Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be asked to give evidence to the Efra Select Committee on the Natural Environment White Paper. Lucky because I was representing 36 members of Wildlife and Countryside Link and their 8 million supporters. And lucky because I was sharing the panel with Pavan Sukhdev , the leading light in environmental economics and the driving force behind a seminal report published last year called the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity - or TEEB for short. He is a hugely impressive man and it was good to hear him explain how to capture the value of nature and invest in protecting a healthy natural environment.
My fellow witnesses were equally impressive, but perhaps not quite so well known - Peter Unwin from Defra, Ellie Robinson from the National Trust, Chris Knight from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Andrew Clarke from the National Farmers' Union. Yes, the benches were quite crowded.
The Committee, under the careful chairing of Anne McIntosh MP, probed well and encouraged a good debate. It was a departure from the normal, slightly confrontational format but it seemed to work well.
And yes, consensus did largely break out. There are many things to welcome in the NEWP: it has great ambition, sets an excellent framework for action over the next few years and includes some great initiatives, but the funding and delivery tools do not yet look sufficient.
We talked through these issues at length. And if at any time thoughts wandered, it was only over to Brussels where we were waiting to hear the announcement about the EU Budget.
My closing point was about our support for so-called Local Nature Partnerships which are designed to encourage local people to come together to take action for wildlife. I explained our worry that the timetable to apply for government funds to support these partnerships was too tight and would prevent the formation of new, creative coalitions necessary to deliver great things for nature. So, I was delighted when Peter Unwin announced that, yes, ministers agreed that timing was tight and so the deadline for applications would be extended until September. It is nice to know that Ministers do listen!
Finally, I encouraged the Committee to invite Peter or perhaps the Secretary of State to appear in a year's time to hear progress on implementation. Am confident of great things being achieved, but the Committee has an important scrutiny role to play and if we are not on track then it is right that the UK Government is encouraged to explain what it is going to do about it.
And that is the power and responsibility of the Select Committees.
Today President Barroso sits down with his college of Commissioners from the 27 Member States to decide how to spend roughly trillion euros of EU tax payers money between 2014-2020.
The sensible thing surely is to ensure that this money is spent on things that the EU has said that it wants to achieve and from which EU citizens will benefit – such as reversing biodiversity loss and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Given that the EU has set Member States a whole series of environmental targets – which we applaud – it follows, doesn’t it, that EU spending should reflect these priorities?
The current seven-year EU budget totals around €975 billion, or €139 billion per year. However, only around 10% of this amount is directly spent on climate measures, energy and resource efficiency and nature conservation.
Through the BirdLife International partnership, we have joined forces with other NGOs to call for smarter spending and intelligent investment.
Smarter spending would see at least 35% of the EU budget being used to tackle climate change and at least 15% being allocated to action to restore and protect biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Intelligent investment would see 50% of the EU budget allocated to those in sectors that underpin a green economy (i.e. renewable energies, energy efficiency, nature protection, agri-environment schemes etc..).
To illustrate the mismatch between ambition and spend, look at our friend, the Common Agriculture Policy. Currently only 5% of the CAP supports the environment (through incentives for wildlife friendly farming under Axis 2 of Pillar 2 – I know there is a lot of jargon). We would like to this to grow significantly – although rumours which have emerged over the past week have helped to lower our expectations.
Equally, the only pot of money dedicated to nature conservation - the aptly named LIFE programme - currently constitutes just 0.2% of the EU Budget. Given the emerging consensus (through things like the National Ecosystem Assessment) that investment in a healthy natural environment makes economic sense, it does not seem excessive for the LIFE programme to grow to 1% of the EU budget – with maybe €750 million dedicated to supporting the conservation of species and habitats of international importance.
Citizens across Europe appear to want change. A Eurobarometer poll from May 2011 shows that 89% of EU citizens agree that “EU funding should be allocated more to support environmentally friendly activities and developments”. What’s more, the Commission’s public consultation on the single EU fund for the environment LIFE+ from 2011 shows that 86% of respondents think there is a need for a specific EU financial instrument for environment and climate action and 55% want to see it increased.
With such strength of public support, surely this collective of Commissioners cannot fail to find smarter ways to spend a trillion? We’ll probably know the scale of their ambition by Thursday lunchtime.
There's a lot going on this week, so I shall be brief!
We entertain our Council at the Lodge tomorrow for one of our quarterly meetings. On Wednesday I will be giving evidence to the Efra Select Committee on behalf of Wildlife and Countryside Link. The focus is on the UK Government's Natural Environment White Paper. While I face my grilling, President Barroso et al will be deciding how to spend c3 trillion euros of European tax payers money. We expect negotiations to go on well into the night.
I shall try to highlight our hopes and expectations for the EU budget tomorrow.
Until then, enjoy the tennis and the sultry weather (assuming it's sultry where you are).
Maybe it's because of their location – out of sight, out of mind – but UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) are often overlooked. Thirty-three bird species on UKOTs are threatened with extinction – that's more than on the entire European continent – so I don't need to tell you how important they are.Henderson Island is in the deepest depths of the South Pacific. It's a hotbed of biodiversity and has wildlife that's found nowhere else on Earth. It's one of the 14 UK Overseas Territories, meaning us lot over here are responsible for it.
For a long time now there's been a big problem blighting Henderson Island and all of its flora and fauna. Typically it's a problem caused by us humans (aren't they always?) and that problem is rats.
Since they were introduced by Polynesian settlers the rats have been tucking into whatever wildlife they can get their teeth into. Their favourite meal, it seems, is petrel chicks, including the endemic Henderson petrel. The little blighters feast on the chicks soon after they've hatched, and as rat numbers have dramatically increased, petrel numbers have plummeted, dropping from millions of pairs 800 years ago to just 40,000 now.
Picture credit: Richard Cuthbert
An eradication programme to rid the island of its rats and save the wildlife on Henderson has been mooted for a while now. Huge costs and complicated logistics were the main barriers, but we've been working hard to find solutions. Today I'm happy to be able to say it's going to happen this summer. In fact, the boat has already set sail!
Thanks to a unique international partnership and a generous contribution from the UK Government (Henderson Island is the UK's responsibility, after all, remember) we've been able to stop talking about it and start doing it.
This project has been close to heart of the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, who announced funding for this project at Nagoya last year. She is continuing to support it, saying today: “Defra’s support for this important project proves our determination to protect endangered species, no matter where they are in the world. People introduced the rats which are threatening the survival of the Henderson petrel and now we’re trying to make amends before it’s too late.”
Sharing one set of equipment, two helicopters, a wealth of technical knowledge and an eager group of experts, the partnership will complete a three-island restoration project, covering 27,000km and reaching Henderson in August. Colleagues are referring to it as a 'voyage of conservation' – and I think that sums it up perfectly!
Once the rats are gone, we expect petrel numbers to increase quickly. But excitingly, it's not just the Henderson petrel that will benefit. This is a full-scale island restoration and the whole ecosystem will be altered for the better.Invertebrates, marine turtles and other birds that were either threatened by the rats or competed with them for food will begin to prosper once more. Plants and flowers – some of which can only be found on Henderson - will flourish with all the extra bird poo around to act as a fertiliser!What's even more exciting is the prospect of what we might uncover following the removal of the rodents and after the island has begun to regenerate. I’ve heard noises about the possibility of discovering stuff we didn't even know existed on Henderson. But we'll have to wait and see about that.
In the meantime we can look to two islands that went through the restoration process around 14 years ago – Oeno and Ducie. Like Henderson, their petrel numbers were dwindling. Just a handful of the birds were circling above while the rats below enjoyed tasty chick morsels on a far too regular basis. Now, though, it’s a different story. Find yourself lucky enough to be in one of these places, raise your eyes up and you'll be greeted by the sight of thousands of birds turning the skies black. The sight of success. I hope the skies turn black above Henderson again one day, too.
Am sitting in my top room in a balmy Cambridge reflecting on a glorious end to a working week and preparing for an important week ahead. President Barroso meets his college of Commissioners on Wednesday to discuss the draft EU Budget. We'll probably know sometime on Thursday just how much of the 970 billion euros will be spent on wildlife. We'll be paying particular attention to plans for the future Common Agriculture Policy and the budget for wildlife friendly farming. But we're also keen to see the only dedicated fund for biodiversity - the aptly named Life programme - dramatically increased from the paltry 300 million euros. As soon as we get any news, I'll let you know.
But, before we move forward, here's a quick overview of my enjoyable Friday at Rainham with John Cruddas MP for Dagenham and Rainham. He was impressed by the work that we were doing in his constituency and seemed thrilled to see young people from the local schools getting their hands dirty while on a field trip. He also seems to be responding well to one of my jokes, or perhaps he was just overjoyed not to be spending another day on the backbenches in the House...
Jackie Doyle-Price, MP for Thurrock, was also on site and joined many other MPs across the UK as part of a festival of field teaching. The visits were part of a drive by the RSPB, Field Studies Council and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust to get every child outdoors. Nearly a quarter of a million children and young people benefit annually from the facilities offered by the partnership, but much more can be done.
We're calling on government to enable every child to have regular contact with the natural environment: through the school curriculum, by supporting teachers through their training and, despite funding difficulties, by making schools aware of the opportunities to spend dedicated funding for underprivileged children on outdoor learning.
But, enough looking back. Here's to some good news this week...