Yesterday, the Government published a new White Paper on the UK Overseas Territories. The first key test post Rio for the Government to demonstrate its intent to step up for nature.
The Overseas Territories are unique: British territory, mostly small islands, located far away in distant seas, but home to unique and threatened wildlife for which we have a responsibility. The Territories in the South Atlantic are home to over a third of the nesting population of one of the world’s most iconic group of birds, the albatross, whilst the British Indian Ocean Territory harbours the planet’s largest coral atoll.
Many of these species, which have evolved in isolation on their island homes, are now threatened with extinction. Indeed, the Territories hold over 85% of the threatened species for which the UK is responsible, and have more threatened bird species than the entire European continent. Sadly, extinctions in the Overseas Territories are not theoretical: the rare St Helena Olive Tree, which was specifically mentioned in the last Overseas Territories White Paper in 1999, went extinct as recently as 2004.
The White Paper was therefore an important test of how seriously the UK Government takes its responsibility and whether it would work to ensure a step-change in environmental progress.
In reality, the paper is strong on vision, with the environment placed as a UK Government priority ‘to be cherished’. It also confirms the very welcome recent decision that all UK Government Departments (including most importantly Defra and DECC) have a responsibility to the Overseas Territories in their policy areas. By announcing a new secondment programme between UK and Territory civil servants, this could be a real opportunity to increase the capacity of the very small Territory Governments.
Whilst the vision was good, the detail underneath it was sadly lacking. No detailed commitments on what would be delivered, by when, nor any new commitments on funding (the Overseas Territories received only £1.5m from Defra’s biodiversity conservation budget in 2010/11).
So the Paper doesn’t deliver a step change, and represents something of a missed opportunity - nowhere else could the UK Government save so many British species for so little investment. We’ll therefore be closely following the Government’s next steps to make sure that positive vision does result in positive action, and will keep you posted.
Have a read and let me know what you think.
The rationale for the RSPB's Stepping Up for Nature campaign is that we all have a part to play in meeting the target to halt biodiversity loss and begin its recovery by 2020. Governments focussing on those things that only governments can do (laws, incentives, penatlies etc), while business, civil society organisations and individuals stepping up to play their part as well. Post Rio+20, it is difficult to conclude that anything else will do.
Yesterday, two bits of news highlighted contrasting performances from two businesses.
A step forward
Three cheers for the Say No to Hunterston coalition for forcing the Peel Group to withdraw its application for a new coal-fired power station at Hunterston in Ayrshire. This is what my colleague Aedán Smith, who spearheaded the campaign for RSPB Scotland said:
“This is absolutely fantastic news. This unnecessary and hugely unpopular proposal would have completely destroyed part of a nationally important wildlife site and seriously undermined Scotland’s ambitions to be a world leader on climate change.
“Although it is disappointing that any developer would even consider such a damaging proposal, we are pleased that Peel have finally recognised the absurdity of these plans and made a sound decision that will save everybody the further time and expense of fighting them. Hopefully we can now focus on delivering the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions we urgently require instead of arguing about this outdated project.
“We would be happy to work with Peel and others to ensure that Scotland’s energy needs can be met through developing energy sustainably and in the right places, and the important wildlife of the Hunterston site can be safeguarded in future.”
A step backwards
You may have heard my colleague, Darren Moorcroft, on the Today Programme yesterday. Network Rail, which manages an estimated 20,000 miles of railway line, has come into conflict with the RSPB, local residents and even British Transport Police over the destruction of trackside vegetation which provides a home for an estimated 1.5 million birds’ nests. Although the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act protects all wild birds and their eggs and nests, Network Rail is potentially contravening the law by removing scrub and felling trees containing nests. The destruction of nests during the bird breeding season (March until August) is generally regarded as a criminal offence.
Our view is that although Network Rail has a vital role in protecting public health and safety and will doubtless have to remove trees occasionally, it also has a duty of care to local wildlife and residents. As a minimum, we expect Network Rail to comply with the law, but with such a vast estate it could do so much more. Creating wildlife habitat rather than destroying it by hiding behind health and safety would help nature to flourish and it would also go a long way towards establishing a better relationship with the estimated 20 million people who live within 500 metres of a railway line.
The common factor in both these examples is that local people have made a stand to put pressure on these businesses. People wanting more nature in their backyard. And that feels like the right ambition...
This week I am reflecting on Rio+20 and considering how we rise to some of the big challenges facing us and the natural world. I am not claiming to have all the answers but simply want to continue the debate. Today I consider the importance of winning hearts and minds.
I enjoyed the comment from Hesychast on yesterday's blog - arguing that we need to decide "when we need emotion to drive change and when what we really need are very, very cool heads". I imagine that it is the politician that keeps their head in the middle of a long night of negotiation that gets their way, but occasionally, raw emotion can win the day. No doubt, the Government has learnt from the scars they bear from recent rows over forests, planning and buzzards. These were issues which touched a nerve with people who care passionately about the natural environment.
The recent debate about the Natural Capital Committee is a good example of when to engage the head but to recognise the limitations with this approach. In yesterday's Independent for example, Terence Blacker argued that "putting a price on everything is no way to treat the countryside".
I think that the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) is undoubtedly a good thing and something the UK Government deserves great credit for having the foresight to create during trying economic times. One of today's great challenges, brilliantly articulated in the National Ecosystem Assessment, is how to get the most from our land and seas. To do that we need to be able to describe the whole array of benefits these assets can deliver. The NCC is therefore as much about natural science as it is about economics. It’s as much about understanding ecosystem stability, resilience and connectivity as it is about clean water to drink or crops to eat.
There is no presumption whatsoever that all benefits can be reduced to monetary benefits or that valuation will be the sole criteria for future decisions. Even economists recognise that there are some things in the natural world that cannot be expressed meaningfully in monetary terms. The existence value of species, for example. My guess is that most of the ten million people that support BirdLife International partners in 120 countries (including the RSPB in the UK) love nature and think that there is a moral imperative to look after it. They express this time and again through the generous support they give to our conservation efforts. We have, for example, raised millions to protect threatened species which most people will never see (such as albatrosses, endemic seabirds on Henderson island, vultures etc).
The whole rationale for understanding natural capital is because we currently overexploit it by undervaluing its importance to us. This failure is reducing current wellbeing and undermining prospects for achieving a tolerable future for our children. Understanding why natural capital is so vital, and finding systematic means to articulate that importance into decision making is a no-brainer. It helps to win the minds of decision-makers keen to improve our well-being.
As I argued yesterday, valuation on its own is not going to be a panacea to solve the biodiversity crisis. Politicians are brilliantly in touch with the electorate. We need more support for nature conservation and more people prepared to exercise their vote for nature. And that means we need to reach out differently to more people in new ways. But it also means we need to encourage more people to have contact with nature ideally from an early age. This is something that the RSPB is evangelical about. More young people having contact with nature means more young people being aware of what's going on around them, more young people wanting to find out more, becoming passionate about nature and wanting to fight to save it. When you have nature in your heart, you can be a powerful force for good.
How would you go about winning hearts and minds for nature conservation?
It would be great to hear your views.
This week I am reflecting on Rio+20 and considering how we rise to some of the big challenges facing us and the natural world. I am not claiming to have all the answers but simply want to continue the debate. I will argue that we need to do more to inject emotion into the debate, refresh the way we inspire people to take action, choose to fight the right battles but also get down to the brass-tacks of mainstreaming the environment in decision-making. It is to this rather dry topic that I turn to today.
I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It might have something to do with the fact that he once gave my little girl a cheery little wave outside Canterbury Cathedral. Or more likely because, when he intervenes politically (which is understandably a rare event), he speaks a lot of sense.
This weekend his forthcoming book was heavily trailed. In it, he takes issue with the idea that economic growth, defined as increasing production, is necessarily a good thing. He argues that this mindset creates new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. He says "By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things."
This is not as revolutionary as it first sounds. It has echoes of the 2005 definition of sustainable development (in Securing the Future) that argued that a sustainable economy was a means to an end (to create a healthy and just society that lived within environmental limits) rather than an end in its own right. This has to be right.
Which is why I was delighted that the UK Government rearticulated this definition in the National Planning Policy Framework published earlier this year. My worry is that attempts to apply the term in the real world have floundered and some might have given up bringing the concept to life. I think that it is time to reclaim and revitalise this term.
In the run up to Rio+20, the RSPB, in partnership with Green Alliance, published a series of essays on sustainable development - a term that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. I was also pleased to see that the Labour party also commissioned some new thinking to compete with that emerging from the Deputy Prime Minister. We need fresh ideas to help us rise to the crises of biodiversity loss, climate change and extreme poverty and turn the sustainable development dream into reality.
But some of the answers might be found in the nuts and bolts of decision-making. I recently dipped back into a publication which the RSPB produced a few years ago (Think Nature) which tried to indentify the key principles which would help us live within environmental limits. It was essentially a guide to influence policy making and decision-taking. Looking at these principles again today, they still seem relevant.
They are a little dry (sorry) but have a read and let me know what you think.
1. Environmental limits should be definedWhile it might be possible to quantify absolute limits for some things (such as the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases which would trigger catastrophic climate change) it is harder to quantify limits for others (such as how many bitterns do we want/need). But that simply provides a greater reason for politicians to make judgements on what limits they deem to be socially acceptable. This is why the RSPB continues to support a target-led approach to nature conservation and natural resource protection. These targets provide a focus for conservation, encourage scrutiny and ensure accountability. Defra seems to agree as it has some ambitious targets in its Natural Environment White Paper and England Biodiversity Strategy.
2. Living within environmental limits should be core to governmental strategyI don't really mind how its done, but public bodies and all parts of government need clear direction. They should be charged with living within environmental limits in the context of sustainable development. While there are merits in enshrining this in law in a consistent fashion, living within environmental limits requires more than a duty and will need to be complemented by the other tools and principles described below.
3. Decision-making should be informed by sound scienceI think that most of us would prefer politicians to govern by evidence rather than anecdote. Science matters, should be invested in and should inform policy making.
4. Policy making should be coherent and consistentsIncoherent and inconsistent government policies can confuse and disempower the public. Arguing for a low carbon economy on the one hand and then sanctioning the expansion of aviation capacity on the other (a trait of recent governments) does not send the right signals to business and individuals. Politicians should clearly communicate the scale of the challenge, and explain the nature of policy reform and behavioural change required to live within agreed targets.
5. Government should play a leadership role and demonstrate best practiceThe coalition Government was right to set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for each Whitehall department. We need a similarly diligent approach to meet or exceed their natural enviornment targets on their land estates.
6. Public participation should be core to decision-makingThis ought to be core to the Big Society ideology. Increased civic engagement and participation of environment stakeholders will help improve the quality, relevance and effectiveness of government policies and ensure that socio-environmental concerns are addressed alongside economic issues. An inclusive approach is likely to create more confidence in the policies and decisions, and in the institutions that develop and deliver them.
7. Monitoring progress should include indicators of wellbeingThere seems to be growing consensus that GDP is too crude a measure of prosperity. Alternative indicators of wellbeing, which assess whether we are living within environmental limits, should be adopted instead.
8. Scrutiny and accountability arrangements should have teethEvery government needs a constructive critic capable of giving truth to power (a bit like a prococious teenager). We need parliamentary select committees but these should be complemented by strong, independent champions of the environment to ensure transparency and accountability. If well resourced and properly mandated, these agencies can report on the state of the natural world, assess government performance; advise central government to influence change in policy and legislation; and act as a focus for public concern.
9. The true value of the natural environment should be assessed and taken into account when developing and implementing policiesYes, this does mean improving our understanding of the services that nature gives us, where possible improving our understanding of their value and reflecting these values in decision-making. This is why I am a fan of the Natural Capital Committee. I shall return to this soon. Valuation is unlikely to be a panacea, as it is impossible to put a price on everything that nature gives us (what price a redshank?), but it can certainly help.
10. Government should be prepared to intervene through fiscal, policy and legislative reformIt is an inconvenient truth that no environmental problem has ever been solved through voluntary means alone. Governments should be prepared to deploy the right mix of regulation and incentives. Without this, we will continue to bear the costs of greed and short-term thinking, and will increasingly suffer the impacts of failing to live within our environmental limits. I'd hope the Archbishop of Canterbury would at least agree with me on that one.
How do you think we should mainstream the environment in decision-making?
And so the world left Rio once again – this time leaving us all a little underwhelmend. In 1992, six major agreements came out of the Rio summit, three of which were legally binding: on climate change, biological diversity and desertification.
On this occasion, we have the "Future We Want", a 49 page document with a lot of words with at best, some baby steps towards saving the planet and, at worst, confirming a future we really didn't want.
This week, I thought I would reflect on Rio, what our response should be and highlight some of the major global challenges that need attention right now. I shall also consider what it now means for action here at home: for politicians, business, civil society organsiations like the RSPB and individuals. While the RSPB is underwhelmed by the conference, it has, as I expected, provided us all a chance to reflect on what we need to do to reinvigorate action to help us deliver the twin goals of sustainable development: a fair and just society that lives within environmental limits. It's just a shame that having reflected, politicians were unable to do anything about it.
My intention is to keep the debate going. 50,000 people descending on Rio for ten days was unlikely to ever fix the world’s major social and environmental challenges. But it would calamitous if people now went back to business as usual. The agreement has too few commitments and too many opportunities for nations to do nothing. This is just not good enough.
Politicians need to recognise the inadequacy of this agreement and think afresh about what we need to do to allow our species to live in harmony with nature.
So what did Rio achieve?
Today, I’ll focus on the substance of what was agreed and relate this back to what we, as part of BirdLife International, were seeking (which I highlighted here).
In summary, there are some positive words (for example in the biodiversity section or green economy below). But the final agreement is largely a text of recommitments rather than new commitments. There are a few new initiatives but these are largely to plug gaps in delays because ambitious agreement could not be reached.
The RSPB and Birdlife International wanted...
...a green economy in the context of sustainable development. We did not get this. The text says the green economy prescriptions should be underpinned by Rio principles (good); that corporations will be invited but not mandated (bad) to report on their environmental and social impact of their operations; that there should be “Urgent action” on unsustainable production and consumption (good), but gives no details or timetable on how this can be achieved (bad); integrating environmental factors into decision making should take place “where national circumstances and conditions allow" (awful); that we need for broader measures of progress to complement GDP and asks for UN statisticians to begin work on this issue (good but support from nations was weak); that there is a recommitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and subsidies that contribute to overfishing but the language is incredibly weak (bad). In addition to the text, Nick Clegg announced at the conference that UK will be the first country in the world to force major companies to measure their Carbon footprint (good). Alas Bristish businesses have reacted by calling for a cut in green taxes.
...better protection for our oceans. The ocean text is very weak, particularly because of the refusal to start negotiations on the implementing agreement for high seas biodiversity but also because the maximum sustainable yield paragraph is essentially just a re-commitment to the aim already agreed at WSSD in 2002. Instead of negotiating an implementing agreement to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that would address sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including effective safeguard for ecologically and biologically sensitive areas it looks like Rio+20 will pass the buck to UNCLOS to take forward.
...progress on agreeing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with biodiversity at their heart. The intention was to try to find a way to agree binding goals to replace the millennium development goals which expire in 2015. There is acceptance that having a clear statement of intent on social and environment crises is important. However, Rio failed to agree how SDGs would be set up. This should worry our Prime Minister, David Cameron, as he (with the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia) will be co-chairing a process to agree the post-2015 framework for international development.
...a framework for action. I think it is difficult to find anything in the document that fits the bill. If we want to drive change, then documents like the one agreed at Rio are woefully insufficient. But, we cannot expect mutli-lateral environmental agreements to save the world on their own. Action within countries, within grassroots communities and constituencies, and by businesses, civil society organisations, individuals and yes domestic governments count much more. And it is this that I shall turn to this tomorrow.
What did you think about what was agreed in Rio?