2011 could be the worst year for environmentalists since 1993

When it comes to protecting our environment, I fear that if 2011 is to have any parallel then it might well be 1993. That year was the worst I have known. The Rio Earth Summit had been and gone. For the media and many politicians the environment had been done. It was literally last year's issue. John Major was struggling with an economic downturn and rebellions on his own not-very-green side of parliament.

As happened back then, a period of intense environmental debate is now followed by a period during which the challenges posed by sustainable development are temporarily pushed down the agenda. For politics and the news it is recession, financial crisis and the consequences of these that are front of mind. Remarkably, these questions are treated as if they are separate from the environmental trends in which they are embedded.

Next year it might get worse. The Environment Agency, Natural England and other official agencies will see large scale cutbacks. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission will cease to exist. This can only have a negative effect on the ability of government to do what is needed, and will certainly diminish the ability of the rest of us to know how it is doing.

But don't lose hope completely. As in 1993 the issues have not gone away, but might take on a different form. For example there is much going on among private sector companies, with many looking at quite transformational programmes of change. The recent announcement by Unilever to make drastic reductions in its impact offers a case in point.

There is also a great deal of work going on among international agencies and academic bodies to look into the economics of environmental challenges, for example through The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) process. It can only be hoped that what goes on in these spheres can maintain at least a little momentum.

If governments do anything in 2011 perhaps it will be in the form of progress on the international climate agenda at the COP 17 meeting in South Africa at the end of the year. It is too early to say, however, what the prospects for this will be. Considering President Obama's now very limited ability to make progress in the USA, the chances for a comprehensive science-based deal that includes America must be slim.

1993 was not a good year, and 2011 looks like it might be similar. Things did get better after '93 of course. But it took a lot of effort to get the issues back on the agenda. We focused on road building, natural habitats, GM crops and foods, nuclear waste and world trade policy. We found topical issues and used them to drive a renewed public debate. 2011 might be a time to do something similar. It's time to freshen up the discussion, to find new inspiration, create different interest and create new opportunities for progress.

Originally published by The Guardian.