to the environment is leading to a rethink of the ways in which resources are managed.

    • As opposed to a purely administrative form of management by the central government and local, regional and intermunicipal authorities, we are now seeing a consultative style of management in which public/private partnership plays an essential role.

    • As opposed to a very broad approach involving individual ownership rights, we now have the notion of the owners’ responsibility for the use they make of their property, not only from the standpoint of the physical and biological impact of their economic activities (pollution, improper use of certain resources, etc.), but also their aesthetic impact (coherence within the overall framework, etc.).

    • In addition to the principle of an individual project, we now have the principle of a collective area-wide project to valorise the area’s natural and heritage resources.

    • In addition to the idea of local responsibility, we now have the concept of general responsibility which extends to a global level.

    • Environmental protection concerns are no longer limited to protected areas and now tend to be applied to all the resources of a given area.

e) … and new development opportunities

    This new approach to the environment has led to changes in production systems, which are gradually focusing more on quality (in order to assert their competitiveness) than on quantity, which in the past frequently led to the over-exploitation of resources and negative environmental effects. This is especially the case with agricultural and livestock products that satisfy the environmentally-sound production standards demanded by consumers. The proliferation of quality labels is ample proof that respect for the environment is a growing factor in product differentiation, and hence commercial competitiveness.

    Furthermore, this global approach to the environment has made it possible to create new products, especially in tourism, based on a set of resources, and to confer a specific identity on the area, sometimes so much so that the area can be “re-christened”.



Today, the environment is a resource in its own right and a key factor in the competitiveness of rural areas. Preserving the environment means preserving an area’s distinctive characteristics and identifying new vocations for it. There is no doubt that this trend is set to grow still stronger within the globalisation context since, in parallel with the market and corporate restructuring, we are witnessing renewed interest in identity resources, the first of which is the environment.

Agenda 21

“Agenda 21” is an international initiative for promoting sustainable development and ensuring that it becomes a reality in the 21st century. At the 1992 United Nations Conference on the environment and development (Rio Conference), 110 Heads of State and Government adopted Agenda 21 as proof of their commitment. This programme sets out the objectives to be achieved, specifies guidelines for preserving and managing development resources and the role of the principal groups concerned, and proposes means for achieving them.

The programme recommends a voluntary approach, on a local, regional and national scale, to define a short-, medium- and long-term strategy, with international cooperation being provided to support and complement national efforts.

According to a survey carried out in 1996, i.e. four years after Rio, 1,812 Agendas have been created worldwide, 87% of which (1,576) are in the European Union. These figures show just how limited the application of Agenda 21 still is. Even within the European Union the number of agendas being set up remains low compared with the existing number of local authorities (more than 30,000). In the places where it has been implemented, local authorities have encouraged the formation of “local Agenda 21 groups” proposing participatory and integrated approaches. These forums, based on partnership, consensus and dialogue have undertaken to:

  • draw up an inventory of environmental and development problems;

  • identify the possibilities for reducing wastage on a local scale (energy savings, recycling of waste and materials, etc.);

  • set up forms of partnership between the local authorities, business firms, research centres and civil society to promote sustainable development;

  • estimate the need for external aid.

Initiatives are concentrated in countries where a national campaign is under way (in the European Union, this mainly includes the United Kingdom, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Greece and Ireland). An analysis conducted by ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) for the period 1992-1996 shows that these initiatives had had an impact on institutional management, public participation and the improvement in management systems.

The experience amassed so far points to a few of the keys to the success of such groups:

  • Setting up a multisectorial steering committee to prepare the action plan.

  • Wide-ranging consultation (associations, industrial concerns, development agencies, trade unions and trade organisations) in order to develop a common perspective, gather proposals and establish priorities for action.

  • Participatory evaluation of local social, environmental and economic needs.

  • Definition of operational objectives through consultation with the key players based on an action plan.

  • Development of information and monitoring procedures that include progress indicators.


[1] By means of transnational agreements
(agreements for protecting the Rhine, RAMSAR
treaty for protecting wetlands, Helsinki
agreements) or through the intervention of
international bodies such as the European
Union or the United Nations.

[2] For details about the precautionary
principle as defined by the European Commission,
see Internet site

[3] See Internet site

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