Bees and their friends can't wait years for committees to decide

David Thorpe
News Editor at EAEM
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Post date: Monday, 30th July 2012

Just over a week ago, two giant bees presented an invoice to the government at Westminster Palace for £1.8bn. This is the value estimated for all bees' pollination services to the British economy, were they, for example like G4S, to fail, and the Army have to be called in to carry out their work.

This was a publicity stunt by Friends of the Earth to draw attention to the value of bees, and, by extension, the whole of the natural environment to the economy.

The Natural Environment White Paper is the government's latest attempt to try to get this value incorporated in the national balance sheet, and find greater incentives to protect ecosystems, soils and species.

One of the simplest quick wins it suggests to achieve this aim, would be to get policymakers to incorporate this value in all of the various White Papers, Bills and guidance, and their associated impact assessments, churned out by the Westminster legislative machine every year.

This would be no mean feat. All the civil servants in all government departments engaged in red tape production (or, they would have you think, reduction) would have to look up the relevant figures in the relevant place for the relevant impacts, and tot them all up in their Excel spreadsheets.

Searching for a simile with which to describe the magnitude that this culture shift in civil servants' minds would represent, were it to be successful, I could only hit upon comparing it to the amount of energy and effort it would take to divert a large asteroid that might be heading for central England, and which could, unless steered away, cause a similar level of damage to our natural environment as that inflicted by cumulative and remorseless development.

It doesn't seem particularly likely, does it? Notwithstanding this, (more amazing things have happened, like during wartime), the success of the operation rests upon the relevant up-to-date and accurate information being available.

This should be found in the Green Book, the instrument used by civil servants to evaluate policies and to determine costs and benefits for impact assessments. Attached to the Green Book is a huge library of supplementary guidance for civil servants to wade through. This cannot be a pleasant or speedy job. It is my guess that consulting the supplementary guidance is not either compulsory or monitored across all government departments.

However, giving government the benefit of the doubt and assuming that it is, what can we find there that is relevant to valuing the natural environment (and all of those bees)? There is a category for Environment. In it are three items: an introductory guide to the valuation of ecosystem services (a PDF), and a link to the Environmental Valuation Reference Inventory (EVRI).

These look good, until you did a bit deeper and then find that the former was produced by the previous Labour administration's version of Defra in 2007, and the latter is a Canadian database that is about as user-friendly as a North Korean guide to its ruling family, populated with fifty economic valuation studies, mainly from various European countries, provided, again, mostly by Defra - in 2006. The website itself has not been touched since March 2011.

There is also a guide to accounting environmental impacts, produced by Helen Dunn, a Defra senior economic adviser, in February 2012, but this is largely an overview of procedure, and itself links predominantly to documents kept in the archived version of Defra's website, which again means that it was created by the previous administration.

I think this is pathetic, because it's mostly out of date and not in a form that makes it easy to utilise.

But, there is hope for the under-appreciated and threatened bees, and all of their friends. I do appreciate that Helen Dunn and her team are doing a lot of hard work to update this material. But, given that Defra has been banging on about this for at least seven years, little progress has been made across government departments.

The Natural Capital Committee has been set up by Defra to oversee the work of the White Paper and provide an evidence base; and the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee of MPs is scrutinising the government's progress on the matter.

There is also no shortage of NGOs watching closely to see whether the government will put its pocket where its mouth is, and finance protection of the natural environment, because in these economically-challenged times, everyone knows that if it's a choice between building some infrastructure that will temporarily create jobs and growth, and protecting some flowers or streams, which way the wind will blow.

The Eco-systems Markets Task-Force, led by Ian Cheshire, group chief executive of Kingfisher, and comprising ten business leaders, is looking at forms of compensation and eco-credits that replicate a model pioneered in New York State, whereby an investment of $1bn in persuading landowners and farmers to protect watercourses, prevented the spending of a much larger amount of money in order to filter the water from those watercourses to make them drinkable by the residents of New York City.

The development of payments for ecosystems services is acknowledged by Paul Wilkinson of Wildlife Link, in his evidence to the EFRA Committee, as “quite embryonic, certainly in terms of the market for ecosystems services”. Chris Knight, from PricewaterhouseCoopers agrees that a “translation from the theory of economic value of nature into economic instruments and financial incentives that get companies on board in delivering solutions to protect nature” is needed.

The Task Force has just published its one year on report in advance of an interim report in the autumn that outlines what the most promising opportunities for converting this to action might be.

Some of the opportunities identified include enhanced certification for adding brand value (beyond food, fish and timber), developing forestry carbon markets to include other environmental values, something called "habitat banking", and the quite controversial "biodiversity offsetting" for the construction and quarrying sectors, whereby an endangered species and its ecosystem that happens to get in the way of development would be moved somewhere else.

Instead of being a version of ethnic cleansing for species, i.e. wiping them and their habitat out completely, biodiversity offsetting would create 'species refugees' in specially built 'species refugee camps'. I don't fancy their chances, since many ecosystems are dependent on underlying geology, soils and microclimates.

The Task Force also claims that there are business opportunities around specific habitats, for instance water bodies, woodland or moorland. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment contains "evidence of the state and trends in the UK's ecosystems and possible response options including the role of markets and incentives".

As with the New York example, payment for ecosystem services (PES) could come in a number of forms, all of which require the beneficiaries, or users, of ecosystem services to provide payment to the stewards, or providers, of ecosystem services, whether they are farmers, local authorities, the Crown Estate or other landowners.

I guess this is all possible. But like several of the witnesses who gave evidence to the EFRA Select Committee enquiry, I am sceptical at how widely and effectively it can be implemented, and saddened about the intrusion of market economics into the natural environment. We've tried this with the Emissions Trading Scheme, which is a manifest failure in terms of reducing emissions but has produced a bonanza for certain companies that have been given emission allowances.

This is a project at an early stage. Don't hold your breath waiting for the Treasury to specify the withholding of tax breaks from the development of an oil field because it affects global warming, or threatens a cold water coral reef, or for a local authority to be penalised because run-off from its road scheme is polluting streams.

The pressure does need to be kept on, though. As the EFRA MPs say, many of the 92 commitments in the White Paper have no timetable for delivery, and for those that do, it is not easy to find from public sources whether these deadlines have, or have not, been met.

Defra must therefore publish a timetabled action plan for delivering each of the commitments as soon as possible, and report on its progress frequently.

Personally, I believe that the natural environment should be valued for its own sake, and seriously damaging any part that sustains life, such as excessive nitrate run-off into rivers or the destruction of hedgerows, should simply be punished with prohibitive fines, as (should) already happen(s) with cases of industrial pollution.

If we want to reward good behaviour, say farmers for planting new hedgerows, this can be done within existing support schemes.

The bees, and their friends, want Defra to act to do this now, not wait years longer for committees to collect this “evidence base" and for an almost impossible culture change in all the other government departments.

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