Category Archives: Natural environment

How an award winning map is connecting more people with nature

foraging smallThis post is by Anita Roy, a member of Transition Town Wellington.

It might not look like much: a hand drawn map of a small town in Somerset, folded down small enough to fit in your pocket. The fields and woods are shaded green and dotted with little round stickers showing where to find apple trees and herbs, hazelnuts and redcurrant bushes.

There are two maps of Wellington you can pick up in the tourist office: one, showing shops and cafes, car parks and pubs: the town’s economy; the other, Transition Town Wellington’s foraging map: its ecology. On it are highlighted the four community orchards, the fruit bushes and herb beds, which have been created and tended for everyone to access, by this energetic and public-spirited environmental group.

Transition Town Wellington (TTW) has been in existence for more than a decade, working on a variety of issues from sustainable energy to transport surveys. The group promotes organic gardening and supports local food growers, as well as organising litter picks, film shows, a repair café and activities for children. It recently made news by winning The Climate Coalition’s ‘Green Heart Hero’ award for most inspirational community project, pipping the Somerset Wildlife Trust and the local Women’s Institute chapter to the post.

But it was the foraging map, created by the sustainable food group’s leader, Helen Gillingham, that helped put TTW, as it were, on the map. MP for Taunton Deane, Rebecca Pow, nominated the group for the award, saying “Like many of my constituents, I love to get out and about picking nature’s free fruits and this map is incredibly helpful.”

The Transition Town movement first started in 2006, with Rob Hopkins and his team in Totnes, Devon. How do we act now, he asked, to build communities resilient enough to withstand the twin horrors of peak oil and climate change? If we wait for governments to act, it will be too little, too late; if we act as individuals it will be too little; but if we pull together as communities, there is the possibility of genuine change. “The time for seeing globalisation as an invincible and unassailable behemoth, or localisation as some kind of lifestyle choice, is over,” he wrote in the Transition Handbook, a book that was prescient when it was published in 2008, and is more relevant than ever today.

Protests have an important place, as the impact of recent Extinction Rebellion events and school climate strikes have shown, but taking positive action in one’s local community connects and energises people, and can be felt at a personal level. It can change people’s minds, because it changes their daily life.

Foraging for hope
Richard Mabey, author of the seminal Food for Free and ‘father’ of modern foraging, is realistic in assessing its impact on our food security. “Foraging in our culture is a middle-class hobby,” he says in an interview with The Independent newspaper, “It’s basically a load of largely middle-class foodies and ruralists going out and getting a romantic kick out of this very sensual engagement with nature.”

Although he says that he’s not deriding the fact, I think he overlooks the more profound impact it can have. According to the charity Mind, approximately one in four people in the UK will experience some mental health issues in a year, the majority associated with anxiety and depression. A report commissioned by Natural England in 2016 confirmed what most of us would expect: that what it terms ‘green care interventions’ – such as environmental conservation, and social and therapeutic horticulture – can have a significant positive impact on mental health. Getting close to the soil, and in touch with nature and natural processes can help reduce anxiety and depression, and can help alleviate symptoms associated with dementia. Not only that, but it brings about “a greatly increased level of social contact and inclusion; as well as a sense of belonging and personal achievement.”

In all of its activities, but perhaps most of all with the foraging map, Transition Town Wellington is bringing people outside, and closer to nature. For children, especially, seeing food growing – berries that you can actually pick and eat, plants whose leaves can end up on your plate – is a revelation. It may not change your daily diet much, but it does change how you think about what you eat, and where that comes from.

It is this awareness that is encouraging people to think about how their food is transported and under what conditions it is grown, and by whom. Walking around the town, aided by the foraging map, parents, children and older people are re-learning how to judge when something is ripe, how it is faring and if the plant or tree needs to be cared for. Not only that, but it shows how all other life-forms – the birds, bees, insects and other wildlife – are dependent upon our green spaces. Our stewardship of our open spaces is not only in our own interest, but that of all the living things that make up our ecosystem at this increasingly perilous time.

Anita Roy is a freelance writer with an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University. Her writing can be found at anitaroy.net

 [Image: Helen Gillingham working on the foraging map]

 

What would ‘Norway’ mean for nature laws?

RSPB smallThis post is by Donal McCarthy, senior policy officer at the RSPB.

On Monday night, MPs approved a motion providing parliament with the chance to hold a series of indicative votes on alternatives to the current Brexit deal. One of the alternative options that is being promoted by a cross-party grouping of MPs is a ‘Norway-style’ agreement (also known as ‘Norway Plus’ or ‘Common Market 2.0’).

This option would see the UK negotiate a future relationship with the EU similar to that enjoyed by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, the three members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) that participate in the EU single market under the terms of the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement. But what might this mean for the laws governing species and habitat protection across the UK?

Dynamic alignment with most EU environmental standards
The preamble to the EEA Agreement sets out a commitment “to preserve, protect and improve the quality of the environment” and to uphold the EU’s core environmental principles. The three EEA-EFTA states are required to comply with the majority of EU environmental rules, as listed in Annex XX. The EEA Agreement is also dynamic, meaning that new or revised EU legislation that is ‘EEA-relevant’ must be incorporated into the related annexes and protocols.

As is the case for EU member states, the EEA-EFTA states are free to develop more ambitious environmental policies than the EU if they so choose. In other words, the agreement acts as a floor rather than a ceiling for the parties’ domestic environmental ambitions.

Compared to the current Brexit deal, a ‘Norway-style’ agreement would potentially provide stronger guarantees that environmental standards will not be weakened after Brexit. As well as locking the UK into most existing EU environmental legislation, a ‘Norway-style’ agreement would also require the UK to update its domestic statute book so as to mirror future changes in relevant EU laws and standards. The UK would still be able to contribute to the EU legislative process but would no longer be formally represented in the EU institutions and so would have a diminished role in the development of new EU laws relative to the EU member states.

More robust oversight and enforcement
EEA-EFTA state compliance is monitored by the EFTA Surveillance Authority and enforced by the EFTA Court. These bodies perform similar functions to those carried out by the European Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ) in relation to EU member state compliance. In fact, except for the important lack of a power to impose fines, the EFTA Court has similar enforcement powers to the ECJ.

Overall, the EEA Agreement has stronger mechanisms for enforcement than any standard free trade deal. It is therefore expected that enforcement of environmental standards would be more rigorous under a ‘Norway-style’ arrangement than under the current Brexit deal, which relies heavily on the robustness of the UK’s new domestic arrangements for securing compliance with environmental standards. As things stand, the UK government’s proposals for environmental governance reform fall considerably short of the effectiveness of current EU derived systems.

Potential gaps in coverage
Although most EU environmental legislation is incorporated into the EEA Agreement, there are some notable gaps, including the EU’s nature conservation rules (although there are strong arguments for adding them). This means that the EEA-EFTA states do not currently have to comply with the Birds Directive or the Habitats Directive, two key pieces of EU legislation that are considered to be the driving force for conservation across Europe. More than 100 species and 75 habitat types listed under these directives currently occur in the UK.

There is a risk that we could see a  roll-back of the protections these directives currently provide if they are not covered by the EU-UK future relationship. At the very least, there is a risk that future governments across the UK might opt for greater flexibility on certain elements of this legislation, such as relaxing the protection afforded to Natura 2000 sites or removing certain species from the lists requiring strict protection. In such a scenario, we could very quickly see damaging divergence across the four UK nations and between Ireland and Northern Ireland as well.

Of course, international biodiversity commitments, notably the Bern Convention, would continue to apply to the UK, but these do not offer anywhere near the same level of protection. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that numbers of certain key species are significantly higher and trends significantly more positive in countries covered by the EU’s nature legislation compared to those such as Norway that are merely bound by the Bern Convention.

Similarly for habitats, it has been argued that Norway’s protected area network does not sufficiently cover all relevant habitat types, with the proportion of Norway’s forests that are fully protected comparing unfavourably with  its closest EU neighbours (Sweden and Finland).

EU is likely to insist on safeguards for nature
Right from the start of the Brexit process, the EU has expressed a degree of concern that the UK might seek to undercut its social and environmental standards post-Brexit in an attempt to gain a competitive economic advantage. Given that the UK economy is over five times bigger than the combined size of the three EEA-EFTA economies, such concerns are unlikely to diminish in a scenario in which the UK seeks to negotiate continued access to the EU single market via a ‘Norway-style’ deal. The EU will also be keen to avoid a situation in which the UK is perceived to gain additional flexibility over the implementation of key environmental rules whilst also retaining the benefits associated with EU single market access.

In January 2018, the European Commission set out its initial thinking on this issue, signalling that nature conservation should be considered for inclusion in the list of key areas of environmental policy where it would be necessary to secure a ‘level playing field’ in the EU-UK future relationship. Then, in November 2018, the draft Withdrawal Agreement was endorsed by the European Council, committing the EU and the UK to maintaining existing levels of environmental protection in areas including nature and biodiversity conservation post-Brexit.

Although these commitments are contained within the Ireland/Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ and relate to non-regression, as opposed to regulatory alignment, their real significance is that they probably represent the baseline model for the treatment of environment and ‘level playing field’ issues that the EU is likely to accept under any form of future trade agreement with the UK. Indeed, the accompanying Political Declaration calls for a set of commitments in the future trade relationship that “build on” those in the Withdrawal Agreement.

As MPs debate these issues in the coming days, they should feel reasonably confident that a ‘Norway-style’ future relationship has the potential to deliver some significant environmental improvements over the current Brexit deal, including for nature.

Biodiversity loss is more than an environmental problem, it is a development, economic, social and moral issue

biodiversity smallThis post is by Professor Sir Robert T Watson FRS, strategic director of the Tyndall Centre and chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The IPBES recently published four landmark regional assessment reports of biodiversity (ie genes, species and ecosystems). There is one each for the Americas, Africa, Europe and Central Asia, and Asia and the Pacific, and an assessment of land degradation and restoration.  The findings of these assessments are based on thousands of scientific reports, as well as indigenous and local knowledge. They clearly demonstrate that biodiversity is as much a development, economic, social and moral issue as an environmental issue. Read more

Why George Monbiot is both right and wrong about ‘cold and alienating’ language

peat bog smallThis post also appears on the National Trust’s blog.

George Monbiot today wrote an excellent twitter thread criticising the ‘cold and alienating’ language we routinely use when talking about ‘the environment’. He specifically calls out a term we have been using at Green Alliance for several years: ‘Natural Infrastructure Schemes’. Monbiot argues that phrases like ‘our shared home’, ‘climate chaos’ and ‘wildlife’ should replace ‘the environment’, ‘climate change’ and ‘biodiversity’. Read more

How carbon cutting could be a viable new income source for farmers and land managers

peat smallAs we hit the hottest winter temperatures ever in the UK, it‘s clear that the imperative to tackle climate change is becoming ever more urgent. We need to look at every aspect of how our economy is run to find new ways to cut carbon and attention is now turning to the role that land use and farming can play. Read more

Natural England’s role will be essential post-Brexit

jurassic coast_chris parker via flickrThis post is by Andrew Sells, the outgoing chair of Natural England.

Natural England is an organisation that some thought – at various stages – was as endangered as some of the species we strive to protect. But as it prepares for life after the UK’s departure from the European Union, it has never been more important.

With my time at the helm now drawing to a close, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on five years as chair of Natural England and the future for conservation. Read more

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