This post is by Patrick Begg, outdoors and natural resources director at the National Trust.
I suspect that if you work in a political party, or a Westminster department, you’d be tempted to describe the current mood as ‘febrile’, a term you only ever hear when the political world is in upheaval.
We feel it in the conservation movement.
But, for us, underlying it is a deep and legitimate anxiety that some decisions might be imminent which could cause huge damage to the natural world and our wider environment.
Over 570 legal environmental safeguards, carried over from our time in the EU, are scheduled to be deleted over the next 18 months. I think the government should forgive us for being deeply anxious about what may – or even may not – replace them.
Emotions are running high
These worries are made even more acute given the signals the new top team in government is sending out around deregulation and supply side reform. There are suggestions that the new and extensive Investment Zones might be cut loose from planning restrictions. Or that farming needs to be freed up to pursue growth and productivity and that a review of the long awaited Environmental Land Management scheme could see obligations slackened and ‘green’ payments redirected.
This has led to an extremely fractious first month of the new leadership, where the conservation movement, in an act of large scale and powerful solidarity, has gone public with its concerns. Emotions are now running high.
But I think there are highly rational reasons for the government to chart a different course and still secure the blending of nature, climate and economic resilience we all seek.
Take the role of fundamental legal protections. Sir Partha Dasgupta, in his farsighted 2021 analysis for the Treasury of the economic case for investing in nature, makes it clear that, unless we start to harvest and not mine the nature around us, we put economies, livelihoods and wellbeing in peril. Any government’s first job must be to secure it, and ensure its qualities are sustained and enhanced.
It must be government’s job to nurture these national assets, which underpin enterprise as much as they do society’s wellbeing. Because natural functions, like carbon capture, water storage and purification, improving air quality, reducing high heat episodes or supporting highly diverse wildlife populations are often complex, interlinked and implicit – as well as being in increasing demand – they need bespoke treatment if they are to be sustained. Halting, and then reversing, serious declines in nature is fundamental to all these public goods, and that starts with maintaining basic protections.
An ecosystem of protections is vital
The government has already shown international leadership. Last May’s G7 commitment to reverse biodiversity decline and protect 30 per cent of each nation’s land and oceans for nature by 2030 – aka the 30×30 pledge – was a landmark moment and a huge feather in our cap. Following that through and retaining a strong, and certainly not weaker, UK ecosystem of protections is the vital next step.
So money and economics clearly matter. The cost of living crisis and the demands on state finances of, for example, an under pressure NHS and an ageing population, mean public funds alone can’t deliver success. New sources of investment in nature will be needed.
Dasgupta recommended a re-gearing of economic systems and decision making to ensure nature gain underpins core financial planning and investments made by the government and others. He was shrewdly eyeing the significant leadership many businesses are now demonstrating on climate action and envisaging the same for biodiversity.
The Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD), led by the Bank of England and, since April this year, mandated by the government, has been a powerful catalyst. It has stimulated boardroom analysis, appreciation of risk and target setting and, crucially, is helping companies spot green economic opportunities within their corporate transition plans to net zero. We need the same for nature and the UK government’s hitherto support for the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosure is welcome and needs to move towards more formal commitments. The UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (known as COP15), later this year, would be a great place to cement the commitments and the UK’s leadership.
And, lastly, what about regulations? They are frequently the prime target of the first arrow out of the government’s quiver, especially when the further liberalisation of markets is proposed as one of the main pathways forward. How should we feel when the new secretary of state says at his first conference speech that “Defra is not a regulatory department, it is an economic growth department”?
So I’m firmly in the corner making the case for the vital importance of good regulation, especially where our environment is concerned. It is essential in protecting the public interest. At a most basic level, it prevents careless or even malicious damage to natural assets. And, if you are after growth and activating the private sector, it is a powerful catalyst for new markets.
The US has created economic success out of environmental restoration
A case study from the US is instructive. The Clean Water Act Compensatory Mitigation programme is the largest environmental restoration programme in the United States. In 1972 the Clean Water Act created a legal duty of ‘no net loss’ of aquatic resources and also a statutory duty for the US Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the regulations associated with the duty. But, for decades, its impact was limited. It relied on homespun ‘mom and pop’ mitigation works delivered parochially and thus with limited scaling. The transformation came in 2008 with the government’s new Compensatory Mitigation Rule.
This clarified performance standards, financial assurances, the geographical area within which credits could be sold and many other technical issues. The result was a signal to big investors that there now existed a level playing field and assurance around measurement, standards and impact, which, in turn, created a huge growth in the market for ecological credits. Big scale private investment has crowded in and created large spillover benefits for nature well beyond water quality. Appetite created scale, and scale has driven very significant benefits for nature in ever more ambitious schemes. Expertise has been drawn to this bright new sector, with many new companies (and jobs) now servicing what has grown into a $3.5 billion a year industry.
The lesson is that government and its agencies made this system work. They created powerful regulations and laws. In doing so, they became true partners to enterprise and delivered public benefit too. Now is not the time to miss that opportunity in the UK.