Why government spending decisions need to account for nature
If you’ve been following the to and fro of international financial markets over recent weeks, like me you might have been amazed by how ephemeral and unpredictable financial wealth can be. Not so the economic wealth that underlies those markets. While trade, production and employment are influenced by turns of confidence, and even luck, they all depend on people and assets.
Even less ephemeral is the natural wealth that underlies financial and economic wealth. Ultimately, production and consumption rely on resources and services provided by nature. But, you can’t make more birds with quantitative easing. You can’t clean the air with confidence.
We go to extraordinary lengths to log the vicissitudes of financial markets, reporting their ups and downs daily on the news. Yet, if we were to do the same for our truest wealth: natural wealth, the picture would be predictable and bleak. In the UK, 60 per cent of the species we know about are in decline. Climate change could put one in six species at risk of extinction. Daily, we break international restrictions for air and water quality.
That’s why I was delighted to see a commitment to a 25 year plan to restore biodiversity in the Conservative Party’s manifesto, linked to a promise to continue the work of the Natural Capital Committee. In these few lines lies an opportunity to value our natural world properly, both for the economic and social wealth it delivers and for its incalculable intrinsic value.
What should the hallmarks of a good plan be?
First, we must be clear about objectives. We need to set limits on the use of non-renewable resources, thresholds for sustainable use of renewable assets, and to describe the world we want to live in: a world richer in nature. I hope this will appeal to Liz Truss, who is a champion of the importance of science and open data.
We should know if our natural wealth is in deficit
Of course, to ensure we’re headed in the right direction, we need clear milestones and public accountability. People deserve to know whether the index of their natural wealth is in the black or the red. The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) and the Office for National Statistics have begun to chart some of the changes, building on years of record-keeping by devoted individuals, charities like the RSPB, agencies like Natural England and forward-thinking politicians, like Environmental Audit Committee. When the government renews the NCC’s mandate later this year, it should enhance its expertise and independence so the value of nature can be built into decision-making across government.
And, of course, we need to invest in nature. Today, government departments will submit scenarios to the Treasury, setting out the extent of cuts they could make. The government must not deal with the financial deficit by accruing a natural deficit, or fill the budgetary black hole by selling off nature. To do so would be a false economy.
Green Alliance has already demonstrated that DECC’s mission could be thwarted by further cuts. Our chances of achieving decarbonisation goals will be seriously compromised if the government takes any more money from DECC, or slashes renewables support further. Of course, the long term costs of climate change (and potential savings for consumers from renewables) far outweigh the cash that the chancellor could scrape back today.
A strong Defra is necessary to support the 25 year plan
Defra faces similar challenges. Because some spending is protected, a 40 per cent cut for the department could mean a 70–80 per cent cut in environmental services. It would be impossible to achieve the objectives of a 25 year plan for nature without the oversight, science and advice provided by strong, independent environmental agencies. The health benefits of access to quality green space, or of cleaner air to breathe, may not appear in the bottom line, but they are essential public goods protected by Defra.
The department advises farmers on land management, funds protection of the wildlife in our Overseas Territories (did you know the UK has more penguins than any other country on Earth?) and guards our homes against flood risk. Defra’s budget is already tiny, but the benefits it can deliver by restoring nature are huge.
Changes in natural wealth aren’t always easy to observe. Landscapes change slowly and finite resources like ancient woodlands or fish stocks aren’t in everyday view. Yet, in my lifetime, in the past 25 years, I’ve begun to see change. When I was a boy, fields full of lapwings were a regular sight, now they are a rarer treat. Many of us have noticed the failing fortunes of British bees and butterflies.
With clear direction, monitoring and proper resourcing, the 25 year plan for nature could be a triumph and help us to create a country richer in nature. The UK could lead the world in underpinning our economic wealth and our financial wealth by investing in our natural wealth. The government’s first steps should be a Spending Review that recognises this and a bold 25 year plan for nature.