Some businesses are born sustainable, some achieve sustainability and some have (or will need to have) sustainability thrust upon them. I don’t really mind how it happens as long as it does. Unless businesses decouple profit from harm caused to the environment, we are in serious trouble.The good news is that this message is hitting home in some Board rooms. Take Unilever, for example. Last year, they published the company’s Sustainable Living Plan which included a commitment to halve the environmental impact of its products while doubling sales over the next ten years. Chief Executive, Paul Polman, has said that “there was no conflict between sustainable consumption and business growth”. He goes further to say that he’s “not interested in whether [the plan] brings competitive advantage. This is about long-term value creation. It’s the only way to do business in the long term”.How refreshing to hear this from the boss of one of the corporate giants.
We need corporate leaders to less interested in the short-term interests of shareholders and think about the long term investments required to put business on a more sustainable footing.
And sometimes, sectors need a little encouragement from governments. Progressive regulation, coupled with incentives will make it easier for businesses to do the right thing.
Take the minerals industries (sand, gravel, rock, coal, clay etc). Their operations cover over 70,000 ha of land in England alone. There is now a planning obligation to restore every site, with potential to contribute very significantly to several nature conservation objectives especially restoration of priority habitats.
We did a little work in 2006 to understand the potential for the industry to put back lost habitat. We concluded that 9 out of the 11 expansion targets for threatened habitats could be met and exceeded through quarry restoration. With support from Natural England, we have been working with the Mineral Products Association (MPA) and the operating companies to help them design and implement habitat restoration schemes. This industry recognises the potential it has to contribute to biodiversity contribution and is rightly proud of what it has achieved over a number of years. And, the fruits of their labours are now being realised: for example, 15% of the UK bittern population now breed on restored quarries – a percentage that is only likely to increase as restoration continues to deliver more reedbed. Oh and the RSPB has now taken on several quarries as nature reserves.
And this what our Stepping Up for Nature campaign is all about: governments focusing on the things that only it can do (policy, regulation and incentives), civil society playing its part while business doing more to step up as well.
Where do you think business should be doing more? Who are the leaders and who are the laggards?
It would be great to hear your views.
...Ban Ki-moon and what he said last week. Watch this. It is refreshing to hear the UN's Secretary General reinforce his commitment to sustainable development.
The UN has developed a pretty good plan to ensure that we look after the planet while we seek a way out of the economic mess we're in. The 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which were agreed at the Nagoya meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, include commitments to ensure that nature is taken into account in all decision-making.
And the UK signed up to this plan. More than that, Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, helped negotiate it.
The first four targets would be the first item on my list of essential reading for any Chancellor with a Budget to deliver in just six weeks time. And here they are...
Target 1By 2020, at the latest, people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably.Target 2By 2020, at the latest, biodiversity values have been integrated into national and local development and poverty reduction strategies and planning processes and are being incorporated into national accounting, as appropriate, and reporting systems.Target 3By 2020, at the latest, incentives, including subsidies, harmful to biodiversity are eliminated, phased out or reformed in order to minimize or avoid negative impacts, and positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity are developed and applied, consistent and in harmony with the Convention and other relevant international obligations, taking into account national socio economic conditions.Target 4By 2020, at the latest, Governments, business and stakeholders at all levels have taken steps to achieve or have implemented plans for sustainable production and consumption and have kept the impacts of use of natural resources well within safe ecological limits.
What do you think George Osborne should read as he prepares for his Budget next month?
My major criticism of Defra's Natural Environment White Paper last summer was that it lacked a convincing funding strategy. Yes, there is new money for Nature Improvement Areas, yes for improving our water bodies and yes there is an intent to make environmental stewardship schemes work harder for farmers and wildlife. All good stuff and genuinely welcome. But the sad reality is that this will be insufficient to reverse the fortunes of threatened wildlife. Remember, government's own figures have suggested the conservation finance shortfall currently stands at £275 million.
Given the state of the economy, it was (and remains) difficult to be too grumpy about the lack of significant new resources. But it is possible to be grumpy that Defra has yet to come up with a plan to show how it can leverage new resources to support nature conservation.
In 2010, we published a report outlining options for non-public finance. I think that it is time to explore these options with a sense of urgency. For example, we said that "businesses and civil society have a key role in addressing the biodiversity challenge. Innovative measures and the creation of partnerships can help to raise funds and deliver better conservation". Where is the plan to excite and engage the business community to support wildlife?
We've been here before, but for whatever reason, we have failed to forge a strategic and lasting relationship with the business community to tackle the biodiversity crisis.
We had a go in the early 1990s when the then Environment Secretary, John Gummer, launched the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. This was the then Conservative Government's response to the the Rio Earth Summit in part thanks to some effective chivvying from the NGOs (a gang of six under the umbrella of Biodiversity Challenge).
The old BAP (as it became fondly known) had at its heart a partnership between government, business and NGOs. The idea was simple. Government would fix places and habitats, NGOs would look after the most threatened species, while business would find the money, acting as corporate champions. So, ICI supported the Large Blue and Pearl-Bordered Fritillary, Tesco supported Skylark, the Co-op supported Bittern and Mileta Tog 24 (a Yorkshire clothing company) supported the Stag Beetle. And, together we achieved some great things. But, under the Labour administration, for whatever reason, it petered out.
I know that there have been a plethora of corporate tie-ups since then, but I think the strategic partnership which Mr Gummer conceived was compelling and could have worked. Our limited recent experience suggests that this approach may be worth another go. The relationship which we have forged with Famous Grouse (which led to the creation of Black Grouse Whisky and lots of money in support of black grouse conservation) suggests that if there is a good brand fit between business and the bit of biodiversity that you are trying to save, there could be great mutual benefits.
I don't have a plan. And, I don't think Defra does either. My point is that we probably need to get one.
Do you think businesses can and should do more to support nature conservation? Which species would you match with which brand?
It would be great to hear your views
I have a reputation, undeserved I would say, for leading my in-laws on unproductive wildlife forays. One such occasion involved my failure to find the promised red squirrels in monsoon conditions in Northumberland. The fruitless search became famiy legend in a song, the chorus of which begins 'Where do squirrels go in the pouring rain?'
This weekend, to top off a great half-term break, we celebrated my father-in-law's seventieth birthday. We were staying in Shap Wells Hotel in the Lake District to revive memories of philosophy weekends that he led during the 1970s and 1980s to which he took all his family.
The birthday weekend was a success. Whilst my my wife's family were able to reminisce, the kids and I explored the neighbouring woods, stream and moor. And on our doorstep we were 'guaranteed' red squirrels.
The weather on the first two days was mixed so we were forced into hasty retreat by rain, wind or sleet. No red squirrels to be seen.
But yesterday morning, the sun shone and sure enough, they came out to play. Nine of them. The boy even managed to take a photo of one scrambling up a tree. This was not exactly the most taxing of safaris, but the reward was great.
While I have yet to find out where squirrels go in the pouring rain, I did decide to remind myself of the conservation challenges faced by one our most loved mammals.
This, rather gloomy assessment comes from last year's state of Britain's mammals report from the People's Trust for Endangered Species...
"Red squirrels were historically widespread throughout Britain, but have suffered a dramatic decline of more than 50% over the last 50 years while expanding throughout Scotland. They were designated a UK BAP Priority Species in 1997. The main threat is the invasive grey squirrel, introduced to the UK in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Grey squirrels are able to digest acorns more successfully than red squirrels and out-compete reds for forage in woods where oak trees constitute more than 14% of the canopy. Additionally, greys are carriers of the squirrel poxvirus (SQPV), transmitted through direct contact and environmental contamination, which is lethal to reds.
Developing best practice survey and monitoring continues to be an important conservation action and a recent study showed that baited counts, compared with standard visual counts, increased detectability of squirrels. Extended durations of baiting could attract non-residents, so baited surveys should not be too long and also should be diffuse to avoid promoting disease transmission between squirrels.
Unlike SQPV, adenovirus is a naturally occurring enteric disease in red squirrels, albeit so far occurring at low levels, but localised outbreaks could be detrimental to fragile populations. The disease has so far been recorded in Merseyside, Anglesey, Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland.
Nowadays, Scotland contains more than 75% of the UK red squirrel population, although greys are absent from only parts of the red’s Scottish range – primarily in the Highlands (a grey squirrel was caught in Inverness in 2007 and, in 2010, one was killed on Skye). Probably reds will survive only in conifer patches in Scotland and a few other areas free of greys. A priority woodlands analysis in 2005, co-funded by PTES and others, aimed ato identify the major Scottish woodlands that may support red squirrel populations. Next came the Scottish Red Squirrel Action Plan and then the development of red squirrel strongholds by the Forestry Commision and SNH. In 2009 a total of 18 stronghold sites, plus the Isle of Arran, were identified as foci of red squirrel conservation. Elsewhere in the UK hope rests with islands (the Angelsey Red Squirrel Project and the Wight Squirrel Project). The first case of SQPV in Scotland was discovered in 2005 – so, in the continued absence of a vaccine, the omens for the red squirrel in the UK are bleak."
We're doing our bit for red squirrel conservation, particulalry as many of our Scottish reserves (for example at Abernethy) hold good populations of red squirrels. But, the PTES report is a timely reminder that, as with so many other threatened species in the UK, we all need to step up and do more if we want to reverse the declines.
If you have been away for the half-term, I hope you had a good break and bumped into some great wildlife. And if you've been working, well I hope the guest blogs from my international research colleagues brought you some escapism.
Let's get this on the record, I think the Angling Trust does a great job and I’m happy we work so closely with them on so many watery issues through the Blueprint for Water. But like most friends they do seem to have peculiar peccadilloes, and in the Angling Trust’s case its their single minded pursuit of the cormorant where we might fall out.
Of course, this bird eats fish. In fact, like some other species of bird – kingfishers and ospreys, to name but two – this bird likes eating fish so much, it eats them pretty much to the exclusion of all else. It won’t surprise you, then, to learn (if you didn’t know already) that, like the kingfisher and osprey, this bird is extremely good at fishing.
Unfortunately, unlike that of the kingfisher and osprey, the fishing prowess of this particular bird – the cormorant – is not universally admired. To a cormorant, an angling lake stocked full of fish is much like a bird table to a blue tit – a feast to be harvested. Understandably this can make the cormorant an unwelcome visitor to such fisheries, where income is reliant on the availability of catchable fish.
1,779 cormorants were particularly unwelcome in England in 2010. That’s how many were shot under licence that year to prevent serious damage to fisheries and inland waters. Does that number surprise you? Did you know that cormorants can be shot, legally, to protect the interests of fisheries?
They can. Acknowledging that these otherwise protected birds can, in some circumstances, cause serious damage to some fisheries, both European and domestic law permit the killing of cormorants provided certain conditions are met. To my mind, these conditions are perfectly reasonable – there must be a genuine problem to resolve, there must be no other satisfactory solution (to killing) available, killing must present an effective solution, and killing must not have an adverse effect on the conservation status of the species in question. In short, killing is an action of last resort, the justification of which can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.
In England, when it comes to cormorants, these principles of wildlife licensing are not applied as rigorously as we would like. In 2004, the evidence requirements were relaxed to such an extent that fishery managers need only demonstrate the presence of cormorants at a fishery to qualify as (potentially) suffering serious damage due to cormorants. This is a markedly different – i.e. decidedly more lenient – licensing approach to that adopted for other bird species in England (and the rest of the UK).
Isn’t it extraordinary, then, that there are calls to make it even easier to kill cormorants? This species has always been present inland in Britain – the increase in the inland population has in fact occurred over many years, reflecting a recovery from the effects of historical persecution (and, quite probably, the increase in attractive feeding sites stocked with fish!) As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, a review is underway in England of the licensing regime for fish-eating birds, including cormorants. We hope that in deciding the future of this native species, Defra takes heed of its own research, which found no case for large-scale control of this bird. Furthermore, it found that non-lethal approaches to reducing predation by cormorants, such as fish refuges, exist and are effective. When such sustainable, non-contentious measures are available, why should anyone reach for the gun?
While we will continue to defend the right and proper protection offered to the cormorant I hope we can continue to work with the Angling Trust on the things that really matter to rivers and fisheries like unsustainable abstraction drought and pollution.
What do you think?