What next?

Dartmoor. Photo, Ross Hoddinnott/2020Vision

What does a new Government mean for our environment's uncertain future?
Kestrel with pollution

Kestrel Falco tinnunculus An adult in flight in front of an urban landscape Elmley Marshes RSPB Reserve, Kent, UK - Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

You know something’s amiss when warnings that the environment is in dire trouble, and that humanity and civilisation are under serious threat, are so widely accepted that they aren’t really news anymore.  Whether it’s last week’s research showing that current global temperature change is unparalleled by anything over the past two thousand years, or the previous week’s report about the drastic decline in insects across much of Russia, the evidence just keeps on coming.  As I was writing this piece, we clocked the hottest UK temperature since records began.  What’ll be the shock story next week? Rivers, rainforests, coral reefs?

Scientists have just warned that the next 18 months will be crucial if we are to avoid the Earth being “fatally wounded” by climate change.  An equally urgent message came from the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in May, that we are losing biodiversity faster than ever, and calling for “transformative change” if we are to avoid eroding the very foundations of our livelihoods.

Networking 

The last government was starting to take some steps to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, the two great crises of our time.  In June Theresa May committed the UK to becoming carbon neutral, albeit in over 30 years’ time.  And Michael Gove’s swansong as Environment Secretary last week gave plenty of hints towards an exciting new green direction, including mention of an ambitious Environment Act.  Central to this was a commitment to create a Nature Recovery Network, and a duty on Local Authorities to deliver it.

What exactly is a Nature Recovery Network?  In essence it’s very simple: we make a plan to show how our depleted and fragmented areas of wildlife habitat can grow, join together and reconnect that web of living green that once interwove everything from the Lizard to the low counties of East Anglia and beyond.  Its fabric is woods, meadows, heathlands, bogs, field margins full of wildflowers.  And its green thread permeates cities, farmland, uplands, river corridors and coasts.  It doesn’t mean turning the UK into one giant nature reserve, but it does mean most of us would live pretty close to an area of wildlife richness.  And the concept applies equally in our surrounding seas.

That might all sound very motherhood and apple pie.  What makes this different is some key words - plan, duty and funding.  Planning the Nature Recovery Network means mapping and understanding all the existing wildlife habitat out there, a huge job in itself.  We have to assess methodically where the best opportunities are for expanding existing areas and restoring damaged habitat.  And we must look critically at the greatest opportunities for re-creating habitat, because simply preserving and restoring what we’ve got won’t do in most of the UK’s nature depleted landscape.  As if that’s not enough, this needs to happen at every scale, from the national to the very local.  These plans, and accompanying maps, will need to be central to decision making from now on.

Things get difficult

And this is where it starts to get difficult.  Nature recovery will rub up against pressures to maximise production from farmland and build new infrastructure.  Making sure nature comes out on top will mean taking difficult decisions about priorities, requiring developers and others to work harder to make sure their plans accommodate more room for nature. It will need a firm duty on decision making authorities at every level.

There are some easy wins. Take peatlands.  These are among our most nature rich landscapes as well as our greatest stores of carbon and our most effective natural water purification and flood control systems.  In Dartmoor we have some of the most southerly upland peat bogs in Europe.  They are vulnerable though, and huge areas of peatlands are degraded every year.  Sizeable portions of carbon (as much as 20 mega tonnes) released as a result, not to mention the losses to wildlife.  A report from the Office of National Statistics put the cost of repairing the UK’s peat bogs at £8-22 billion over the next 100 years.  That’s a pretty big sum.  But the predicted savings in terms of carbon emissions would be £109 billion. And if you factor in the benefits from increased health and reducing air pollution you add millions more.  So putting a stop to subsidising this destruction with public funds is a no-brainer.

But it’s not always that simple. Professor Chris Evans of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology argues that half of the emissions come from peatlands in the most agriculturally productive lowlands.  Restoring peatland here will come into direct conflict with modern farming.  And this is where it gets really tough.  In our market driven economy, it’s always tempting to value the certainty of a profit for a specific individual or business more highly than the mere possibility of a larger benefit, that doesn’t manifest itself clearly in pounds sterling, experienced over a much longer timeline and felt by society as a whole.

This is where funding becomes critical.  It’s not just about giving grants as incentives for wildlife or carbon friendly land management, important though they are.  It means rethinking whole market mechanisms, so that green goods can be recognised by those who deliver them for the public good.  We need green finance, and “patient” capital, as the payback on these benefits can be very long term.

The challenges ahead are massive, all the more so as the prospect of a no deal Brexit becomes ever more likely, ripping the carpet from under 80% of our environmental laws and the protections they afford.  From the quality of air in cities to the state of our butterflies, from vehicle emissions to collapsing fish stocks, wherever you look, the signs of increasing pressure on the natural world are there for all to see.  But tackling many of these will require brave and controversial choices. It will require more than fine words, high level ambition, distant targets and a spirit of optimism, welcome though all of these are.  It will mean detail, meticulous reporting, being unequivocally fact-driven and avoiding the easy short-term compromise.  It will mean radically rethinking our priorities and the way we value goods.

Time to wake up

On a sleepless, sultry night last week I lay awake watching the sky illuminate in dazzling forked lightening and feeling the windows shudder with the thunder cracks, as pulses of rain emptied like buckets of pebbles on our skylights.  This was the atmosphere’s response to two very different air masses colliding, and the twisting turbulence that ensues as they battle it out over a colossal front stretching eight miles high and hundreds of miles across.  I couldn’t help thinking about the analogy with our political situation and the environmental crises we face, the huge shifts lurching across our society, and the unpredictable implications in the coming months and years. 

This is a huge moment of truth for the new government.  They could be the team to listen properly to the science, hear the concerns of the public, take forward the good work done by some of their predecessors, and deliver a plan to put climate action and nature’s recovery at the heart of policy making.  Or they could prove to be the one that missed that chance, putting short term economic gain and populist rhetoric first.  Only time will tell.

But for those of us who care – and it’s more of us all the time – we need to remind our leaders why this matters so much, and what we want to see them do.  This is make or break time for our natural world, and we are the generation in the driving seat.  So please write to your MP and tell them to hold firm on the commitment to tackle our climate crisis and restore our natural world.  We need that ambitious Environment Act, we need a nature recovery network, and we need to it be a legal requirement.  And we need all of this right now.  

For more ideas on how to support The Wildlife Trusts' Wilder Future campaign visit here