Three things you should know about the Natural Capital Committee’s advice on the 25 year plan for the environment

View of farm gate.The government has not lacked advice as to what should go in its long promised 25 year plan for the environment. Most of it has ended up as white noise but, finally, and with surprisingly little fanfare, we have something of significance: the official advice to government of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC).

It’s significant because, first, Michael Gove asked the committee to produce it and, second, because it is the expert verdict on what’s needed to make sure we can get the maximum benefit from our natural environment.

So what does it say? A lot, as you would expect given that the committee has been in a holding pattern for 18 months waiting for the plan to materialise.

Here we highlight three significant aspects of the advice, as well as three important questions it raises.

1. Extraordinary ambition
The committee suggests 12 goals for the government to adopt. Some are unsurprising, such as meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. But some would be truly revolutionary. Goal eight would eliminate new plastic pollution from entering our seas. Goal twelve would transform management of the UK’s natural resources, resulting in “an overall net increase” in natural capital. While goal ten advocates that the UK should make a “net positive contribution to the global environment”.

These goals would make the UK a global environmental champion, embracing international standards in areas such as air and water quality, whilst being a world leader for overall environmental health.

2. Independent monitoring and reporting
Political accountability for achieving the goals is tackled head-on by the committee. It advocates putting the plan on a statutory footing (so it can’t be ignored by government), breaking up the 25 years into five year objectives (ie one per parliament), and giving statutory responsibility to an independent scrutiny body to report annually to parliament on progress.

3. New responsibilities and opportunities for business
The committee recommends the introduction of a “natural capital net gain principle” in the planning regime for housing and infrastructure, and the pollution prevention and control regulatory regimes. This would turn developers and industry into agents of environmental restoration. Such a bold move would significantly increase the firepower available to support delivery of the plan’s goals. The NCC also endorses the notion that public funding could be used to kick-start private markets for ecosystem services such as water quality improvements.

But the advice also throws up a number of questions that the 25 year plan will need to answer.

Question 1: Will it be credible?
The scale of ambition in the advice may well appeal to Michael Gove, who has stated his vision for Britain to become “a setter of gold standards in protecting and growing natural capital”. But, given where we’re starting from, and the Committee emphasises the dire and worsening state of the UK’s natural capital, achieving change on this scale will be a herculean undertaking.

What’s more, it is not something that the government can do on its own. Farmers, landowners, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, waste managers and consumers are all implicated in the delivery of these goals. The case will need to be made strongly, persuasively and repeatedly as to why this is an effort worth making. And the government will need to show it has the strength of purpose to take decisions as difficult as enforcing a ‘natural capital net gain’ principle for new housing. This will require more than simply creating an independent monitoring body; developers will remember the overnight killing-off of zero carbon homes, and the less scrupulous may be tempted to gamble that government won’t have the stomach to stay the course.

Question 2: How does this fit with food and farming?
Over 70 per cent of UK land is farmed. The NCC’s vision would transform how we farm, built around new farming practices, changes in stocking and cropping patterns, potentially changes in use for large swathes of farmland. The committee proposes that farming subsidies should support this change, by rewarding farmers who deliver “environmental enhancements”, and other public goods. But the core business of farming is food production, where the customer is not the state. So an effective 25 year plan will need to indicate how regulatory policy, food policy, trade policy and a whole raft of other legal and funding instruments would align with its goals. Which leads us onto…Brexit.

Question 3: What about Brexit?
With Brexit sucking up almost all the government’s time and focus, it will not be straightforward for Defra ministers to persuade colleagues of the importance of a 25 year plan with this scale of ambition. What’s more, the terms of future trade deals, whether with the EU or other partners such as the US, will include environmental rules and stipulations that the government will need to follow. The plan cannot foresee the outcomes of the Brexit negotiations, but it can establish many of the tools we will need to deliver its ambitions. This could include, for example, setting out how we would manage the ‘governance gap’ that would arise from a hard Brexit, if the UK ends its relationships with the EU institutions that currently implement and enforce many environmental regulations.

Michael Gove says he wants a green Brexit. The extent to which the 25 year environment plan accepts the Natural Capital Committee’s advice, and fills in the gaps as to how it will be delivered, will reveal whether or not he intends to deliver one.

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