Saturday, 21 October 2017

Climate change: and the Twenty-five-year Environment Plan from the Natural Capital Committee

The independent Natural Capital Committee has just released its much-anticipated 'Environment Plan' covering the next 25 years:
Natural Capital Committee advice on government’s 25 year environment plan - GOV.UK

Here's one take from a land-management point of view:

Twenty-five year Environment Plan

The Natural Capital Committee has reported its recommendations for a 25-year Environment Plan.  There are five key sections to this important report:
  1. Vision, ambition and goals
  2. Investment needs
  3. Milestones
  4. Governance
  5. Agricultural subsidies post-Brexit
Twelve goals are offered; these include:
  • Breathable air that achieves international standards;
  • Flood protection by various means including natural flood management to protect everybody against a 0.5% probability of flooding:
  • All inland water to be of good status, and coastal waters all to be good for bathing;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions conforming to international targets, including emissions from land-based activities
  • Access to local greenspace and open recreation for all.  The following goals are suggested:
    • One hectare of local nature reserve per 1,000 people;
    • Two hectares of natural greenspace within 300 m of every home;
    • A 20 ha greenspace within 2 km of every home
    • No suggestion is made that the effect of this has been modelled and compared with the current state of provision.
Turning to investments the report proposes 11 items and these include:
  • 250,000 ha of woodland by 2040;
  • All peat to be in favourable condition;
  • Restoration of hydrological cycles including channel restoration and natural flood management measures;
  • New National Parks (no suggestions as to where);
  • Farm funding to be limited to public goods and high welfare standards;
  • Working closely with Local Nature Partnerships;
  • Developer contributions via planning etc to be pooled for natural capital investment;
  • An enhanced capacity for citizen action and involvement;
  • Natural Capital Net Gain principle which would apply to planning, environmental regulation and public procurement wherever possible;
  • Despite being referred to as investments, none of these are funded or compared with the status quo.
Five year milestones are proposed, which need to be supported by a natural capital risk register; accounting measures; cost benefit appraisal approaches and natural capital balance sheets.  Pp 8 and 9 of the report make particular mention of the private sector in this respect but do not expand on this point.
It is proposed that there should be a State of the Environment Report by 2019 and that this should be updated regularly.  For governance the committee propose that the 25 year Environment Plan should be placed on a statutory footing under the authority of a single organisation, with a separate independent body on the lines of the National Audit Office to report regularly on progress.
The final section is concerned with agricultural policy and is perhaps the vaguest part of the report.  Much is made of the examples of market orientated projects like South West Water’s involvement in Upstream Thinking.  Although the report claims that several water companies are involved in such schemes, this is the only example to be cited.  There are indeed other examples and it is a shame that the report does not address more fully the challenges in developing new thinking in this area compared with its more defined focus in earlier sections.
Perhaps on the other hand however, this should be welcomed by those of us who have spent a lifetime involved in day to day management of rural estates and farms as an opportunity still to bring practical common sense and hard-earned local knowledge to further deliberations on these matters.
This provides the perfect opportunity to finish on an event being organised by the Ecosystem Knowledge Network with the Tatton Estate and the Country Land and Business Association on Natural Capital for Rural Estate Professionals at the end of October.  The latest report from the Natural Capital Committee is an important step forward in defining our rural future – do come and join us to see how this might begin to look on the ground.
Twenty-five year Environment Plan – Charles Cowap
F&FF - Technical and Business Information

And here's another from the view of the Committee on Climate Change:

Long-term outcomes for the natural environment – the climate change challenge

The independent Natural Capital Committee has just published its advice to the government on what long-term goals are needed for the UK’s natural environment over the coming 25 years. Climate change will exacerbate existing pressures on wildlife, water, soil health and habitats – so working out how this affects long-term goals (and how to measure success) is a huge challenge, says Kathryn Brown of the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) secretariat.
I love my garden. It’s a tiny plot on the edge of a 1960s new town, which my husband and I manage in our own small way for the benefit of our local wildlife. As a result of our efforts, we see over 20 different species of birds, plus frogs, bats, lizards and (my favourite) hedgehogs on a regular basis. We make specific choices with our garden to do our bit for local biodiversity and because the benefit we get – pure joy – far outweighs the effort we put in.
The whole of the English landscape is similarly managed – on a much larger scale of course – for one set of benefits or another; food, timber, clean water, biodiversity, recreational value; or in most cases, multiple purposes. The English landscape is a result of centuries of individual choices, which is why it’s referred to as ‘semi-natural’. Given that we have no ‘purely natural state’ in England to aim for, what should our goals be for the natural environment, and how does climate change affect our ability to achieve them?
The first point is that the natural environment is under severe pressure and has been for some time, and as a result our natural capital is being depleted:
  • While the global human population has doubled, global wildlife abundance has declined by over 50% since 1970, according to the Living Planet Index. That is a huge and distressing loss in my lifetime, and seems set to continue.
  • In England, thanks to concerted effort, there have been some positive changes in recent years such as an increase in numbers of farmland bats and some species of birds, such as red kites. Even the small choices we make in our gardens can make a difference, for example to the country’s declining hedgehog population.
  • But at the same time there are sustained and severe decreases in many species – such as farmland birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Only a quarter of terrestrial Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are in good condition. The number of water bodies achieving ‘good’ or ‘high’ ecological status has dropped from 24% in 2011 to just 16% in 2015.
Secondly, climate change will complicate the situation further. The 2017 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report produced by the ASC highlighted risks from climate change to water availability and quality, soil health, species abundance and habitat condition. There are also some potential opportunities. We know that certain things can help to reduce the natural environment’s vulnerability to the negative impacts of climate change, such as ensuring healthy water courses, healthy deep peat soils, and high quality, large, connected ‘habitat spaces’ to allow species to thrive where they are or move to keep within their ideal climatic zones.  All of these things would also enhance the country’s stock of natural capital, but require long-term programmes of concerted action.
The Conservative Party’s 2017 election manifesto recognised the need for more long-term thinking, and repeated an earlier pledge to be “the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”. The government plans to publish a 25-year environment plan in the next few months to set out how this will be achieved. Articulating a goal is a necessary and welcome first step, but defining what this means in terms of specific outcomes, and working out how to measure progress towards them, are also critical.
For example, when just looking at the statement above, questions immediately arise. Who is this “generation”? How do we measure the “state of the environment”? How might attempts to meet the goal tally or conflict with other government commitments? Is such a goal even possible in a changing climate?
The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has just published its advice to the government on these very questions. It suggests 12 specific outcomes that would represent success in 25 years’ time, for example: “wild species and habitats are thriving and populations are … sustainable into the future despite the challenges from climate change and increasing pressures from built infrastructure”. The NCC’s advice goes on to suggest what sorts of measures would be needed to achieve each outcome, such as restoring all peatland systems to favourable condition.
The ASC wrote to the Natural Capital Committee in August to inform its advice. We focussed on four key areas for improvement given the risks from climate change, as set out in our latest report to Parliament:
  • Resilience of habitats and biodiversity. Species will only be able to keep pace with climate change if their habitats are in good condition, of sufficient size, and joined up. The condition and extent of most habitats is not improving at a rate that is in line with current government targets, and species’ populations continue to decline in many cases.
  • Soil health. Peat soils are one of our most precious resources for carbon storage and water regulation, but their condition is degrading. The percentage of blanket bog (upland peat) Sites of Special Scientific Interest in good condition has declined from 19% to 10% between 2003 and 2016. There is no plan in place to achieve the ambition for all soils to be managed sustainably by 2030.
  • Flood hazard protection. Risks from surface water, river and coastal floods are increasing. Meeting this challenge requires a strategic approach that combines catchment management, flood alleviation schemes, development control, and property-level flood resilience.
  • Marine environment and fisheries. Exposure to climate risks within the marine food chain is increasing due to causes such as rising sea temperatures, deoxygenation and ocean acidification. There are no current government policies that aim to increase the resilience of marine fisheries and aquaculture to climate change.
Each of these four key areas is highlighted in the NCC’s advice, and we hope will be reflected equally in the resulting 25-year Plan.
Over the next year the ASC is planning further work to assess long-term natural environment outcomes with climate change in mind. At the very least, we should be able to better define the questions that we should all be asking, so that a more informed conversation can be had on what is possible and desirable at the local, as well as the national, scale.  These will help to inform the government’s new National Adaptation Programme due next year. In the meantime, we eagerly await the publication of the 25-year plan….

Long-term outcomes for the natural environment – the climate change challenge - Committee on Climate Change

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