Economic growth’s collateral damage

Katie-Jo Luxton bemoans the loss of our biodiversity hard drive

“Does it really matter if lapwings go extinct in Wales?” someone once asked following a presentation on the failure of agri-environment schemes to halt declines in wild bird populations in Wales. There has been more than an 80 per cent decline in the last twenty years.

Lapwings are part of the landscape of my upbringing and I feel deeply saddened by their disappearance from most parts of rural Wales. My children will not grow up, as I did, inspired by the graceful flight of these beautiful creatures, or write poems about their clever strategies against predators. I feel both a cultural loss and a sense of failure in our moral duty, as a nation, to protect our wildlife.

Of course, the wider answer to the question is that biodiversity represents the natural wealth of our planet and provides the basis for all life, including the prosperity of our existence. The alarming decline of our biodiversity has been likened to wiping nature’s hard drive, even before we know what data it contains.

It would appear there is an intention to address the problem. We have more than a decade of commitments from every level of government – from the Rio Johannesburg World Summits of 1992 and 2002 to the meeting of the European Heads of State in Gothenburg in 2001. Meanwhile Wales launched its own Environment Strategy in 2006, which not only committed to halting biodiversity loss by 2010 but also to seek its recovery by 2026.

But this year, when we should have been celebrating, not only have these commitments failed to produce anywhere near the action needed to halt biodiversity, the dream itself seems to be lost. Like all other countries, Wales has not only failed to reach its target but has also failed to lessen the decline of most species placed on the biodiversity action list.

So why has it been so hard to halt the decline in wildlife? It boils down to the simple fact that the exploitation of our natural world – the land, water, air, and mineral resources – is part of our economic rationale. Wildlife is the collateral damage. We are living as though there is no limit to our resources, when in fact the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.

One example, which has cost our wallets and lapwings dear, is agricultural subsidies. These have driven intensification and specialisation of our farmland to produce more and more food from even the most marginal land. Only a few years ago these subsidies paid our farmers to ‘improve land’, meaning to drain and fertilise it, without thought for the value of the hills and blanket bogs as a sponge, or the likelihood of flooding down stream.

Our failure to factor the wider public goods and environmental services provided by habitats into the economic equation has cost us. We have paid for the food the Welsh mountains have produced three times over – in the supermarket, through taxes that paid the subsidy, and through water rates to clean the water rushing off the mountain unfiltered and full of suspended soil. Moreover, our hill farmers have been left with depleted land dependant on subsidies, our water resources are increasingly precarious, and the public finds it harder to understand or engage with the systems that produce and control food.

The need to work with nature rather than against it was the rationale for the duty to promote sustainable development that was placed within the founding legislation of the National Assembly. However, we are far from living within the capacity of our ecosystems. Birds, such as lapwing, are quite literally the canaries in the coalmine, indicating all is not well with the environmental systems underpinning our society. We have continued with the same economic model, which has failed to account for many of the services nature provides and has depleted and degraded these services.

Now a major new study being published this summer, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, based on the thinking of leading economist Pavan Sukdev, is aiming to do for biodiversity what the Stern report did for climate change ( The Welsh Government has also made tentative steps to address the perversities of our agricultural subsidies and it is hoped that Glastir, the new better-funded, agri-environment scheme, will help fund a more focused suite of wildlife measures.

However, all this could be too little too late, certainly for birds like the lapwing, which now only breed on a handful of sites outside nature reserves. For even despite more than doubling the resources available to the Glastir scheme, the investment is still small in governmental terms. At £90 million a year, it is still less than a third of the overall farm subsidy coming to Wales.

To halt biodiversity loss we need to tackle the root cause of the problem. Rather than seeing the environment as an ‘add-on’, to be managed after the real business, we need to invest in our natural world and use it to drive economic regeneration. The Welsh Government should test this approach in areas that are facing the greatest challenges caused by the failure of our current economic model. It needs to find ways to harness and align its existing resources from all sectors. Investing in high quality management of our protected landscapes to create a ‘green infrastructure’. We should improve the quality of upland bogs and lowland flood lands to retain water, and provide improved visitor access and engagement so that people can enjoy wildlife as part of a healthy, high quality life.

The Welsh Government should pay for this new approach with receipts from wind farms on government land, and by extending the ‘polluter pays’ principle so that the biodiversity impacts of developments are fully captured.

Conservation charities are creating these ‘green infrastructures’ by working at a landscape scale, what RSPB Cymru calls ‘Futurescapes’ (see panel below on the Gwent Levels). They aim to create more resilient wildlife populations outside reserves and protected areas, in a more connected and restored landscape and ecosystem. They will make space for wildlife especially helping it to adapt to a changing climate. They will also help people to reconnect with nature, boost our quality of life and offer rewarding, highly skilled jobs in the environmental management sector.

Gwent Levels Futurescape

The Gwent Levels are an extensive area of coastal floodplain, salt marsh and inter-tidal mudflats. For many years, they were seen primarily as flat land ripe for development. Yet the area is of huge importance to south Wales, particularly in regards to rare and special wildlife, water quality, flood risk management and quality of life.

Here there is enormous potential to create a Futurescape that local people can enjoy, which also supports sustainable farming and natural flood protection. This in turn will help species such as bittern, lapwing, water vole, and otter survive in the face of climate change.

A partnership between RSPB Cymru, the Countryside Council and Newport City Council has been working to protect and improve the Levels. So far this partnership working has enabled:

  • Creation of 153 hectares of lowland wet grassland.
  • Restoration 50 hectares of reedbed.
  • Construction of a £2.8m Environmental Education and Visitor Centre at the Newport Wetlands National Nature Reserve.
  • Creation of 60 volunteer opportunities at Newport Wetlands
  • Increased the number of visitors to Newport Wetlands from 18,000 to 59,000 – more than 7,000 school children visits to Newport Wetlands since 2008.
  • Defended of the Gwent Levels against development, including airstrips and the new M4.

Futurescapes can only work as partnerships between people and organisations, bringing the public, private and voluntary sectors together to pool resources. The shared aim is to create landscapes where people and nature co-exist to mutual benefit. This is the true meaning of sustainable development. We must strive to achieve it if we are to keep lapwings, our biodiversity and safeguard our children’s future.

Katie-Jo Luxton is the Director of RSPB Cymru.

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