Morgan Parry welcomes the Welsh Government’s sustainable development approach to environmental management
John Griffiths, the Environment and Sustainable Development Minister, has announced the Government’s intention to bring forward a new framework for environmental management known as Living Wales. This is based on the ecosystem approach, a way of integrating how we manage our land, water and living resources so that conservation and sustainable use provides benefits for everyone. A Green Paper will be published in the New Year.
It’s a move away from the small-scale, reductionist approach we’re used to, where water quality is controlled by this body here, woodland management is dealt with by that body over there, and wildlife conserved by this group over here. It is also a move towards an integrated process, taking many factors together on a larger canvas within a longer timescale. It’s the sustainable development approach to environmental management.
Of all the sustainable development indicators, our environmental quality measures are showing the most serious negative trends. Consequently, they demand the most attention from governments. With carbon and methane emissions continuing to rise, and our biodiversity in decline worldwide, the decisions and choices we make now really do matter. Through the 20th Century, the world increased its fossil fuel use by a factor of 12, and extracted 34 times more material resources. As a result, 60 per cent of the world’s major ecosystems that help produce these resources have been degraded or destroyed.
One Wales: One Planet, the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Development Scheme, acknowledges these trends and threats but we as a society haven’t begun to address them seriously. Our obsession with consumption and our addiction to fossil-fuel-based economic growth are serious obstacles to progress. But the Government’s vision provides a great opportunity for forward looking companies to make Wales their base and to lead the way with innovative technologies and business opportunities that reduce pressure on our environment.
But what does the ecosystem approach mean in practice? Is deregulation a part of the new framework, and should we weaken the protection afforded to designated sites and species? To some people, our existing conservation strategies are an impediment to sustainable development, and should be swept away.
I believe the opposite is true. Although regulation can be simplified, the reasons we need regulation remain as strong as ever. It is in the public interest that public goods such as natural resources are not over-exploited or degraded. Society expects governments and their agencies to play that protecting role, and industry and other stakeholders accept it, providing the rules and regulations are fair and proportionate.
To that end, the Government is proposing to create a single environment body from the Forestry Commission, Countryside Council for Wales and Environment Agency Wales. A new body would bring the management of all our natural resources under one roof for the first time, and would enable a more holistic, integrated and streamlined approach. Ecosystem services such as flood prevention, carbon storage, soil protection, access and recreation cross boundaries of landscape and habitat type. There is no case at all for excluding forestry. Indeed, the expertise of the Forestry Commission in sustainable resource management and their commercial nous are necessary components if the new body is to succeed.
This would be the very first public institution to be created in Wales that has legal powers vested in it by our own Government. It will only come into being following a public consultation in the spring and if the Minister determines that it should. But I believe it is highly desirable, politically opportune and historically inevitable, as devolution leads us towards national institutions that are created in our own image. Add to that the changing landscape of environmental challenges and the different policy agendas evident in England and Wales, and we have a once-in a generation opportunity to get it right.
Characterising the new body as the Environment Service for Wales would change perceptions about the role of environmental regulators and managers. It will need a presence right around Wales, on the ground, close to and listening to communities, working with business and partners.
It should become as important to the people of Wales as our National Health Service. It would provide a full range of opportunities and resources, and safeguard the historical and cultural assets we value individually, as communities and as a nation.
And it is the quality of our environment that engages people and engenders positive action. It’s not just about resources. We should not be afraid to use the words beauty, wonder, inspiration, peace and solitude when describing our nature and our landscapes, since these are what people value most and therefore what people want and expect us to preserve.
But we also have to recognise that with the world population heading towards 9 billion and demands for food, energy and resources set to increase by 70 per cent by 2050, we need to get the most we can from our ecosystems. But rather than maximising exploitation, the objective should be to optimise the benefits while minimising negative impacts.
We humans are after all entirely dependent on ecosystems, not the other way round. We have built our amazing civilisation on the services that earth’s ecosystems provide. But if the human species disappeared from planet earth tomorrow, the biosphere (after a brief sigh of relief) would continue as if nothing had happened.