Earlier this month, three sector leaders talked about their hopes and aspirations for nature’s recovery and how coronavirus has affected them and their constituencies. Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust, Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB and Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, joined Green Alliance executive director Shaun Spiers for the latest in Green Alliance’s series of online events to discuss the impact of the current health crisis on the environment.
Their collective ambition, that nature and people’s health and wellbeing should be drivers of government policy and the nation’s recovery from the pandemic, was reflected in many of the questions and comments from the audience.
A number of significant messages emerged:
We need nature more than ever
Our experiences of lockdown have reminded us of the importance of nature and accessible green spaces. Research from CPRE and the Women’s Institute revealed an increase in Londoners’ appreciation of their local green spaces and the countryside during lockdown. But the past few weeks have also reminded us that the inequalities surrounding the environment have not gone away: people deprived of access to nature because of a lack of nearby green spaces, increases in wildlife crime and the reprieve from toxic air pollution in our cities should not be forgotten by policy makers. With streets in central London to become car free, cycle lanes popping up overnight and other cities moving in the same direction, we could be on the brink of a transformative change to how we live, much of which would benefit nature as well as people.
Virtual visits to sites and online engagement have temporarily replaced direct encounters with nature for many of us. Every Flower Counts asks you to record the wildflowers growing on your lawn from 23 to 31 May. The RSPB has been running a daily Breakfast Birdwatch. The Wildlife Trusts across the UK have been running online activities for school children such as Nature Tots Live.
As restrictions on exercise and movements are relaxed, many people are looking forward to getting outside and spending time with nature more often. As they get ready to welcome people back to the great outdoors, nature charities are encouraging people to stay local, and to walk and cycle where possible. Seeking exercise locally will stop certain sites and beauty spots being overwhelmed with visitors, helping people to observe social distancing and minimising disruption for local communities.
But nature also needs us and we must speak with a common voice
As well as caring for our green spaces all over the country, nature charities are powerful advocates for the protection of the natural world. In the event discussion, there was a strong consensus that the environment sector must speak with a common voice to increase its collective impact on the policies that affect it.
It’s good that the government recognises that we can be both partners and critical friends of government. Treasury Minister Kemi Badenoch recently cited environmental charities’ “valuable contribution to the government’s environmental agenda”, through conservation of the natural environment; engaging people in the natural world; and providing access to our beautiful landscapes and coastlines.
But warm words will not provide the sector with what it needs to function at this time of crisis. The financial impact on the farming and food sector has had a high profile, but there has been hardly any attention given to the impact on charities. Many environmental organisations have been hurt badly by the pandemic, with drastic reductions to their income, affecting what they are able to do, which is a threat to the protection of those precious places we care about, as well as to the unseen work that goes on to protect species.
Economic and nature recovery should be addressed together
Economic recovery and nature’s recovery should go hand in hand. Building a strong economy in the future means it can’t be one or the other. At the event, all speakers agreed that an ambitious nature recovery network was essential. This would pull together all the benefits, tools, organisations and actors who can restore nature on the ground. As Craig Bennett, the new head of the Wildlife Trusts, has argued there needs to be an exponential increase in the amount of land managed for nature. This will not only benefit wildlife, but people too, making us healthier and happier, and by boosting the national economy, not least through the huge savings it would make to the NHS budget.
Domestic action alone isn’t enough, the UK must also address the impacts it has on nature and the environment across the world, including deforestation, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. UK businesses have much to benefit from by establishing themselves as leaders in greener supply chains. Making this a clear government priority will provide a level playing for business and strengthen our global diplomatic efforts ahead of next year’s key international summits on climate and nature.
Everyone who spoke at the event saw the Environment Bill currently going through parliament as a timely vehicle to legislate for nature’s recovery, both at home and abroad. But, while it was welcomed, it was felt that it did not yet have anywhere near the ambition needed to address the urgent crisis of nature’s rapid decline, nor will it, as it stands, deliver this government’s manifesto commitment for it to be the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.