This post is by Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency and Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England.
The prime minister was right to strike a note of optimism in his first speech to the country.
Environmental questions can seem relentlessly gloomy, with measures to cut pollution and recover the environment appearing like unaffordable sacrifices that get in the way of the real challenges.
This is not correct though. Indeed, investing in the health of our environment could be one of the best investments we make in the future of the country. This is why we urge the new government to place environmental issues high on its list of priorities.
Progress will stop if the trend continues
This is not least because, whereas it was once widely believed that environmental harm was the price of progress, it is now apparent that if we don’t reverse the trends progress itself will halt. For example, it is estimated that the cost of global damages from climate related events has risen by more than 11 percent every year in the past two decades, to more than 300 billion dollars in 2017. The World Economic Forum now puts extreme weather at the top of its table of global risks. As we watch and experience more and more of these events, including here last week, with the highest July temperature ever recorded, the public is rightly expecting action.
Equally pressing is the need to avoid what is set to be the biggest global scale loss of species in over 60 million years. What is described as the ‘sixth mass extinction’ in Earth’s history is linked to wider catastrophic ecosystem damage.
Reassuringly there is a growing sense that public opinion is taking the threat to our environment very seriously. And the UK can already proudly point to some pioneering policies: the Climate Change Act, the goal to achieve net zero carbon emissions by mid-century and the 25 year environment plan to leave nature in a better state that we found it. We have world leading farming policies under development, as well as plans to rebuild ecosystems via a new Nature Recovery Network, and to render development beneficial for the environment in the new Environment Act.
A thriving economy needs a healthy environment
Maintaining a healthy environment is more economically rational than degrading the systems that sustain life. This was the conclusion of the government’s own Natural Capital Committee, its 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, and it will undoubtedly emerge strongly from Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta’s ongoing review into the economic value of biological diversity, initiated by the Treasury.
Natural systems are estimated to deliver worldwide services worth about $125 trillion per year (far more than global GDP), including services that replenish freshwater, pollinate crops, renew soil fertility, capture carbon and protect people from extreme weather, which should cause us all to pause and reconsider longstanding assumptions.
The point is that a healthy environment is a necessary precondition of a stable economy, making the recovery of the environment a sound investment. It would create huge opportunities to develop clean technologies and new forms of sustainable agriculture. It would also bolster the City of London’s leadership in green finance.
The new reality and present imperative
This country was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and, at this critical juncture in the world’s future, now is the time to act and enable the UK to lead once again in a new Sustainable Industrial Revolution. If we invest in the recovery of nature and climate, we know that it will increase long term stability, for our health, security and prosperity. This is the new reality and the present imperative. It is not, as some would see it, an optional ‘green’ choice that we can only afford in the good times.
The early signs are encouraging. Our new prime minster used his first address to parliament to explicitly back the new net zero emissions target his predecessor set into law in the final weeks of her premiership. It is not, however, enough to say ‘we will leave the environment in a better state’, we need to invest in making it happen.
This is why, as the leaders of the Environment Agency and Natural England, the operational public bodies for the environment, we are convinced that now is the time to find the resources needed for the recovery of natural systems that sustain our society and economy. The forthcoming Spending Review is an immediate opportunity for the new government to demonstrate its ambition.
What is best of all is that we have the policies to deliver, we have public backing for action and we know what to do. As a new prime minister completes his first full week in office, it is our sincere hope that he will make the recovery of our environment a priority, including for the Spending Review. It could be one of the first great moves of his premiership. It would deliver his aspiration, set out in parliament last week, to make this country the greatest place on earth and protect our precious planet. Our two organisations stand prepared to help make this a reality.