Katie-jo Luxton says we are risking depriving our children and grandchildren of their natural heritage
We are used to thinking of Wales as a green and verdant country – our stunning landscapes a source of national pride. But in launching the State of Nature report in Wales in May, wildlife presenter Iolo Williams left us in no doubt of the devastating loss of wildlife in our land. In a passionate and at times angry address he described from personal experience the nature that has vanished in his lifetime from the places he loves (here). His appeal to the people of Wales was to take urgent steps to restore our wildlife or risk depriving our children and grandchildren of their natural heritage.
Twenty-five organisations pooled their respective expertise to put together the first ever State of Nature report – termed a “doomsday book” for nature by David Attenborough. It is a profoundly depressing read. Though there are some notable success stories where individual species and habitats have been brought back from the brink, the overwhelming message of the report is one of loss and degradation of the fabric of our nature. More than 3,000 UK species were assessed and two thirds are declining, a third of these rapidly. One in ten are at risk of extinction. Fundamentally, we have failed to tackle the underlying drivers and causes of biodiversity loss.
US Senator Gaylord Nelson famously declared “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment”, encapsulating the underpinning role that nature plays to all our social and economic activity. Healthy ecosystems provide a wide range of services that we largely take for granted. From land, fresh air, and clean water to nutrient cycling and pollination our daily lives are supported by the environment. New research is revealing just how important a role our natural environment plays in our physical and mental health as well as the shaping our children’s development – their ability to think creatively, concentrate and take good risks.
Economist Maynard Keynes had it right when he said that “the real difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, as escaping from the old ones”. Conventional economic models are predicated on a whole sector of environmental resources being provided for free, which means that the intensive consumption of our natural resources are not considered. This market failure leads to decisions that do not take into account the true value of our environment and nature to society. So, for example, a decision on whether land is more valuable as a park or as a car park, is made without the full set of information and nature repeatedly loses out.
A report commissioned for the UK Treasury’s Red Tape Review showed that for every £1 spent on protecting important wildlife sites, ecosystem services worth £8.60 are delivered to the public. And this value increases if the site is well managed.
Many of us share Iolo’s emotional engagement with nature and feel a moral duty towards our planet and its creatures. However, such abstract beliefs have not been adequate to protect our wildlife. To make progress towards halting biodiversity decline, conservationists need more than passion. We need to finding ways to value the ‘natural capital’ of our environment as the first step in being able to properly account for it. Pioneering efforts have been made across the world to put a robust value on biodiversity and understand the true cost of biodiversity decline, including:
- The National Ecosystem Assessment reviewed the range of services that nature provides and assessed their relative value to humans, beyond the intrinsic.
- The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report estimated the cost of not halting biodiversity loss will be 7 per cent of global GDP by 2050.
- The UN and World Bank have established the Beyond GDP initiative based on developing indicators that are as clear and appealing as GDP, but more inclusive of environmental and social aspects of progress.
These reports help to provide a strong business case for stewardship of nature. Increasingly, enlightened business leaders are making this case. The CBI 2012 report acknowledged that green growth contributed at least a third of all the growth in the British economy in the last two years. Defra’s Natural Capital Committee and Ecosystem Markets Task Force identified practical interventions for both Government and business to develop growth that benefits the environment and create new markets for environmental goods and services.
We must ensure that policies and incentives no longer actively encourage further degradation of the environment. We must invest public money in restoring our natural capital. For example, we should use Common Agriculture Policy subsidies to buy the currently non-market environmental goods from farms – such as stewardship of wildlife, water and carbon soils. Concurrently, we must work to create new markets and payments for ecosystem services that will financially reward the providers of these natural resources.
If we can create the markets, then the restoration of our natural environment could generate the economic boost that is so desperately needed. The Welsh Government’s forthcoming Environment and Planning Bills provide the opportunity to put in place the frameworks needed to secure net environmental gain from developments and restore our natural capital.
The real challenge at the heart of sustainable development is how we decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. If we can do this, then our wildlife will no longer be in decline. To make real progress on our national sustainable development aim, the key next step is to describe what a Welsh economy that operates within environmental limits could look like. To achieve this we will need best minds from academia, industry, government and civil society to work together. The curlews and cowslips will thank us, but so will our grandchildren.