Natural selection

Ministers have shown high aspirations in unpromising circumstances, says Barrie Clarke of Undercurrent. And a new manifesto for the environment is good for the water business

It sounds like a brand of probiotic yogurt, but The Natural Choice, a new environment white paper (1), claims even more benefits. It is the latest instalment in the march of UK sustainability, and arguably the most ambitious. Nature is “at the centre of the choices our nation must make”.

Green-minded shoppers know that a healthy natural environment, like a healthy gut, is good for all; it is harder to get the majority of consumers even to try before they buy, especially when incomes are squeezed. So it makes sense for ministers to anchor the marketing of TNC to the human needs and activities served when nature thrives.

Health, education and business are in the frame as beneficiaries; and the focus on integrated policies with multiple pay-offs makes good sense.

The white paper has the advantage of building on two outriders: a call for more determined action on biodiversity (2) and the UK National Eco-System Assessment (NEA) (3), which provides new ways of expressing the value of nature and using it in policy-making. Perhaps the best reason to be cheerful about the environment right now is the growing understanding of how species are connected and the importance of variety. Certainly TNC can be grateful to the honey bee whose well-publicised problems show why we have to re-visit biodiversity action plans.

Meanwhile the NEA supports the case by explaining how decision making can take account of the services we receive from the environment (including those bees). There is a problem here because debates about the value of nature almost inevitably turn into arguments about the nature of value. This becomes just another arena for fights between conservation and ’empty consumerism’.

God and pollinators willing, I will come back to this on another occasion. For now, a new way of seeing things is genuinely helpful. So, the new product is on the shelves. Will it sell? First signs from traditional early adopters are positive. WWF praises the Government’s recognition of habitat loss, climate change and poor planning as the enemies of biodiversity.

Friends of the Earth get over their ‘too little, too late’ comments and seem pleased with the NEA measures of value: “Our green spaces are worth billions in keeping us healthy and happy, and protecting them goes hand in hand with building a greener economy”.

For both, the attractiveness of TNC will depend on the rest of government: “policies right across Whitehall” (FoE); and “whether departments….fully get behind it in a coordinated and consistent fashion” (WWF). It is hard to disagree with this balanced appraisal. The Government deserves credit for high aspirations in unpromising circumstances; for instance, it would have been easier not to have promised to put “natural capital at the centre of economic thinking”.

Its new nature partnerships and local improvement areas, its focus on urban green space and green infrastructure, and promotion of “ecosystem markets”, are all welcome. On the other hand, the greens are right to be sceptical. There is no real money available. This may not matter at first, as long as people are convinced that ministers mean what they say.

This is where consistency counts and standard economics looms large; for instance, less than a week after TNC was published, the threshold for small energy companies given exemption from energy-saving schemes was raised from 50,000 to 250,000 customers to encourage competition.

It is always possible to question politicians’ pious green intentions. When a secretary of state asks us to see our interaction with the environment as “withdrawing something from Mother Nature’s bank” the normal response is probably justified.

However, when sincere attempts are made to move environment policy forward, there is usually value for related business, including water companies. TNC is in this category for various reasons, including:

  • Value – highlighting new methods of valuation can only underline the importance of our service and increase people’s understanding of investment and the impact on bills
  • Leadership – there should be plenty of opportunities to lead local projects that combine business benefit and corporate responsibility
  • Abstraction – the premium on water availability is strongly profiled. New plans for managing abstraction will be good for abstractors who engage positively with government and stakeholders.
  • Green space – TNC promotes the remarkable links between green space and good health that are more and more recognised. This is valuable for work in urban catchments and sustainable drainage
  • Community education – ministers see TNC as a way of promoting business involvement in education in which the industry has deep experience and competitive advantage.

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