When governments put their minds to protecting our environment, they can achieve some extraordinary things.
Climate change action has the potential to be one of them. It was a small triumph of global co-operation that 195 countries ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Even though there’s still a long way to go before we have a fair, ambitious and binding new deal, it is testament to strong international leadership that countries are willing to act together. The UK’s cross party pledge on climate change, brokered by Green Alliance, demonstrates that climate commitment continues even in challenging economic times.
Yet, averting catastrophic climate change is just one of the crises facing the planet; another is biodiversity loss which is happening at a terrifying scale. WWF has highlighted that global wildlife populations have halved in the past 40 years, there are 421 million fewer birds in Europe than 30 years ago and 2013’s groundbreaking State of Nature report showed that, in the UK, 60 per cent of the species about which we have information have declined in my lifetime.
Nature’s being chipped away
These changes have become routine. We hear nothing of the loss of local green spaces because it happens every day. Changes to the management of the land and seas can be subtle and easy to overlook. Many threats are diffuse (like water pollution), insidious (like the impact of invasive non-native species) or distant (like the ecological consequences abroad of our consumption patterns at home). There’s no cataclysm; just a little bit more of our nature chipped away. Sometimes it takes a generation for us to notice. But, if you stop and think about what might happen if we carry on as we are, then it is clear that we need to act as if there is a planetary emergency.
My big question is about these little losses. How can we make saving nature routine? How do we put care for the environment into every part of government, so the nature-friendly option is prioritised, instead of being something we have to fight for every time? We shouldn’t have to celebrate victories like the call-in of a planning application for Lodge Hill SSSI, or the ban on fracking in protected areas, they should be common sense.
It’s partly about what government is geared towards. The big showpieces of the year are the budget and the autumn statement, and job figures and debt reduction punctuate the calendar. Each department is rated on its ability to deliver its objectives for less money and new government advisers measure a department’s actions on the basis of costs to business. It is little wonder that, in the calculus of government decision making, money wins over nature. Here, the small really does matter: departments watch every penny.
People want nature and need its benefits
But a decision made without considering nature and its benefits often leads to poor results. People want nature in their lives. Together, RSPB and the other organisations that make up the Greener Britain coalition have millions of members, who all want to see a better environment.
Over 120,000 people have already voted for Bob to ask MPs to set out what they’ll do for nature. More than that, though, disregarding nature risks missing out on the many benefits it brings us: contributing to good health and wellbeing, flood prevention, the filtration of air and water, and supporting key sectors of the economy like agriculture and tourism.
So, let’s make sure that the next government puts nature into the equation, across every department.
Politicians may offer a range of answers. The Welsh Assembly has established a new Future Generations Commissioner under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill. I hope he or she will have the independence and authority to make a real difference. Others talk about creating a minister for the natural environment in the Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as an outpost for the environment in some of the more traditional (and intractable) departments. Or perhaps there could be wider changes in the machinery of government, like reforming Defra and its agencies; and, certainly, the creation of DECC has helped to provide a focus for climate change mitigation.
Make it a priority of every government decision
But the answer I want is a commitment to a Nature and Wellbeing Act, like the one introduced in parliament by Rt Hon Sir John Randall MP. We need long term nature targets to signal to business and decision makers that the commitment to turn round the state of nature is a firm one. We need annual statements about the stock and condition of our natural assets. Nature needs to be valued properly to ensure that big decisions take it into account; decisions like reforming the Common Agricultural Policy to reward nature-friendly farming, or ensuring decent environmental standards as we build a million new homes. We need to recognise the importance of contact with the natural world for every child’s development.
This new legislation would help to build our need for nature into every decision, rather than relying on one or two big green moments. A thousand big green questions will be answered by this one action.
The Greener Britain Hustings, with senior politicians from four parties and chaired by Tom Heap, will take place on Monday 23 March at 6.30pm. The event is now full but you will be able to watch it live online here and submit questions via Twitter #GreenerBritain.