Tuesday 7 June 2011

Time is now for new era of nature conservation

The publication of a Natural Environment White Paper - the first for 20 years - should mark an exciting new era for nature conservation. But has the Government been ambitious enough?

The Wildlife Trusts have pushed for the Government to take leadership and make the natural environment a priority. This White Paper is critical in setting a new direction. One in which the connections between a healthy natural environment, healthier people and a healthier economy are recognised.

The natural environment can produce significant benefits to society and the economy but, to do so effectively, there must be the right legislative framework and policy in place. Many people are currently suffering from a profound separation from the natural world. This framework – the White Paper – should enable people and communities to value, and take action for, wildlife.

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“We want the Government to set out a new vision for nature’s recovery and so hope to welcome the content within this Natural Environment White Paper.

“Government needs to take a fresh look - and a smarter approach - at the way we use and manage the natural environment. Changes are essential and we expect to see clear evidence that the Government is committed to positive and ambitious change. A sound framework must be implemented, one which puts nature on the front foot and produces more benefits for people and for wildlife. It will take strong leadership and cross-departmental support.

“Government must take bold steps and make brave decisions. Society’s future is very closely linked to nature’s recovery.”

Within the White Paper on the Natural Environment, The Wildlife Trusts will be looking for the Government to commit to:

  • Putting nature’s recovery at the heart of all decisions on policy-making across all Government departments.

The Wildlife Trusts want to see the recovery and restoration of the natural environment happening everywhere in the UK. As reported in the Making Space for Nature1 report, England does not have a coherent and resilient ecological network. The report should be implemented in full; where priority areas for restoration on a landscape-scale are mapped out, and policies enforced, which protect their value.

The Wildlife Trusts have been delivering landscape-scale conservation on the ground on a voluntary basis but Government now needs to show leadership and make it a national priority.

  • Getting the policies and legislation right nationally to support people locally.

The time is ripe for Government to make improvements which will give individuals, businesses and communities the power and support they need to take action, protecting and improving areas for wildlife, securing a full recovery for nature.

The Wildlife Trusts work to reconnect people to nature where they live. This approach needs to be given a firmer footing. Local partnerships need to be enabled to deliver landscape-scale conservation, habitat restoration and re-creation in their communities.

Paul Wilkinson continued:

“The Wildlife Trusts have championed a recovery plan for nature since 2006. A plan which helps to create a resilient and healthy environment, rich in wildlife, and one which provides ecological security for people. It is our vision for A Living Landscape.

“However, we currently find ourselves working amidst an array of policies and mechanisms that determine how land is used and managed. Few of these were designed with nature in mind and virtually none allow for its restoration. The time has come for the Government to help society achieve its ambitions for nature.”

Friday 3 June 2011

The Launch of the National Ecosystem Assessment

At its launch, Oliver Letwin (Minister for Government Policy) said that the National Ecosystem Assessment was one of the most important things government has done for a very long time. He referred to it being “paradigm changing” and said that it shows that we can’t just ignore the value of nature, indeed it must now become central in all decision making.

I tend to agree with him. The National Ecosystem Assessment should create a major change in the way nature is valued. This is internationally leading, ground breaking stuff which should help re-write the rules on how our society can live sustainably with the natural resources on which it depends. And yet, although it has been reported to some extent, the importance of this work seems to have escaped most in the media.

The first “Key Message” in the introduction is perhaps the most important paragraph in the whole document so I will repeat it verbatim:

"The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analysis and decision making. Ecosystems and the services they deliver underpin our very existence. We depend on them to produce our food, regulate water supplies and climate, and breakdown waste products. We also value them in less obvious ways: contact with nature gives pleasure, provides recreation and is known to have a positive impact on long-term health and happiness."

So that sets the context. Yet most of our ecosystem services are degrading or existing in an already degraded state. (For example about 50% of the marine fisheries are being managed sustainably – but fish stocks are being sustained at a level about 10 times lower than they were 100 years ago). If you are one of those people who can only think in economic terms then we are loosing economic benefit because we have degraded our ecosystems. And future trends are likely to degrade these ecosystems still further. Its more important than life or death – this is costing us money!

Add this to the findings of the review by John Lawton ”Making Space for Nature” and you come to the conclusion that England does not have a functional ecological network and the ecosystem services on which we all depend are in long term decline.

Of course this is nothing new; we have known this for decades, but this in an internationally leading study which should feed straight in to government policy. Government should be listening and going by Oliver Letwin’s comments, they are. Indeed Prof Bob Watson (DEFRA Chief Scientist) said that he has never seen a document have such a rapid effect on government policy.

Indeed environmental policy has been breaking records recently:

  • there never has been a review like Lawton’s “Making space for nature” before,

  • there never has been such a public response to any government policy as there was to the consultation on the Natural Environment White Paper (15,000 responses) and

  • the NEA has possibly had one of the most rapid effects on government policy of any document.

I have been critical in a past blog of the coalition government seeming to get off track with its environmental record. Well maybe this can change matters. The Natural Environment White Paper is due out on 7th June. This clearly must set the right trajectory by picking up the recommendations in the Lawton review and by responding to the key messages in the NEA. But it is what happens next that is important. How will any policy changes in this White Paper be reflected in practical results at local, national and international level?