The Government's response to climate change has been dominated by decarbonisation projects and the development of new green infrastructure. In this article, we make the case for a greater emphasis on nature conservation and highlight some upcoming policy measures that will enhance our natural environment.
1. Net Zero - a critical part of the solution to the climate crisis
In June 2019, the British Parliament legislated to reduce the UK's net greenhouse gas emissions by 100%, when measured against 1990 levels by the year 2050. The UK became the first country in the world to pass such a law and it quickly became known as "net zero".
Although the first to legislate, the UK was slow to provide details as to how it would hit its target. Since 1990, the UK had made great strides in decarbonising energy - deploying solar PV and wind farms (particularly offshore) to great success. However, many of the easier steps had been taken and it wasn't clear what measures would be supported by Government, once the 'low-hanging fruit' had been picked.
At the end of last year, the Government finally revealed its plans: firstly when the Prime Minister launched his Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution for 250,000 jobs (November 2020); followed by the Chancellor's Spending Review 2020 (November 2020); and finally by the publication of the Energy White Paper: Powering Our Net Zero Future (December 2020).
Much has been written about the UK's exciting plans to quadruple offshore wind; develop a hydrogen economy; invest in carbon capture and storage; and accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. There can be no doubt that decarbonisation is critical if we are to reduce global average temperature increases. However, decarbonisation is not the universal panacea for the globe's environmental ills; and yet the Government's latest response to climate change focusses almost exclusively on decarbonisation and kickstarting a green industrial revolution - creating jobs, growing the economy, and building new infrastructure.
There are some encouraging signs of policies to preserve our natural capital, and the recent publication of the Dasgupta Review may prove to be a watershed moment for the development of medium and long-term economic and environmental policy.
2. The dasgupta review - the importance of the natural environment
On 2 February 2021, HM Treasury published a comprehensive review "The Economics of Biodiversity" written by the economist, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. It is difficult to distil a 600-page report to just a few points, but it highlights the following deficiencies in how globally, society has treated its natural capital; and proposes various solutions:
- Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on nature - it provides food, water, shelter, oxygen, and enhances our well-being;
- Society has failed to engage with nature sustainably, as a result our demands far exceed nature's capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on - to maintain current living standards would need 1.6 Earths;
- As a result of our unsustainable engagement with nature, we are endangering the prosperity of current and future generations - ecosystems such as corals and tropical forests are either beyond repair or at a 'tipping point'; and low income countries are likely to suffer economic hardship more than those economies less reliant on natural goods and services; and
- "At the heart of the problem lies deep-rooted, widespread institutional failure" - the Review argues that the value of nature to society has not been valued properly (if at all) leading society to invest in produced capital and to underinvest in nature.
In terms of solutions, the Dasgupta Review promotes a need to think about how society thinks, act and measures success:
- Accepting that the global economy is embedded in nature, it is part of nature and not separate to it - in order to have truly sustainable economic growth and development: we must fully account for the impact of that we have on nature and rebalance our consumption demands with nature's capacity to meet those demands;
- Food production is the most significant driver of terrestrial biodiversity loss - whilst technology plays a major part in how we will increase yields, increase pest-resistance, reduce the need for fertiliser etc., consumption and production patterns will need to be fundamentally restructured;
- Nature needs to enter economic and finance decision-making, much as buildings, machines, infrastructure and skills currently do - GDP measures short-term economic movements but does not account for depreciation of our natural capital, as such GDP encourages unsustainable economic growth; and
- Institutional change is needed, particularly in education and finance. The Review argues that financial institutions and business should report on the dependencies and impacts on nature and by measuring and disclosing both climate- and nature-related financial risks, investors will have credible decision-grade data.
3. Biodiversity and conservation policy measures
In making policy, the Government has prioritised measures which will drive the economy - not necessarily surprising given the impacts that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the economy in 2020 and 2021.
So what is the Government currently proposing to support the natural environment?
Biodiversity Net Gain - a flagship policy of the Environmental Bill, recently delayed and now not expected to receive Royal Assent until this Autumn, this will require all new developments to demonstrate a 10% net gain in biodiversity at or near their sites. A new regime of biodiversity credits will be introduced, allowing developers to purchase credits from the Government, which will be used to fund the creation of conservation sites.
Conservation Covenants - another feature of the Environment Bill, and linked to biodiversity net gain: a new legal mechanism to allow landowners to enter into binding agreements in favour of "responsible bodies", which will commit landowners to manage their land in ways that will increase biodiversity, for example by creating habitats, or reducing fertiliser and pesticide use;
New National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - this year the Government proposes to start the processes to create new National Parks and designated new AONBs, whose effect will be to protect up to a further 1.5% of natural land in England. The Government also proposes to implement ten "landscape recovery projects" to create the equivalent of 30,000 football pitches of new habitat for wildlife between 2022 and 2024;
Green Recovery Challenge Fund - the Government proposes to increase the Green Recovery Challenge Fund to £80 million, to deliver up to "100 nature projects" in the coming two years; and
Forest Risk Commodities - the Environment Bill will introduce a prohibition on the use by large businesses of illegally produced commodities; who will need to undertake due diligence in relation to the forest-risk commodities that it uses; and then report on their compliance (note that forest commodities are likely to include palm oil, soya, beef and leather, cocoa, pulp and paper, rubber, and timber).
For understandable reasons, the Government is primarily focussed on "net zero" and "decarbonisation" projects in order to address the climate emergency. These will create jobs, grow the economy and are absolutely critical to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast.
There are some important climate focused policies coming, but these will most likely take a second seat behind building and manufacturing projects.
The Dasgupta Review may prove to be a watershed moment. What is so significant about it is that it was published by HM Treasury, the most influential department at the heart of the British Government - it wasn't published by Defra, or by a well-intentioned think-tank. Once the green industrial revolution is underway, we may hope that future Governments will make policy with the Dasgupta Review in the forefront of their minds.
Contact Ben Stansfield if you would like to discuss biodiversity and decarbonisation projects.