Friday 27 August 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 2

In my last blog I pointed out that an international study – “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) is one of the drivers behind the new Natural Environment White Paper. I’ve mentioned this before (see my blogs on 23rd July and 25th May 2010), but I thought I’d now try to talk a little bit more about it.

This will be a difficult task as this study has been done by some of the greatest brains on the planet. I am sure I will not do it justice so the best thing for readers to do will be to go to the original work through this link.

But, in case you do not feel moved to do so, I’ll have a go at presenting my own take on the subject:

TEEB is an independent, global study launched by the European Commission to produce a report on the economics of biodiversity loss. It aimed to bring together expertise from all regions of the world in the fields of science, economics and policy to enable actions to be taken in response to the impact of the loss of biodiversity.

The key point that this study brings out is something that we should all know, that conservationists have been stressing for decades but which everyone, in practice, simply tries to ignore. Our ecosystems, biodiversity and natural resources underpin our economies, societies and our individual well-being. There is no escaping from it – the environment is the system; economies and societies are sub-systems relying totally on the environment. To be sustainable, sub-systems must not damage the systems on which they depend. But at the moment they do. This will change.

The value of our natural environment’s myriad benefits are overlooked and poorly understood. They are rarely taken fully into account in normal economics or in day to day decision making. Loss of forests, soils, wetlands, coral reefs, fisheries, etc etc are all often economically invisible. We are running down our natural capital stock without understanding the value of what we are loosing.

Part of the study showed that the economic loss from degraded forest ecosystems alone (and they probably only measured the easy bits) is far greater than the financial losses the world experienced in the worst part of the recent global credit crunch.

The degradation of soils, air, water and biological resources can negatively impact on public health, food security, consumer choice and business opportunities. Furthermore, the rural poor are often most directly reliant on natural resources and are often the hardest hit. (Nature conservation is not just a hobby for the rich).

Our current economic model is letting us down. It is only capable of valuing some things and only in the present, whereas to make sensible decisions we need to consider everything that the environment provides now and in the future.

Maybe if I make up a Mickey Mouse example it may help make the point.

Let’s take the South Downs. Without intervention, the only economic benefit would be intensive agriculture. The only thing we can value is food. Divergence from this might be seen as “artificial interference”, a promotion of “inefficient farming” or just an emotional desire. In practice, however, food is just one of the services that we get from the South Downs, but perhaps the only one that we put a “£” sign against. However, the South Downs also provides clean water for people to drink, it has soils which hold carbon and cycle nutrients, it supports species that help with pollination; good management prevents flooding, controls erosion, maintains soils; the landscape attracts tourists, provides recreation and maintains our sense of place and well-being. And many other things as well. Many of these other services are simply not considered in any valuing exercise. These values, however, are very real. Indeed, when you look at the complexity of what a landscape provides, using it only to provide food in the short term must be considered a very inefficient use of land.

So you get to one of the TEEB conclusions – when you do the sums, the benefits you get from a natural area are worth 10 to 100 times more than the cost of protecting it. And we haven’t even mentioned the higher ethical reasons for conserving nature.

This highlights key messages for the Natural Environment White Paper:

  • Maintaining nature is a basic need.

  • Its economic value is orders of magnitude greater than the short term gains from destroying it.

  • You can’t protect nature by just treating it as a special interest.

  • We need to alter our economic model so nature’s fundamental importance is given primacy.

Friday 20 August 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 1

This could be one of the biggest jumps forward for nature conservation for decades so I will devote several blog posts to it over the next few weeks. If you plan to do only one thing for nature in the next decade then engagement with the White Paper should be that thing! So please watch these posts – I’ll do my best to provide what information and guidance I can (from my own particular bias of course).

A new Natural Environment White Paper could be the biggest move forward for the environment since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949. It was this, and other changes around the same time, that set the scene for all that followed. There were improvements in the 1960s, in 1981 with the Wildlife and Countryside Act (the first time Sites of Special Scientific Interest received formal protection) and with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000. But the major stimulus came from forward looking people and an initiative that started in 1941.

The staggering thing about this is that Britain was busy doing other things in the early 1940s! Yet people of vision still found time to stimulate some of the most fundamental changes in the way we look after nature. The economic woes of today are a pin-prick in comparison to the problems the UK had in the 1940s so we have no excuse for not taking forward the job that was started all those years ago.

It is likely that there are 3 main drivers behind the push for a new Natural Environment White Paper:

  • An international study called “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB).

  • The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UKNEA).

  • The Lawton Review on Britain’s ecological network – “making space for nature”

I will look at each one of these in turn in later blog posts.

However, also behind the White Paper was the lobbying of the Non-Government Organisations, in particular the Wildlife Trusts.

Before the election we stressed the need to move on to all political parties. Although things can always improve, current approaches are good at protecting the best of what we have. There have been further improvements with the development of Biodiversity Action Plans where the emphasis was on improving and expanding as well as conserving. However, any restoration has been far too slow to effectively halt damage to wildlife and rebuild the losses of past decades.

We have failed to meet the national objective of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010. There is now a new target for the whole of Europe which aims to halt the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems by 2020. More of the same is not an option. It is clear that a step-change is needed in our approach to the natural world.

We therefore pushed for a major shift from government (whoever got in after the election) and this White Paper is the response.

The nature of the discussion document “An invitation to shape the Nature of England” gives the impression that some of the messages are sinking in. For decades we’ve had to put up with decision-makers treating the environment as a “nice to have” – something very much in the background against more serious matters like making money. Now, however, the discussion document talks about how the natural environment underpins our prosperity, health and well-being. The questions invite us to think about how we embed the true value of nature in decision making, how we manage natural systems more effectively, reduce our ecological footprint and how we can think big and take a landscape-scale approach to managing our natural assets.

Maybe there is hope. Maybe someone’s been listening to us!

In future blog posts I will look at each of the major drivers behind the White Paper.

Monday 2 August 2010

A Natural Environment White Paper

Could this be a major turning point for the environment and its wildlife?

For a few years now the Wildlife Trusts have been lobbying the main parties to develop a major new driver for the natural environment. On Monday 26th July Caroline Spelman announced the start of a consultation period for a new “Natural Environment White paper”. Could this be the Living Landscape White Paper that we were proposing? See the discussion document “An invitation to shape the nature of England”.

Current approaches to the natural world focus on protecting what we have – think of nature reserves or Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The basic method is to put a line around an important area and look after it. We should not be derogatory about this - it is the vital first step. However this is less than the basic minimum, it could not work by itself as there are inevitable continual losses through compromise and “balance”. So, over the years we have seen strengthening protection for our natural world but (with a few significant exceptions) we continue to see the loss of species and the degradation of habitats.

We also see that, whilst people do cherish the natural world, it is still totally under-valued in political and financial terms. We know the financial cost of nature conservation but we don’t know the financial benefit. So whenever there are cuts, the axe falls heaviest on “nice to haves” like the natural world.

A new approach is needed – one that not only protects but which fully recognises the value of nature and which restores, expands and connects our natural environment to make it a healthier place that enhances the wildlife we cherish and provides the services we rely on.

Before the election the Wildlife Trusts lobbied all the major political parties to get commitment for a major re-think over the natural environment. We were delighted that they all seemed open to the idea, but would anything actually happen when a new government was formed?

Well this “Natural Environment White paper” could be the product we are after. There is now a 12 week consultation period, in which people will be asked for their views. And after that people will be organising workshops to bring ideas together.

The introduction to the consultation document makes interesting reading. It reflects much of the “Living Landscape” thinking that the Wildlife Trusts have been promoting for several years, now picked up by several other environmental NGOs as well. Maybe this reflects some success from the political lobbying the Trusts have done around the country. Perhaps the time we took in Sussex to talk to our own MPs, some of whom had major shadow positions before the election, was time well spent.

The Trust will be writing to all of our members in the next few weeks with more information and to ask you to become involved in the consultation. This is a major opportunity – indeed if you do only one thing for wildlife in this decade then I would suggest that engaging in this consultation this should be that one thing one thing!