IPPR: UK ‘acutely vulnerable’ to environmental breakdown

UK policymakers have 'historically disregarded' the economic, social and environmental risks posed by the degradation of nature, meaning more ambition and action is now desperately needed to mitigate further damage and adapt to changes which are already baked-in.

IPPR: UK ‘acutely vulnerable’ to environmental breakdown

41% of the UK's plant and animal species have declined since 1970

That is according to a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), published today (24 June) after a year-long investigation into the UK’s green policy frameworks and the state of nature – including soil, biodiversity and oceans – nationally.

The report tracks the UK’s progress against 21 “measures of readiness” to adapt to existing environmental degradation and mitigate further harm, such as the ambition of existing legally-binding goals, the measures in place to avoid unintended consequences of these goals and address breaches, and the embedding of natural and social value in core economic strategies.

In 15 of these categories, only partial progress was found to be present. In the remaining six, the UK is either “completely failing” or “almost completely failing”, the IPPR states. Of particular concern is the fact that the UK is currently set to miss existing biodiversity targets and that international emissions are exempted from climate laws.

The IPPR believes that these trends are down to historic inaction from policymakers, which has been brought to the fore of public attention as a result of the anti-plastics and climate activism movements of recent years. Policy failings which may have gone unnoticed before these movements gained speed and before the Covid-19 crisis are now at the forefront of the public and business conscience, the IPPR explains, with the onus to create a green and socially just recovery now firmly on.

While noting the progress made on key policy frameworks such as the 25-Year Environment Plan and the Environment Bill, the IPPR concludes that “nothing less than the overall transformation of society and the economy is required to fairly bring human activity within sustainable limits and prepare us for the consequences of the damage already caused to nature”.

In order to ensure that policy adequately addresses the “new domain of risk” posed by the nature crisis, the report recommends the creation of a Sustainable Economy Act, which, like the Climate Change Act, would set legally-binding numerical targets for reducing environmental damage and eventually creating a net-benefit. Environmental impacts resulting from imported goods should be covered by the Act. The Green Party was the first to back such an act, in 2019. 

The creation of the Act should be complemented with the appointment of a Minister for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the IPPR adds, given that the UK is believed to be underperforming against more than three-quarters of SDG-related goals, and with a Future Generations Act – legislation requiring policymakers to weigh up the long-term social, environmental and economic impacts of all key projects, that they might avoid projects which create short-term financial gains but then burden future generations.

The IPPR is additionally backing £20bn of investment by the UK into the UN’s Green Climate Fund over the next decade, alongside the creation of a Royal Commission on Preparations for Environmental Breakdown. This commission would develop metrics to assess the UK’s preparedness for a variety of climate and nature scenarios, before using them to gauge the resilience of supply chains and foreign policy. The Treasury is conducting an audit into the economic value, opportunities and risks associated with biodiversity, but the scope of this commission would be broader.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the UK was not adequately prepared for the coronavirus pandemic,” IPPR associate fellow Laurie Laybourne-Langton said. 

“The threats posed by the environmental crisis could also emerge quickly and could overwhelm our capacity to respond, so the pandemic gives us a window into a future increasingly beset by the consequences of environmental breakdown.”

The think-tank’s recommendations are being backed by WWF UK and Friends of the Earth UK. 

Nature in the new normal

Pre-pandemic, 2020 was set to be a big year for action on preserving and restoring nature. Most notably, the 15th COP on biodiversity was due to be held in China this autumn, with members creating a “Paris-style” deal to avert Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

As key policy decisions and events were postponed, some nature projects saw funding or delivery times slow down. However, lockdown is thought to have bred a greater appreciation for nature among the general public, as people began spending more time outdoors as a result of business closures and a desire to improve their wellbeing.

These sentiments are now beginning to make their way into green new deal frameworks, recommendations and demands sent to businesses and policymakers.

Business For Nature last week penned an open letter to CEOs, urging them to embed nature regeneration in their business strategies post-Covid-19. The organisation claimed its online event to launch the letter was the first to focus solely on nature.

Then, this week, the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) sent an open letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak, detailing how investment in nature conservation and restoration projects in the UK could create thousands of jobs while spurring progress towards key climate, biodiversity and social equality targets.

One of the signatories of the WCL letter, The Wildlife Trusts, has produced an additional report detailing how one-third of the UK’s annual carbon emissions could be sequestered using nature-based solutions, if adequate investment and policy support is provided to key forest, wetland, saltmarsh and peatland regeneration projects. Local authorities and businesses must also do more to support these initiatives post-pandemic, the charity is urging.

Through its 2020 Budget, the UK Government has already committed to create a £640m Nature for Climate Fund. This pot will finance a six-fold increase in tree planting and the restoration of 35,000 hectares of peatland over the next five years – but green groups have voiced concerns that further action is needed. 35,000 hectares, for example, is equivalent to just 1% of the UK’s peatlands, whereas the Committee on Climate Change is recommending the restoration of 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat. Moreover, the UK Government will need to develop a new tree planting strategy after past targets were missed.

Sarah George

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