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Will Day, new chair of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC)

Will Day, the new chair of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC)

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Will Day: new watchdog chief on GM, nuclear and political jargon

Tom Levitt

20th August, 2009

Will Day is still to prove his credentials to environmentalists as he replaces the high-profile Jonathon Porritt as the head of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). In one of his first media interviews, he gives the Ecologist his position on GM technology, nuclear power and the jargon of sustainability

On sustainability

'It became really clear to me early on that the problems I was helping to respond to had their links not just to political mistakes but fundamentally around how the economy worked, how laws worked and our relationship to the environment.

'That became clearer and clearer until the overlaps or the distinction we traditionally saw between social development and economic issues increasingly become an artifical divide. How do we live within our environmental constraints in such a way that doesn't make life worse for considerable numbers of people?'

On lack of interest in the report: 'Economic prosperity without growth'

'Nothing is locked in stone. There is a general election coming up. Governments have shelf lives. Policies have shelf lives. The issues are not going to go away. These are serious long-term issues.'

On the Treasury

'The Treasury are the people whose job it is to say "no", or that is the perception anyway. And they clearly carry with them a business model for government operating, if they are doing their job properly, over a much longer time period than the politicians individually are able to do.'

On nuclear power

'On balance the legacy issues outweigh the benefits. If you look at energy sources purely through CO2 it is one of the lower ones. But in an unpredictable climate and world, is it right to leave as a legacy waste and management issues that dont just last five, 10, 20 years but decades and hundreds of years?

'There is a question about what legacy one is passing onto future generations and I think the jury is definitely out about whether that constitutes a responsible and sustainable investment.'

On living by a nuclear power station

'I live in a village not very far from Dungerness power station. We defend it 24 hours a day with bulldozers against erosion from the sea. The Tyndall Centre has suggested that governments should be prepared to to adapt to 10m of sea level rises.

'So is that a cool thing to have a nuclear power station sitting at sea level with the thought of 10m of sea rising? That's where we'll put our new ones in the UK so I think there are some big issues about nuclear energy.'

On coal

'I think coal raises even greater problems and we are turning our attention to it now. We have got to have a view on it. We've done reports on wind, tidal and nuclear. We still need to do solar. So we'll be putting something out soon.

Coal globally is convenient in one way because it's where the people are; it's under the US, it's under India, so in that sense it's a dream fuel. But it is a very dirty fuel and we cannot continue to pollute the environment to the extent we are.'

On carbon capture and storage (CCS)


'There is great hope being expressed that CCS will be the answer but prove it to me. I have not seen the proof that it is feasible. I would love it to be.'

On GM

'I don't know. I've been on the receiving end of countries facing dramatic food shortages who ban the import of GM foods because they are adopting the precautionary principle. But then I've eaten hamburgers in the US in full knowledge that millions also have and there were no great consequences.

'The food security report that Defra produced a few days ago clearly hasn't disregarded the thought that GM is going to be part of our food supply. Food supply is going to be an issue. GM may well be part of it.

'I am not going to be the one to say it definitely won't be or that it is vital but I think the world is looking at a supply and demand challenge on a whole range of issues. Food is one of them, and I think governments are going to have make very careful decisions about how they respond to that.'

On lack of political action

'I do worry that sustainability and sustainable development is becoming jargon. I also worry that it is being presented as an overly complex scientific issue when an awful lot of it is common sense.

'The gap between political rhetoric and reality is a given in the sense that UK politicians are by no means unique in talking a good talk and then finding it harder to put things into practice. Sustainability is almost something you have to put on everything like an ingredient on a cereal packet.

'One of the real problems for politicians and decision-makers is that they are often operating in short-term timescales where short term expediency usually wins over long-term requirements. The challenge for the SDC is how do we help those put in the position to make better informed decisions?'

On the general election in 2010

'We have a general election inevitably coming up before next summer. How can we have the issues that we know are important as part of the national debate rather than marginalised?

'The decisions Government will have to make in the next five years are absolutely fundamental decisions and I think all of us want those to be the best informed and the best decisions possible.'

On Jonathon Porritt

Jonathon and I have worked together at Cambridge University on the Prince of Wales Business and Environment programme. We have a shared network of organisations from the NGO, business and policy-making world who have been part of the process.

But I am not Jonathon; he has been chairman of the Commission for its entire nine years. It'll take time to build those conversations. I will see him on a regular basis but he is unlikely to be directly involved.

On more variety at the SDC

If you look at who we have got as commissioners now, we have quite a lot of professers and academics but if the Commission is going to be worth its salt it's going to have people from a range of backgrounds, NGOs, business, people who understand how the system work, specialists in various areas.

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