This is a joint piece by Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency and Sir William Worsley, chair of the Forestry Commission.
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on our society and economy have been profound and will leave a lasting legacy. While the outbreak of the virus was a great shock to our system, the legacy it leaves is much more within our control.
Building a fair, green and resilient economy, with nature and our environment at its heart, is not only desirable but also within our grasp. This will not only reap immediate rewards and create jobs with a real positive impact, it has the potential to reset our nation for generations to come.
The reasons to embrace green recovery are very familiar, but these are more than just an ‘environmental’ issue. A wide range of studies underline how our economy and wellbeing are wholly dependent on a stable climate and natural systems.
The Treasury’s ongoing Dasgupta Review makes it clear that our economy is a 100 per cent wholly owned subsidiary of the natural world and that degrading nature increasingly exposes the world to a host of risks. Indeed, the Dasgupta team point out how increased risk of pandemic is but one peril that comes in the wake of the unsustainable relationship we have with our environment.
Let’s not let the chance for positive change slip away
On top of the technical analysis, many more people have personal reasons to see the importance of a healthy and rich natural environment. Lockdown has led us to embrace nature, to appreciate the benefits of quieter roads and empty skies, to hear birdsong and, in taking daily exercise outside, finding green space to reflect, by rivers, in local parks and the countryside.
As the economy restarts, it is imperative we don’t let this chance for positive change slip away. We must not forget that a healthy economy is supported by a healthy population, and that both depend on a healthy environment.
Fortunately, the country already has an ambitious agenda that could be the foundation of a green recovery. Its landmark 25 year environment plan is a platform for action. Furthermore, the world-leading goal to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will also lead to expanding woodland cover and restoring peatlands. Steps to catch carbon on the land will have the added benefits of reduced flood risk and cleaner rivers.
This is along with the new Environmental Land Management Scheme, for farmers and other landowners, paying for public goods, such as beautiful landscapes, greater public access and more abundant wildlife, and the £5.2 billion investment programme to defend the nation from floods and the effects of climate change is now more than ever taking advantage of natural solutions.
We warmly welcomed the £640 million Nature for Climate Fund announced in the last Budget. Among the work it will fund is the Conservative manifesto commitment to create 30,000 hectares of woodland a year across the UK by 2025. The government’s response to the Glover Review will undoubtedly lead to renewed efforts to enable more access for more people to beautiful and wildlife rich places, while the new Tree Strategy for England is now being consulted on and the Environment Agency’s Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England will be published shortly, underpinned by the ambition to secure sustainable growth and environmental improvements.
The need to act for the benefit of society is more important now than ever
We believe that these goals to protect ourselves and future generations are even more relevant now as we recover from the Covid-19 crisis than they were when they were launched.
They must be harnessed as part of a true cross-governmental effort which really puts the ‘green’ into green recovery.
We are the government’s key environmental regulators and advisers, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and Natural England, and we are ready to play our part and not just sow the seeds of this green recovery, but work closely together to help it flourish, thrive and grow lasting roots for a better society.
An integrated approach to green recovery could achieve multiple policy aims. Investment in jobs can create a new workforce ready to build the green infrastructure projects of the future. New woodlands and restored peatlands will help us adapt to the extreme weather linked with global heating. Safeguarding and creating new habitats will restore wildlife and also make space for people to engage with nature, at the same time as absorbing carbon.
Green infrastructure, like parks and gardens, urban trees, woodlands, hedges, water and grasslands, brings the environment into our communities with enormous benefits for people’s health and wellbeing, not to mention economic benefits from the extra investment that greener environments attract from business. If done thoughtfully, green spaces can also mitigate the heat and flooding associated with climate change.
Access to green space also helps to tackle social inequalities that have been highlighted by coronavirus. For example, one in every eight households has no access to a garden and this is particularly noticeable for BAME residents – 37 per cent of black households have no outdoor space at home compared with just ten per cent of white households. With all this in mind, it is vital that we regard investment in green infrastructure as a mechanism for growth and prosperity, in the same way that built infrastructure is.
We are breaking the silos of the past
Our organisations are already working closely together and plan to deepen our collaboration – breaking silos of the past – so that single projects can bring many benefits. The opportunity to hit the government’s net zero target links closely with our aims to better protect the nation from the extremes of climate change and protect our natural environment.
For example, our work to protect the nation’s peatlands will restore wildlife-rich habitats, store carbon and slow the flow of water to protect homes from flooding. Making sure we establish the right trees in the right places as part of an integrated approach to nature recovery, wood production, public access and flood risk is another area where we are collaborating to secure multiple benefits at once.
We are also working together so communities can directly see the benefits of supporting nature. This includes via the relationships we all have with farmers and other land managers who, in the end, make many of the decisions that determine the state of our environment.
Our joint work has the potential to make significant progress toward the creation of a national Nature Recovery Network, which will see nature thrive as we work with other partners to increase, improve, expand and join up wildlife-rich places across England, benefiting both people and the planet. Natural England is engaged in several initiatives with the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency to increase and reconnect wildlife habitat, for example at the Great Fen in Cambridgeshire and Ennerdale in the Lake District.
As we deepen our collaboration, we recognise that many of our partners are facing serious stresses and strains. Numerous organisations have seen their workforce and finances seriously affected by coronavirus. That is why a strong emphasis on green jobs is essential for a green recovery to take off.
Growing and planting trees, building the Nature Recovery Network and bolstering the work of our excellent voluntary conservation groups are among the areas where, as a nation, we could invest.
A fiscal stimulus package to create new green jobs and provide skills training for people coming into the environmental sector would help to ensure we had the workforce to deliver the nature restoration that we need for a healthy future.
Some tough choices and turbulent times likely lie ahead and, if past experience is anything to go by, we might expect environmental issues to get sidelined. Seen as distant, bereft of immediate benefits and expensive, greening the economy looks like it can wait for later.
There is, however, no time for delay. For a thriving economy and society, we need thriving nature and a healthy planet, and the ambitions of the landmark Environment Bill enshrined in law as quickly as possible. We stand ready to do all we can to help, in delivering both a response to the urgent action needed now, in the face of the climate emergency, as well as leaving a lasting legacy.