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The 25 year plan for the environment –
time to think global

How does what we do at home impact on nature in other countries? In a global economy we increasingly rely on goods and services from overseas, which in turn depend on nature there. Any plan to protect and improve the environment will be flawed if it ignores this global dimension.

May 2016

Our economy, and human wellbeing, is underpinned by healthy, functioning ecosystems. And we need to start recognising, measuring and taking account of the input nature makes to economic activity and human wellbeing, incorporating it systematically into economic decision-making. We must understand our dependency and impact on natural capital.

But this is not just about the UK’s environment, crucial though that is. The services provided by nature that underpin our economy and wellbeing originate in other countries too. Consider timber imports, or the fish we consume; the soy imported for domestic animal feed, or palm oil in many food products; and the metals in our iPhones or the oil we import to power business and travel. Our dependence on nature reaches way beyond our own shores. The impact we have on the environment in consuming these goods and the waste we produce is also felt beyond our borders.

The Natural Capital Committee NCC has highlighted how England has been gradually transferring the degradation of its own natural assets to those abroad. It points out that taking account of the extent to which we deplete other countries’ natural capital can radically alter assessments of sustainable use.

Approximately one third of the biomass used by the UK comes from overseas. And, if import demand is unmitigated by increased domestic production and reduced waste, the UK’s overseas land use requirement is likely to almost double from the current 14 million ha to 26 million ha by 2030, and continue to increase thereafter. The NCC points out although UK territorial greenhouse gas emissions have been falling, ‘consumption’ related emissions (those including embedded carbon in imports) have actually increased. And an estimated 70% of the water consumed in the UK is ‘virtual’, embedded in imported goods. We are effectively exporting our impact.

So any consideration of natural capital assets must include those we depend on globally. In a global economy, British companies’ supply chains are at risk from impacts on natural capital overseas and England’s potential future wellbeing is eroded with the loss of global natural capital. Properly reflecting this international footprint in the 25 year plan will enable the Government to reduce damage to, and enhance the recovery of, nature everywhere.

The Government should include a strand of work within the 25 year plan to further develop metrics of international impact and associated policy responses. These could range from targeted international policies designed to protect the long-term functioning of the ecosystems vital to the UK’s national interest, e.g. through aid and technical assistance, to dialogues with other significant global consumers, procurement policies, supply chain standards and reporting, and policies promoting domestic resource efficiency.

Lucy Young

Science and Policy Adviser, WWF-UK

Find WWF-UK on Twitter @wwf_uk

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership