Doing More with Less for the Natural Environment in 2012

Yesterday the BES Policy Team attended ‘Natural Environment 2012’, a conference in central London to explore the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) and the actions that have taken place to implement this since its launch in 2011. Delegates were drawn from the NGO sector, academia, industry and Government and the interesting mix of stakeholders led to some useful discussion during the course of the day.

Past-President of the BES, Professor Sir John Lawton FRS, discussed the report he led on ‘Making Space for Nature’, which generated recommendations to ensure that England’s wildlife sites become ‘more, bigger, better and joined’. With the loss of 97% of England’s species-rich grasslands, to give one example of the environmental degradation highlighted by the report, it was clear to policy-makers on the report’s release that Professor Sir Lawton and colleagues’ call to action should be heeded.

Along with the National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), launched just over a year ago, which was presented at the conference by Professor Steve Albon, co-chair of the project, the Lawton Review was extremely influential in guiding the content of the NEWP. A recommendation for ‘Ecological Restoration Zones’ was translated into the twelve Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) announced recently. These are supported by £7.5 million from Government, plus a commitment to provide help by Government agencies.

Professor Albon discussed the follow-up to the NEA, so-called ‘NEA 2′, which is due to report in approximately 15-months’ time. The second phase of the project will aim to address significant challenges such as the need to know more about the less charismatic species underpinning the delivery of provisioning services; the interactions between multiple drivers on the delivery of provisioning services and the need to investigate the links between ecosystem services and wellbeing in greater depth. Understanding how changes in ecosystems, such as biodiversity loss, affect the delivery of ecosystem services is a major question that remains in ecological science. ‘NEA 2’ will also aim to enhance knowledge exchange, developing tools that can be used to disseminate the findings of the project to ensure that these are incorporated successfully into policy.

A major theme to emerge during the day, perhaps unsuprisingly, was the need to find ways to do more with less. At a time of economic austerity it is unrealistic to expect Government to spend millions on nature conservation, however desirable that might be for the environmental community, hence the relatively small amount dedicated to flagship programmes such as the NIAs. New ways need to be found to finance conservation, including leveraging funding from the private sector, exploring biodiversity offsetting and payments for ecosystem services. Speakers brought up reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2013, with discussions currently ongoing, as a major cause for uncertainty. Maintaining the natural environment relies to a great extent on funds from the Higher Level Stewardship scheme under Pillar 2 of the CAP as it currently stands. This might not be sustainable in the longer term and there is a risk that with a cut to this funding nature conservation schemes currently supported by this mechanism may not continue. Dr Peter Brotherton, Head of Biodiversity at Natural England, said that negotiators from the UK are concentrating hard on ensuring that Pillar 2 remains strong and robust, emphasising to the European Commission the importance of HLS funding to biodiversity if schemes are implemented properly.

Several ‘masterclasses’ run by industry representatives provided a glimpse of the work of businesses leading the way in environmental sustainability; from wind farm development, to ‘eco-towns’ and biodiversity offsetting. One presentation, on an eco-town development in Bicester, illustrated how water and energy use could be cut across a development in novel ways. For example, if the development receives planning permission and proceeds, 40% of the rainwater from side-roads will be collected and recycled to potable standards, whilst black water (sewage effluent) will be processed through a compact reed bed system to ‘better than river water quality’ before being discharged into local watercourses. Unfortunately there was very little time at the end of the session to discuss some of the potential negatives of the plans, the use of biomass for heating for example, or the diversion of organic waste from composting to heat through incineration, but it was interesting to hear from a company taking sustainability to the heart of its business.

Although Defra and Natural England, the Forestry Commission and Environment Agency were in evidence at the meeting, it was disappointing that HM Treasury was not represented. With the formation of the Natural Capital Committee, reporting directly to the Chancellor (and to which a member of the BES Council, Professor Rosie Hails, has been appointed) the Government is taking steps to ensure that actions in the NEWP move beyond the environment department. Yet it would be encouraging to see civil servants from the Treasury at meetings such as this, to send a signal that the powerhouse of Government policy-making is taking the need for environmental protection seriously.