Laurence is a Yorkshire-based conservationist and writer, a few months from retiring from the RSPB.
In July last year, parroting the government’s own choice of language, several newspapers announced a ‘radical’ shake-up of the planning system. Clearly they hadn’t actually read Planning for the Future, which makes no attempt at reconfiguring the planning system towards solving some of the most complex and pressing social, economic, and environmental problems of our time. It turns out ‘radical’ translates as ‘lifting constraints on building, most of which don’t actually exist’.
Meanwhile, another fairly conservative sector – wildlife conservation – has also started to let the R word sneak into the odd internal discussion document and even a few public pronouncements. Generally, though, conservationists still prefer terms that are softer on the palate. At the delayed conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in October, countries will agree the next 10 years of targets for nature. One of the main ones will entail committing to protecting 30% of land by 2030. The RSPB says that reaching that figure globally will mean profoundly transforming how people farm, fish, generate electricity and build houses. Conversely, the UK government seems to think we are almost there, with another 4 percentage points to go in England. Most of the existing 26% is not actually designated for wildlife, none of it has full, robust protection, and only about 3% of land is managed well for conservation.
In the earlier example, most of the debunking of government claims of a radical planning agenda has come from within a mightily unimpressed planning sector itself. Meanwhile conservation organisations still err on the side of underplaying how radically things need to change as they see it. That may start to change, for two reasons.
Firstly, the link between climate chaos and ecosystem health, understood for some time now at a theoretical level, has been quantified and clarified in language anyone can understand. Climate change activism has successfully coalesced around two clear demands, to limit global heating to 1.5°C and to achieve net zero emissions. Nature-based contributions towards the latter aim in particular are generating stronger and clearer demands for specific ecosystems outcomes. A proxy vision for nature, at least – for nature-based solutions to climate chaos – is emerging.
Secondly, widespread predictions over the last few years of pandemic caused by ecosystem collapse have become reality. The increasingly frequent emergence of new diseases was known to be linked to the degradation of ecological systems. It didn’t take long for the world to realise that Covid-19 was going to be different. As I wrote at the time, it was like witnessing some rare astrological alignment, as a conjunction of the three great planetary concerns – economic, human and ecological well-being – were revealed to be to be a single, interconnected matter. In July the World Economic Forum published a 111-page report calling for a critical shift towards nature-positive models in the three most damaging economic systems: food, land and ocean use; infrastructure and the built environment; mining and energy. Globally, a $2.7 trillion investment each year to 2030 would create 400 million jobs and $10 trillion a year in long-term business value, it said. This is a club of the world’s 1000 most ruthless capitalists speaking, let’s remember.
Such big numbers embolden conservation organisations to call for greatly increased public spending on biodiversity, and rightly so. But ‘big’ and ‘radical’ are not the same. Nor is it radical finally to get round to the blooming obvious – as in the ‘public money for public goods’ mantra that may soon hold more sway over agriculture spending in the UK. Both would help enormously, but would it be enough?
Earlier this month, Cambridge economist Professor Partha Dasgupta produced the Economics of Biodiversity report that had been eagerly awaited since it was commissioned in early 2019 by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond. In its 610 pages (abridged to 103 pages if you prefer) Dasgupta squares a circle that has dogged conservation since the 1980s. For many years the idea that we should even think about ascribing an economic value to biodiversity sat uneasily with the moral values that held nature to be worth saving in its own right. That tension has never gone away, and nor should it; but it has eased considerably with each passing decade, with each new and increased estimate and the realisation that nature’s value can be measured in the tens of trillions of dollars annually, greatly exceeding global GDP. However, Dasgupta points out that this economic value has meaning to only one of the Earth’s 20 million species. To put it another way, nature is not valuable to us because it can be imputed a large monetary value; it has monetary value because it is inherently valuable.
My last blog for Mark posed some cultural questions, in an attempt to drill into the reasons why our seemingly robust conservation model hasn’t delivered the turnaround in fortune for nature that the world committed to as recently as 2010. That was the last time the CBD parties gathered en masse. They agreed to twenty targets that all began with the words “By 2020 …” and included:
…incentives, including subsidies, harmful to biodiversity are eliminated, phased out or reformed in order to minimise or avoid negative impacts (target 3)
…the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero (target 5)
…all fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants are managed and harvested sustainably, legally and applying ecosystem-based approaches, so that overfishing is avoided (target 6)
…areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity (target 7)
…the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained (target 12)
They had set similar goals ten years earlier; they failed, and reset the clock, adding another ten years to the timescale – to 2020 – and failed again. These failures were not close calls, just falling short, but comprehensive, outright, abject debacles. Serial political failure is a symptom of cultural indifference to biodiversity loss.
So if, in October, the UK’s representatives return from the CBD in China waving bits of paper and hailing their radical (groan), world-leading (groan) 30%-with-4%-to-go commitment on protected land, don’t expect me to lead the dancing. Not least because as well as being bum-clenchingly embarrassing to hear British politicians claim anything they do is world-leading, it’s an invitation to the rest of the world to fail as we fail. Yet it wouldn’t be radical or world-leading just to do the right thing and give our so-called protected areas some actual protection; it would signal that we truly value biodiversity. Last summer’s planning reforms ignored this opportunity completely.
The best opportunity for the UK to lead the world comes as a Brexit bonus. Free to do away with what I have described as ‘the arbitrary restrictions, idiocies and injustices’ of the Common Agricultural Policy that ‘obscure, institutionalise and reward bad land management’, we can now do as Dasgupta proposes. He points out that the world spends half a trillion dollars a year on direct nature-harming subsidies, which amounts to $4 trillion when the harm itself is accounted for. Much of this is directed at agriculture and other land-based or land-hungry industries. He describes land as a common environmental asset, and calls for investment in enhancing that asset. The government’s ‘public money for public goods’ approach would take us some distance along that route, provided they stick to their earlier Green Brexit rhetoric.
Sadly there are signs that the early shoots of a Green Brexit and may not survive the frosty winds that whistle down the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. A Greener UK analysis published a week or so ago has been tracking the promises made in the run-up to Brexit, using a traffic light system. Across the eight areas examined, four – water, land use, fisheries and climate – were ranked as amber, meaning emerging policies were about as good as their EU equivalents, while four – air quality, chemicals, nature, waste and resources – were red, i.e. weaker. None entailed the improvements against EU standards needed to rank green. Remembering, of course, that EU standards themselves are nowhere near good enough to stem the decline in biodiversity, let alone throw it into reverse.
In response, DEFRA Minister George Eustice said: “we are working hard to create the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” and “our exit from the EU enables the UK to set our own world-leading legislation”. Let’s let that sink in for a moment. Let’s also make a working assumption that Mr. Eustice at least thinks he’s telling the truth. In one sense, it isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. According to Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index the UK already ranks 6th (behind two African and three EU countries) for Biodiversity and Habitat performance. This is a composite of seven indicators including marine protected areas (for which we come equal 1st, along with 30 other countries), representativeness of protected areas (for which we rank 31st) and species protection (equal 1st alongside 14 others). So if that final 4 percentage points of extra protected land were targeted at making our protected areas more representative of our ecological diversity, that could be enough to nudge us into the lead. Except, of course, that what we call protected areas, on land or at sea, are perpetually threatened areas as long as they aren’t really protected.
A more reliable measure of biodiversity performance is the biodiversity itself. This, we know, is in freefall. NGOs are frustrated that reversing the trends of the past 50 years is not, so far, enshrined in the Environment Bill as a legal obligation. The government’s current big idea is to hitch biodiversity performance to the development wagon, through its Net Gain concept. NGOs admit to getting the theory, that future development should leave behind more biodiversity than it removes. But they fear that the so-called mitigation hierarchy will be quietly forgotten, and Net Gain will become a licence to develop anywhere.
None of this grapples with any underlying systemic weakness in our conservation model. When I ponder the question at the top of this blog, I’m thinking paradigm shifts and culture change. In the RSPB’s response to the Dasgupta Review, Transitioning to a Nature-Positive Economy by 2030, there is one radical-sounding suggestion, at least. This is that UK Governments should broaden measures of progress beyond GDP to reflect a wider set of societal values, including the condition of the natural environment. Basically, to redefine the economy.
There are also proposals that sound deceptively less radical, more a litany of current good practice thinking. The response echoes and supports Dasgupta in promoting governments’ role in helping to scale up investment in ecosystem restoration. Examples include natural flood risk management and managing land better to reduce pollution and demand for water; carbon storage and sequestering by peatlands, saltmarshes and woodlands. This is radical stuff hiding in plain sight: the rethinking of what land is for.
Fundamental to holding onto hope of living in harmony with nature is modernising the UK’s Anglo-Norman land ethic. This cannot abide the idea that land is the core natural asset of the nation and of the planet. Instead, it gives primacy to any private benefit that may accrue to those who choose to exploit it. National Parks failed nature for one reason only: the lingering possibility that notwithstanding their designations, there might always be something better you could do with the land. Designated protected areas fail individually and as a network for the same reason. They are identified as the best places for nature, and protected subject to someone having a better idea for using the land. And someone always thinks they have a better idea.
In the third decade of the 21st century, in the 29th most nature-depleted country in the world, on the 8% of land designated for nature (and indeed the other 22% to which the government is committed), what possible higher priority can there be?