Martin Harper's blog

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • How laws can help save nature

    There are arguably three crises facing the planet: catastrophic climate change, rapid biodiversity loss and an increasing disconnection of people from nature.  

    I was thinking about our responses to these issues as I travelled to Manchester for my first stop of this year's party conference season*.  On twitter there was deluge of images of people participating in 2,000 marches around the world - including 40,000 people that took to the streets of London.   The events had been organised to urge global leaders to do whatever's necessary to deliver a fair and binding climate change deal - starting at the Climate Summit in New York this week.   

    While my commitments in Manchester meant I missed the London march (and I arrived too late for the one in Manchester!), I was delighted to join a discussion with the Wildlife Trusts and shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle MP, about what politicians need to do to drive nature's recovery and to help all of us have more contact with nature.  The case for action is clear: 60% of species (for which we have adequate data to detect a trend) have declined in my lifetime, one in ten are at risk of extinction, 65% of SSSIs in England are in unfavourable condition, a third of the ecosystems which provide humans with free services are degraded and only one in five children have adequate contact with nature.

    This is why we have joined forces with the The Wildlife Trusts to call for a Nature and Wellbeing Act to be introduced after the General Election.  This would provide a framework for politicians at national and local level to play their part in turning round these appalling statistics.  

    But, we have understandably been challenged as to why we need legislation to deal with these problems.  Surely, some ask, we have enough laws and policies to turn things around if only we had the will?  Up to a point, this is correct - there are many obligations already in place (for example through existing wildlife laws or through planning policy) which could and should be partly sufficient.  Yet, it is at least a contestable point that we have had good cross-party ambition for nature conservation since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.  This paved the way for a new Convention on Biological Diversity which paved the way for the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which was launched by the then Environment Secreatry, John Gummer.  2010 commitments to halt biodiversity loss were set (and missed) and despite establishing a new Biodiversity Strategy for England, the current coalition Government was given a red card for its performance on nature conservation by last week's cross-party Environmental Audit Committee of MPs.

    My assessment of successive governments' failure to match ambition with action is that, firstly, Defra is too easily distracted by other issues (it is, after all, the department that has to deal with floods, plagues and pestilence), and secondly it does not have the support of other government departments or indeed local authorities.  This lack of support may be to do with a lack of resources or competing priorities rather than direct hostility, but it is pretty obvious we don't have joined up government action - how else could you explain the Ministry of Defence's decision to sell public land of high environmental value (SSSI) for housing at Lodge Hill in Kent?

    And this brings me back to climate change.  Here, we have legislation to establish carbon budgets for the whole of government and the government architecture to monitor and scrutinise progress objectively (through the Committee on Climate Change).  Not everybody likes it and some have been frustrated by the inconsistent signals that have emerged from government over the past few years about our desire to move to a low carbon economy.  But, this legislation continues to bite - forcing government to act in a more consistent and coherent manner while providing certainty to investors.  And, when Prime Minister David Cameron addresses the UN Summit next week he will be able to say that our climate legislation is leading the world reinforcing the UK's role as an environmental leader.  

    I do not think that the UK's trajectory to a low carbon future would have withstood the economic shock of 2008 and our response to it without the Climate Change Act.  

    We just have not seen the same determination to get to grips with what nature needs.  And this is why, I think new legislative to drive nature's recovery is essential. 

    A Nature and Wellbeing Act would provide certainty, coherency and consistency to landowners, developers, agencies, local authorities, Whitehall departments and civil society.  Together, not only can we tackle climate change but we can also drive nature's recovery - demonstrating that our species can live in harmony with the millions of species with which we share this planet.

    *The RSPB 2014 conference tour has already taken in the Greens and following Labour this week, we visit Birmingham for the Conservatives and end in Glasgow for the Liberal Democrats - and, of course, we'll be speaking up for nature at party conferences in each of the countries which take place later in the year.

  • Saving nature: why we still need heroes

    At the launch of Canvey Wick - branded as Britain's first reserve for bugs - I found myself reflecting on all the heroic deeds it takes to save a site for nature... 

    ...the expertise of local naturalists that identified the importance of the site

    ...the campaign led by Matt Shardlow, his Buglife team and the local community to protect the site from development

    ...the pioneering role of English Nature (now Natural England) staff in notifying the site as a SSSI

    ...the efforts of local councilors and local wildlife groups in harnessing community support before ownership was secured by the Land Trust and Buglife and RSPB took on shared responsibility for management.

    I was glad that Steve Backshall was there to cut the ribbon, show off some moths (if not his dancing skills) and engage a packed marquee about the wonders of the site - home to over 1500 invertebrates.

    So many special places for wildlife across the country have similar histories - wonderful places loved by local people, threatened by development, but saved due to heroic deeds. Places like Sydenham Hill Wood (over which my old flat in London looked), Rainham Marshes, and Oxleas Wood have, at various stages in their history, been contested land.  But, through determination, passion and smart campaigns these sites were saved.

    And as I wandered to the edge of Canvey Island with our site manager,  I couldn't help but think about the other side of the Thames and Lodge Hill in north Kent.  Another special site for wildlife and now under severe threat of development.  The good news is that over 7,000 people have now written to the Secretary of State Eric Pickles to urge him to 'call-in' the decision by Medway Council to approve outline planning for 5,000 houses on this SSSI.  The local campaign is growing and, if you have not done so already, please do join in here.

    Heroism comes in all shapes and sizes.  Modern nature conservation requires dedicated campaigners like the Friends of North Kent Marshes who have seen off two airport proposals.  We need figureheads like Steve Backshall to bring to life the wonders of the natural world and we need more people to do their bit - whether writing to politicians or joining the Climate March on Sunday.  The efforts add up.

    And finally, we need modern-day equivalents of Samuel Pepys - not diarists (or bloggers - there are enough of them) - but excellent administrators.  Pepys, famed for his diary, is less well known for helping to grow the British navy through his extraordinary administrative skills.  In this increasingly complex world where change seems a constant, we should be celebrating the heroic modern-day administrators who harness the skills of dedicated campaigners and grow the impact of the nature conservation community. 

  • Action on climate change: standing up for the things we love

    Nature conservationists, food and furniture retailers, Unions, tea makers, ramblers, food manufacturers, development groups...

    We all need a safe, stable climate to succeed in whatever we do, which is why such a diverse, high-profile grouping of organisations including ourselves have today  written to the Prime Minister calling on him to drive forward bold action on climate change at a critical summit next week. Given that he's quite busy at the moment, we even went to the length of placing the letter as an advert in the Times and Telegraph – just to make sure he sees it!

    The Prime Minister has rightly decided to attend next week's UN Climate Change Summit in New York.  He should take comfort from the fact that, despite media talk of deniers and sceptics, everywhere you look, the breadth of people and organisations backing serious and rapid action on climate change is broadening.

    This can be seen in another event today: the launch of a major report by The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (here) called ‘better growth, better climate’. The report was commissioned by a Commission of seven Governments, including that of the UK, and is the work of an unprecedented range of reputable and influential economists, politicians, and institutions. 

    The Commission argue that the world has a choice. Not between taking action on climate change or not, but between alternative pathways: one that will exacerbate risks to the climate and our environment and another that reduces it.  Neither pathway is free.

    Continuing as we are – developing at the expense of an ever more unstable climate and degraded environment – will cost  $90 trillion of infrastructure spending over 15 years anyway. A sustainable pathway, which keeps climate change to within safe levels and reduces air pollution and protects the natural environment costs $94 trillion. A 4.5% increase in infrastructure costs to save the world sounds like a great deal to me.

    This is what the Commission refers to as “better growth”; rather than the myopic pursuit of maximum growth.  They argue that countries should be pursuing growth that is inclusive; builds resilience; strengthens local communities; improves the quality of life in a variety of ways, from local air quality to commuting times; and sustains the natural environment. This is a message that we and many others have been giving to Treasury for many years, but it has largely fallen on deaf ears. I hope this report will help change that.  There are many that I hope will hear the message, including the new European President Juncker.

    The Commission also put forward a ‘ten point global action plan’. You can read them all for yourselves, but I will draw out three that are as urgent as they are common sense.

    1) A strong, lasting and equitable climate agreement

    This was of course meant to be delivered in Copenhagen in 2009, and it’s easy to allow the vast political failure that occurred at this summit to jaundice your view of the chances of this every happening. Don’t let it though, because things have changed radically. Politically, China and the US are now taking decisive action, for example, and economically we have seen renewable energy grow and grow as prices for solar and wind in particular have plummeted. What’s more, support for climate action is growing across businesses and society – as our today’s letter to the PM shows.

    2) Halt the deforestation of natural forests by 2030

    Home to three quarters of all terrestrial plants and animals, yet we are still losing 13 million hectares each year, driving climate change as well as biodiversity loss. We urgently need funding from countries like the UK to start flowing into forest projects across the world if we are to halt deforestation.

    3) Accelerate the shift away from polluting coal power generation

    Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and there are no excuses for allowing new coal power stations when so many alternatives exist. The Commission’s recommendation that high-income countries commit to an end to new unabated coal generation and accelerate retirement of existing capacity is a no-brainer.

    I hope that the report is a timely reminder of the benefits of taking action on climate change and will, in the run up to next week's UN Summit in New York, trigger a political response commensurate with the scale of the climate change challenge.