There are limits to what is possible based on voluntarism alone given the commercial pressures that all businesses face. The principle of using regulation only as a last resort cannot be justified based on the findings of this review.
Environmental regulations are the bedrock of biodiversity conservation efforts, providing essential protection for our most threatened species and special wildlife habitats as well as the wider environment.
Without environmental legislation, backed up by effective enforcement mechanisms, wildlife right across Europe would be in a far worse state.
In recent years, concerns about the costs of regulation to business have increasingly led both UK and EU policymakers to promote the use of voluntary approaches such as industry self-regulation and voluntary codes of conduct as a low-cost and more flexible alternative to binding regulations.
In the UK, the Government has shifted to a principle of only using regulation as a last resort in seeking to achieve environmental policy objectives. However, until now there has been very little evidence to determine the implications of this fundamental policy shift for environmental protections.
A new report by the RSPB - Using regulation as a last resort? Assessing the performance of voluntary approaches - has reviewed the effectiveness of more than 150 voluntary schemes in the largest assessment conducted to date. To get as complete a picture of performance as possible, the report looked at both environment-related schemes and non-environment-related schemes across a range of sectors and issues.
The findings of this review suggest that the impact of most voluntary schemes is limited, with over 80% found to perform poorly on at least one of three performance indicators. For example, nearly two-thirds of schemes failed to achieve the majority of their targets or industry compliance rates greater than 50%.
Although environment-related schemes were found to perform significantly better than non-environment-related schemes, the differences in performance were small and most (over 75%) still performed poorly overall.
In terms of explaining these results, the evidence suggests that incentives for firms to participate and comply are crucial. Well-designed voluntary schemes work best where there are clear incentives for participation and performance improvement.
Normally this is where a close alignment exists between commercial drivers and environmental benefits or where there is a credible threat of regulation being introduced if the voluntary approach fails to deliver.
Examples from the UK include the failure of voluntary schemes to significantly reduce the sale of invasive non-native plant species by garden centres or to cut the number of single-use plastic bags given out to customers by supermarkets.
In both cases, this has ultimately led to the introduction of new legislation to tackle these problems following years of voluntary failure (e.g. see here).
Similarly, over two decades of reliance on voluntary action has failed to eliminate environmentally-damaging peat-based composts from the horticultural market, in spite of the best efforts of some producers and retailers (e.g. see here).
In fact, from waste and energy efficiency to pollution and pesticide control, voluntary approaches have consistently performed below expectations.
One of the main arguments for using voluntary approaches is based on the claim that they are less costly for governments to administer and for businesses to comply with.
However, such claims are difficult to verify based on the existing evidence; in many cases, the costs associated with the design, negotiation, and implementation of voluntary schemes can be considerable. There is no evidence to suggest that voluntary approaches are more cost-effective than other policy tools.
Voluntary action by landowners and businesses makes a huge contribution to biodiversity conservation in the UK; such efforts should continue to be commended and supported.
For delivering on public policy objectives, better design of voluntary schemes could help strengthen incentives for participation and performance improvement, such as the setting of clearer and more transparent targets against which progress can be independently and transparently monitored and reported.
However, the results of this new research re-inforce the importance of the role played by properly implemented and enforced regulations in safeguarding nature and the wider environment. There are limits to what is possible based on voluntarism alone given the reality of the commercial pressures that all businesses face.
The principle of using regulation only as a last resort cannot be justified based on the findings of this review. It doesn't mean that regulations offer all the answers, only that they are a key tool in the policy-making toolbox.
If we are to achieve our ambitions for halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity, a mix of policy approaches that includes robust environmental regulations will continue to be required for the foreseeable future.
The report: 'Using regulation as a last resort? Assessing the performance of voluntary approaches' was published last week by RSPB.
Donal McCarthy is an economist in the Policy and Advocacy Department at the RSPB, the largest nature conservation charity in the UK and the lead author of the new report. He has previously worked for BirdLife International, the world's largest nature conservation partnership (of which the RSPB is the UK partner). He can be emailed: email@example.com.