UK Government commits to ‘nature-positive’ future following landmark biodiversity review

Following the publication of the landmark Dasgupta Review, which argued the case for biodiversity considerations to be embedded in all economic decisions by the government, a new commitment for all large infrastructure projects to be 'nature positive' has been made.

UK Government commits to ‘nature-positive’ future following landmark biodiversity review

The commitment has been announced by the Treasury today (14 June) in its formal written response to the Dasgupta Review on valuing biodiversity. Published in February, the finished Review provides guidance on how policymakers can account for the economic, social and environmental value of nature when making decisions. Commentators have dubbed the piece of work the nature-related equivalent to the Stern Review on climate change.

In its response to the Review, the UK government reiterates a commitment to improve nature. The nation is currently well off-track to deliver on a flagship pledge to leave nature better for the next generation.

In a bid to scale up and accelerate conservation and restoration work, a string of new initiatives and commitments have been announced to support the overarching vision of ‘nature positivity’.

There will be, the Treasury has promised, a new set of recommendations for departments across Whitehall to consider when developing policies. For certain sectors, including housebuilding and major infrastructure projects, there will be advice on delivering net gain for nature. The recommendations may become formally required of the new National Investment Bank (NIB), originally intended to launch in the first quarter of 2021.

The HS2 project is mentioned specifically in the response. Going beyond an existing commitment to no net loss in biodiversity on HS2 – a commitment many green groups believe the developers are set to break – there will be a requirement for the project to deliver a net gain. But, recognising that ancient woodland cannot be replaced, the Government has chosen to exclude it from calculations on no net loss and on net gain. 

There will also be changes to the UK Government’s Green Financing Framework, to better account for the value of nature, and the UK Government will join the OECD Paris Collaborative on green budgeting.

In a bid to help the private sector also shift funding away from ecologically damaging activities and deliver net gain, an additional £3m has been earmarked to support the development of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) framework. Similarly to the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), the framework will help businesses to quantify their risks from nature degradation in a variety of future scenarios.

The last major commitment from the Government in the response paper is to work with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to improve the way nature is incorporated into national accounts. The ONS is already exploring the limitations of GDP as a measure of wellbeing for people and nature and is assisting a cross-organisation collaboration developing natural capital accounting frameworks.

“If we want to realise the aspiration set out in Professor Dasgupta’s landmark Review to rebalance humanity’s relationship with nature, then we need policies that will both protect and enhance the supply of our natural assets,” Environment Secretary George Eustice said.

“This is what lies at the heart of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and our new measures to embed biodiversity net-gain further in the planning system for major infrastructure, through our landmark Environment Bill. It’s also behind our approach to future farming policy and other initiatives such as £3bn for climate change solutions that restore nature globally and our new due diligence law to clean up our supply chains and help tackle illegal deforestation.”

The Environment Bill recently returned to Parliament following delays. Some of the UK’s biggest nature charities have argued that amendments made to the Bill since its last reading could leave loopholes permitting further decline for the rest of this decade.

‘Not the necessary step-change’

Reacting to the new formal written response, Wildlife and Countryside Link chief executive Richard Benwell said the Government is “on message” but not yet “on the money” in responding to the scale of the nature crisis.

“Some positive policies do not add up to a response capable of halting the rapid rise in our ecological debt, and at some point, we will feel the crunch,” Benwell said.

“The requirement for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects to deliver a net gain for nature is good, but big gaps will remain unless the policy covers all major infrastructure projects. Considering including nature in the NIB is positive, but this should be confirmed before the Bank is established.

“Overall, the Treasury needs much more fundamental reform to put nature at the heart of economic decisions. If the Government is to ‘reset humanity’s balance with nature’, we need a firm legal deadline to end nature’s decline, not the hazy hope of recovery in the Government’s species abundance target. We also need detailed plans for the extensive funding, delivery and enforcement needed to achieve promises to protect 30% of the UK’s land and seas by 2030.”

The Aldersgate Group’s head of public affairs and communications Signe Norberg agreed, adding: “It is positive to see the Government taking on board the findings from the Dasgupta Review and in particular the fact that economic and financial policy decision making has a crucial role to play in supporting the restoration of a healthy natural environment and ensuring the long-term resilience of the economy.

“The response also confirms that biodiversity net gain will apply to nationally significant infrastructure projects in England, which is an important development that helps bolster this important provision in the Environment Bill.

“However, today’s response does not amount to the necessary step-change called for by Professor Sir Dasgupta. It is vital that the response goes further and clearly lays out a cross-departmental plan with a range of commitments that support the mainstreaming of nature into economic decision making. In addition to contributing to the Better Regulation Framework and supporting the development of the TNFD, it is important that the whole of Government takes on the challenge posed by the Review and introduces new measures in the near and long term to support nature’s recovery. An ambitious Environment Bill, with binding interim targets and environmental improvement plans focused on delivering these targets, can play a key role in driving investment to restore the natural environment to the healthy status that our economy and society need.”

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie