Improving the environment. Sounds great, what’s not to like? Leave it in a better state than we found it: that’s a good ethos. Political momentum for action is growing as decision makers recognise the worrying trends in the essential goods and services nature has always provided us. For example, soil supports food production as well as storing water and carbon, but it has been estimated that the costs of soil degradation in England and Wales amount to £1.2bn per year.
The government has committed to developing a long-term plan for nature. Originally due to be published by the end of the year, the plan is now one of the many policy initiatives impacted by the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and its scope will be widened to reflect the need to develop an environmental policy framework for the UK outside of the EU.
So how can we ensure the 25 year plan for nature is a success? Two possible answers are through its language, and how we find the resources to pay for it.
Getting the message right
Our environment’s attractiveness is down to its incredible variety. But this brings with it multiple issues and experts, all with their own languages and visions. This can be a barrier to forming the simple and solid messages that enable political leadership.
‘Ecosystem services’ work connects natural and social scientists. ‘Natural capital’ connects them to business and finance’s concepts of productivity and returns on investments. But these terms do not connect with voters. ‘Restoration’ motivates naturalists fighting the ongoing destruction of wildlife, but threatens those for whom it implies technological backtracking. This is not a language with which politicians will convince the public.
The 25 year plan needs to do two things to communicate effectively.
- Keep it simple: We have the environment we have. We need to make it better. Doing so epitomises Theresa May’s vision of a country that works for everyone.
- Have confidence: We know what to do and how to do it efficiently. For those who want to delve into the detailed evidence, the Natural Capital Committee’s reports (and more) await.
So how will it be delivered? With what money? It’s not a question of new money being squeezed from the public. In fact the best options are ones that can save money, and crucially also help adapt to climate change.
The key example of this is water management. There are plenty of options to make better use of existing resources such as linking upland subsidies to reduced water pollution and flood risk, protecting farmland soils and reorganising coastal flood defences to save on costly maintenance. Examples range from large scale engineering projects like Medmerry on the Sussex coast, to Northern catchments like the land management interventions in Belford, Northumberland. Here flood water management within the farming landscape includes spillover ponds that act as sediment traps, at a fraction of the cost of expensive engineering to protect villages - benefiting both water bill payers by avoiding treatment costs, and farmers by retaining fertile silt on the land.
These and many other examples have been documented by the Natural Capital Committee. We already know these methods work for people and businesses that embrace them - including the many farmers that implement good practice. And they can work for the public finances if we recognise it is time to take resources away from activities that damage the environment. They need to become the norm.
While Brexit provides opportunities to reallocate these funds, we don’t need to wait for the exit to be organised to start taking action. The public have subsidised those who damage the environment, paying them to return further costs to us such as higher water bills to deal with pollution and the spiritual cost of impoverished nature. We can end this now.
Defra can make a start by integrating an objective to improve nature into food and farming policies, and linking it to climate risks and adaptation plans. But the mandate for wider actions needs to come from the very top – using the simple message that improving the environment is for everybody.
Ian Dickie is Director of the Aldersgate Group. He also serves as Director at environmental economics consultancy eftec where he manages studies on habitat banking and biodiversity finance for the European Commission and developing approaches for regional economic analysis of the marine environment for OSPAR.