Returning this week to a suitably calm diary I’ve been pondering the shape of the year to come for the environmental community. Economic turbulence and political volatility are easy to predict, even if their impact is not – but what else will define 2012? Here are three related trends to look out for in the coming year:
1. Radicalisation of the UK’s biggest charities will continue
The most significant political development of the last year was the willingness of naturally cautious conservation organisations to challenge the government’s central belief that deregulation will deliver growth. Both the tone and the substance of the Coalition’s assault on environmental regulation has profoundly upset their members as well as staff and trustees.
Their radicalisation will continue apace in the coming year as the battle over planning moves from Whitehall to developments on the ground. Unless there is a really major tightening of planning guidance we can expect to see a return to 80s style campaigning against bad development. Remember Oxleas Wood, the Newbury Bypass, Offham Common? This time it will be middle England’s iphone users as well as committed activists who will be involved and it will not be comfortable for the government. The RSPB have already pointed out that their local membership is greater than the majority held by many MPs in marginal constituencies. It will be interesting to see if this evolves into a more assertive US style flexing of their influence through constituency-based pressure.
2. Business concerns about resource security will grow
Despite the economic downturn, business concern about resource security will keep rising because of the global nature of supply chains. Barring an economic collapse in China, demand in the developing world will continue to rise, and resource nationalism will grow. For niche materials, such as rare earth metals, substitution will be the dominant response. But for many more generic resources such as water and energy, even the biggest businesses can’t manage the risks without government managing stewardship of those resources and the trade-offs between different users. Public pressure on governments to take a more active role in promoting resource stewardship may hold off until growth returns, but the business case for a new resource politics will begin to be heard more clearly, starting at the Rio+20 conference in June.
3 The Conservative Party will re-assert its support for the green economy
Despite the discordant note struck by the chancellor on environmental regulation last autumn, neither he nor the prime minister will want to ignore a clear economic win. Clean technology is one of the few sectors that is still growing strongly in the UK and internationally. Having invested significant public money in decarbonising the energy sector the government will attempt to get some political return this year. The first investments by the Green Investment Bank in April, and the G20 clean energy ministerial in London in the same month provide the obvious opportunity for David Cameron to sell the UK’s low carbon economic benefits to the British public, and our clean technology to an international audience.
What is less clear is whether this will form part of a wider effort to regain lost ground on green issues by the Conservatives, and whether it will be effective in building bridges to disaffected conservationists. Given the nature of the growth debate so far, it may be difficult for the Conservatives to make the case for the smart regulation that drives green growth and protects ecosystem services. However, interventions from the LibDems or Labour to distinguish themselves from Osborne’s anti-environment rhetoric could change the calculations made by the Conservative leadership in 2012.