Speaking at an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) hearing today (28 February), the NCC’s chair Dieter Helm suggested that the Government’s desire to reverse historical trends and actually enrich environmental protection would allow natural capital concepts and reporting to grow as a viable business option.

“This is a growing economy which will properly incorporate the opportunities and the risks of placing the environment into the heart of the economy,” Helm said. “That is why natural capital should be central to the Treasury and we want to make this absolutely mainstream. We’re a long way off, but the 25-year plan could help with this.”

Helm believed that natural capital, which refers to resources that provide goods and services essential to a functional society and economy, such as water, timber and food, was becoming the “go to” concept for businesses aiming to enhance their CSR credentials.

However, Helm was concerned that natural capital could “go the way of sustainability” whereby companies can greenwash their achievements and say that are enhancing the natural capital agenda. To compensate, Helm called for a standard and accounts procedure to be implemented, which would be strengthened by the intricacies of the Government’s 25-year plan.

“Natural capital is becoming the go to concept,” Helm said. “The worry on the corporate side is that natural capital could go the way that sustainability has, where it means what the company wants it to mean, and a lot of people claim to be enhancing it when they’re not really. We’re really keen for a proper standard here.”

The Natural Capital Protocol exists to offer businesses a standardised framework to identify, measure, and value impacts and dependencies on natural assets, but Helm felt that business efforts must be matched by action from the Government.

Brexit opportunities

The Government promised to become the first “to leave the environment in a better state than [it] found it”. Under this premise, two separate 25-year environment and food & farming plans were meant to be launched last year in isolation.

However, constant delays to the publication of a white paper for the 25-year plan has cast these claims into doubt. Helm understood that Brexit was impacting on the speed of implementation of these environmental plans, but claimed that current environmental enhancement efforts were “going backwards, when the bold objective is to move forward”.

Specifically, Helm warned that the “clock was ticking” for Defra to reveal what the 25-year plan would entail, warning that “serious problems” could emerge if decisions weren’t finalised this year.

“It would be a serious problem if the white paper didn’t appear this year, we expect to see environmental progress by 2020,” Helm said. “If the current trend of decline continues to 2020, you’ve got a wall to climb to meet your objective and it’s a much steeper wall than it otherwise would’ve been. The time on the clock is ticking.”

The latest report from the NCC states that Defra’s plan has progressed “considerably slower” than hopes and expectations. The strategy must advance rapidly if there are to be “demonstrable improvements” in England’s natural capital before 2020, the Committee insisted.

Helm claimed that the NCC and other organisations were “champing at the bit” to get involved with the 25-year plan and overall environmental protection acts, but that the lack of progress had been “frustrating”.

Fielding questions from MPs including Caroline Lucas and Peter Aldous, Helm claimed that even though Brexit negotiations were slowing the progress and introduction of the plan, leaving the European Union (EU) provided a “big opportunity” to re-write EU-derived legislation that was hindering environmental protection in the UK.

Notably, Helm argued that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system was not a good example of legislation, and that the “scope for improvement is large” in this area. CAP does not directly target greenhouse gas emissions reduction in agriculture, even though it accounts for 50-60% of farm incomes.

“There are huge impacts of Brexit,” Helm said. “It is hard to think of a Department beyond Defra that is impacted by the EU as much. It’s hard to think of a 25-year plan without some EU legislation. You can identify the risk to key areas, such as birds and habitats, but there are also opportunities.

“The CAP system isn’t a good way of running the environment, and the scope for improvement here is large. The Brexit issue is so big but the sheer scale of the opportunities that are available means we can do this a great deal better than we currently are, it’s a big opportunity and we should take it.”

Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom has previously confirmed that around two-thirds of current EU legislation could be brought into UK law post-Brexit. However, concerns remain about the Government’s ability to enforce the legislation with reports and campaigners fearing “watered down” protection acts.

Matt Mace

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