Yesterday morning we heard the Chancellor give his autumn budget statement. I don’t imagine many of us were expecting a lot of good news. What we were not expecting was a whole swathe of measures designed to emasculate years of carefully thought through and hard won environmental safeguards. Among the most alarming were a significant weakening of the carbon tax on the most polluting industries, and a promise to review the laws that protect our most precious wildlife habitats and rarest species. In comparison to this, the announcement of no fewer than twenty major road building schemes, and all the havoc they will inevitably wreak to local wildlife sites across the country, seems relatively minor.
As Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent with the Guardian starkly put it: “George Osborne’s message was clear – where green goals are in conflict with economic concerns, business interests will win.”
This comes at the end of a bleak year for the environment. First we had the proposed sell off of the state’s forests. Then the proposals to tear up much of the planning system. And less than a fortnight ago, the sudden back peddling on protecting marine wildlife. What we are witnessing is nothing short of an assault by government on the environment.
It is tempting to believe that decisions like this are driven by immediate necessity. In desperate financial circumstances, surely jobs should come first? In reality, George Osborne had a choice of options, and he appears to have chosen those that please particular groups – those that see environmental legislation as no more than an annoying hindrance or bureaucratic meddling from Brussels.
It didn’t take much time for the government to realise that there was no real saving to be made by selling off the state forest. The planning system may be frustrating but, despite what some commentators claim, only a small proportion of developments are actually stopped by it, and even fewer by wildlife protection laws. In the few, often high profile cases where environmental and business interest really do clash, it is refreshing to know that there are still some places that are just too special to destroy.
The most worrying thing about all this is not the specific proposals themselves, which will hopefully be short lived or never come to be, provided we make enough noise. It is the justification that is being given for them. Most political decisions are underpinned by a narrative – a set of beliefs that convert the hard, dry world of policy into something more emotionally engaging. Since the late 1980s, the narrative on the environment and development has revolved around the challenge of how we can find ways to increase our quality of life whilst staying within the planet’s natural limits – albeit with plenty of disagreement as to what those limits are and what quality of life actually means. Naively or not, mainstream politicians have argued that we can get wealthier, we just need to develop differently, more sympathetically and with fewer fossil fuels.
The Chancellor has taken a subtle, but hugely significant step to change that narrative. He has stated that environmental (and social) goals, however worthy or important, can only be considered if they don’t hinder business. Which roughly translates as saying that there should be no limits on commercial activity, other than opportunity. Or if you prefer your messages short and blunt, greed is good. That’s talk which we haven’t heard openly from leading politicians for 25 years.
The most simplistic political messages are usually the easiest to sell, but they are also very often the most dangerous. The challenges we face are complex and require us to think about the long term implications of what we are doing now. The National Ecosystem Assessment, compiled by the government’s own advisers and published this autumn, looked at a number of different long term scenarios. They found that the scenarios that emphasised environmental awareness and ecological sustainability were the ones that led to the largest medium to long term economic gains. Exactly the opposite was found with the scenarios that favoured short term economic growth at the environment’s expense.
The good news is that this doesn’t all have to happen. At this stage the Chancellor is making noises, possibly seeing how much resistance is out there. We need to let him know there is plenty of resistance. We need to remind him, and the Prime Minister, of their pledge to make this the greenest government ever. We need to remind him of the massive benefits a high quality environment brings to society and the economy – £30 billion every year in terms of access to green space, £1.5 billion for providing clean drinking water, for example. That’s why forward thinking water companies like South West Water are investing in protecting natural rivers and wetlands – it pays great dividends.
The Chancellor’s statement may not have made the headlines on a day when the national strike eclipsed pretty much everything else. But it is, I honestly believe, a crunch point for those of us who care about the environment. And that’s a whole lot of us.
We expect to hear very soon about the review of wildlife policy and how the government intends to handle it. And as soon as we do, we’ll be letting you know. I’m hoping you’ll be supporting us just like you have done with marine wildlife. We can stop this!