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The Nature of Politics

There have been many environmental plans over the years and targets galore. They come, they go and nobody knows. If the Government is to make good its manifesto commitment to a year plan to restore nature, this plan needs to be different: it needs to change the nature of politics by elevating the politics of nature.

April 2016

ven a ripple in UK economic fortunes causes a furore. A percentage point shift in employment can change a Government’s fortunes; the Budget brings wall-to-wall news and analysis every year.

Why is it, then, that nature targets come and go unremarked?

It’s certainly not that no one cares. When the environment is on the agenda, the public is ardent in its green commitment. Air quality is big news in London, forming a key battleground for the Mayoral election. Huge numbers support wildlife charities: WWT has 200,000 members and the combined Wildlife and Countryside Link membership is in the millions.

But we’ve been missing biodiversity targets for years; flooding is increasing; and only a fifth of UK water bodies are in good condition. The Environmental Audit Committee published a scorecard in 2014, painting a clear picture of environmental jeopardy. Why isn’t this national news?

Part of the problem is that economics is the language of policy and the natural world doesn’t translate easily into economese. In fact, nature gives us many classic examples of market failure — where we make bad decisions because markets don’t value goods and services properly. Take climate change: if markets valued the damage that carbon emissions cause, then we would have stopped polluting years ago.

A new approach, called “natural capital accounting”, is trying to correct this problem by estimating the economic value of nature. It’s hard, because it’s quite contingent: a tree is more valuable to some people and in some situations. However, it’s clear that lots of nature is undervalued. The Natural Capital Committee concluded that there’s a good economic case for creating 100,000 hectares of wetland for the benefits it brings, from flood-alleviation to better water quality.

But counting the money is only half the trick. The other half is telling people about it. The economic results make such a splash because they’re reported regularly and publicly to Parliament.

For nature to do the same, we need targets and milestones for the long-term plan. But it’s just as important to report regularly and prominently on how we’re doing. Every year, alongside the Budget Statement, the Government should deliver a “Natural Wealth Statement”. Once we’ve accounted for monetary wealth, we should also account for our natural wealth.

This may seem like an abstract gesture alongside the practical “on the ground” components necessary for an effective 25 year environment plan, but it’s significant. As it stands, our environmental targets are afforded less attention than economic targets, despite being just as important a component of our wealth and wellbeing. Elevating the politics of nature and valuing nature properly will mean:

  • we can really hold Government to account for the state of the environment
  • all Government Departments will have a stake in meeting environmental targets
  • we can apportion responsibility to businesses too
  • we can “make the polluter pay” for depleting our natural wealth
  • and we can begin to reward businesses and landowners who manage the land well.

In weeks to come, this blog series will set out some real frontline steps for saving nature. But if the 25 year plan is going to last, it needs a strong and visible framework for targets and accountability, combined with a system for valuing nature in decision-making. We need a Natural Wealth Statement.

Richard Benwell

Member of Link's 25 Year Plan Group

Head of Government Affairs, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Find me on twitter at @RichardSBenwell

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