Tony Juniper: Can the UK become a world leader on the environment?

Last night I went to a compelling talk from Tony Juniper, a prominent environmentalist and author of various books including ‘What Nature Does for Britain‘. Alongside support from the Devon Wildlife Trust, he argued that there is a need for a new environment act, and that now is the time to do it. Brexit may be a headache, but it also offers an opportunity to elicit change on how the UK deals with the unprecedented losses of wildlife we’re experiencing.

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Why is an environment act needed?

The much discussed recent IPCC report (Oct 2018) estimates that we have just 12 years to limit a climate change catastrophe. Tony pointed out that what we are seeing is an unprecedented shift; atmospheric CO2 has increased dramatically since the industrial revolution and is now at levels never seen before.

However, an equally major issue that receives much less attention than climate change are the associated losses in wildlife abundance. In fact, using the word ‘lost’ doesn’t quite illustrate the human responsibility for this; these animals have been decimated by us and many have been/will be lost forever. Tony explained that the ‘web of life is being torn apart, often to final extinction on a rapid and global scale‘. If you’d like to read more about this, the WWF’s living planet report is a useful read.

By 2030 we may see a two thirds reduction in the animal abundance we saw in the 1970s; according to the WWF, we’ve already destroyed around 60% of wildlife populations on average.

What’s causing these huge losses?

You may be thinking about plastic at the moment, or perhaps transport such as planes. There are lots of things contributing to the loss of our wildlife, but the biggest is arguably our food system. The way in which our food system works has led to a number of factors causing the decimation of our living environment:

Deforestation

Trees are being removed at unprecedented rates to cater for an increasing need for food, often for food which we don’t consume directly but use for animal feed on intensive farms. Think this is another country’s problem? No. We import huge amounts of meat from unsustainable sources, so we must change too.

Deforestation is also being exacerbated by the huge amount of road building, again often associated with the food system. Since 2000, 12 million km of new roads have been built. In the Amazon, 95% of deforestation is within 5km of a road. 

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Conversion of natural habitats

Much of the fragmentation is of natural habitats that were already depleted. The obsession we have with immaculate gardens is preventing wildlife from having a suitable home; if we all set aside part of our garden to grow wild, that could make a huge difference.

Intensity of the methods

The increased usage of monocultures, pesticides, fertilisers, herbicides… the list goes on. All of these things can kill wildlife.

Pollution

Runoff from agricultural land into watercourses leads to eutrophication (algal blooms), loss of diversity and a whole host of other issues. In extreme cases the pollution will not only reach the sea but create desolate dead zones devoid of animal life.

All of these factors directly relate to the food system, and often relates to intensive meat production. Huge swathes of savannah in Brazil which are key for carbon sequestration have been lost due to soybean production which is then exported and used as animal feed.

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Picture source: EFarmNews

Why does it matter?

Fighting for wildlife isn’t just about the intrinsic value or for people who are huge animal lovers. We rely on all of the natural resources that we are destroying; soil, water, fish, wood….   

Why has this been allowed to happen?

For the last 30 or so years we’ve been fed the story that we need economic growth and that destroying the environment is the price of progress. The neoliberal system that we find ourselves in prioritises economic growth over everything else. Big companies may be aware of the implications of environmental damage but may not feel compelled to make a difference because of their profit driven mentalities, a lack of accountability, and not enough public scrutiny.

However, the ironic thing is that if we continue creating harm we will begin to drastically damage the economy. If you want to have any sort of economy in the future, we have to not only protect the environment but restore it too.

Tony then went on to describe some of the work by Robert Costanza, an environmental economist. He worked on data valuing a number of different habitats, and found that the economic value of all the assessed environmental assets/services was $125 trillion; so if nature stops providing these services, that’s how much it would cost. Global GDP at that time (2004) was $75 trillion; we have LESS money in the entire world than would be needed if we continue to destroy the environment.

‘The bit of money that companies are so obsessed with growing is SMALLER than the value of the environmental assets we’re destroying in the process’.

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Picture credit: PNAS

What would an environment act look like?

As Tony pointed out, we are at a crossroads in history. The environment is so damaged that we have no choice but to act now, and we have a political situation which means that huge numbers of laws are about to change.

Will we choose to lead recovery and set an example for other countries to follow, or will we  become a low tax, low standard, free trading dead zone with no environmental laws? Many environmental organisations are now making a case for an environmental act, which needs to be more ambitious than EU regulations to make a marked difference.

Tony advocated the following needs in a new environment act:

  1. An independent environmental watchdog with real teeth to ensure that the rules are followed
  2. Clear numerical targets e.g. how much reforestation?
  3. Clean air and water – in rivers as well as from the tap
  4. A legal duty to provide accessible green spaces – this not only benefits wildlife but also human health, so a joined-up approach is needed for this. The obesity crisis is costing the NHS millions of pounds each year, so campaigning to get people outdoors and active could be extremely cost effective
  5. Legislation on taking responsibility for global outputs – many imports at the moment are from an unsustainable supply chain, perhaps from countries with severe deforestation. There should be a global footprint duty on these imports.

Isn’t the government’s recent 25 year environment plan enough?

Absolutely not. Much as the 25 year plan from the government had some great ideas, it is all voluntary with no legislation. This means that as soon as we get a new government or even a new minister, this entire plan could be shelved and forgotten. A legal underpinning is desperately needed to hold the government accountable.

What difference can the UK make when other countries are still destroying the environment?

Tony explained that the global effort will only be as good as the improvements made by individual countries. If we lead on the environment and show that it can be done successfully and even profitably, other countries will follow our example.

What’s happening in Beijing in 2020?

In 2020 there is going to be a new international treaty made on restoring nature to update the existing convention on biological diversity. This is similar to the Paris climate agreement, only it’s relating to biodiversity instead. This treaty, if successful, needs to bend the curve of losses into recovery. During his talk, Tony said it should strive to see huge improvements in natures vital plans by 2030. This may seem ambitious, but if by 2020 we’re already successfully doing that, other countries may be persuaded to follow suit.

Barriers to uptake

The governmental establishment

The self-perpetuating establishment rife with self important career politicians makes it difficult to see the proposed environment act as realistic; during the EU referendum campaign there were even many that were pro-leave because they didn’t want to have to follow the increasingly progressive environmental regulations put in place in Brussels. However, there needs to be a mindset change. The messages environmentalists portray needs to make sense to neoliberalist politicians by referring to ‘environmental growth’ and by illustrating the huge value the environment holds.

How would an Environment Act help?

These are points taken directly from the Devon Wildlife Trust to illustrate why an environment act would be useful:

  1. Improve people’s access to nature, especially in towns and cities
  2. Create new wild areas and wildlife corridors across the county
  3. Keep Devon’s existing wildlife sites safe from harm
  4. Protect Devon’s best wildlife habitats under the sea
  5. Stop Devon’s soils washing away into rivers and the sea
  6. Improve air quality, especially in Exeter and Plymouth
  7. Stop poisoning Devon’s rivers and streams with chemicals
  8. Reduce emissions that are contributing to climate change
  9. Protect people’s rights to a healthy natural environment
  10. Avoid the loss of environmental protection laws after Brexit.

So what can WE do?

Write to your MP

The government needs to see a shift in public appetite for action, so even if just a few thousand of us write to our MPs it could be enough to show them that the public are becoming aware of the issues.

You could write your own letter or use a template, either way it’s a great thing to do. This link provided by the Devon Wildlife Trust allows you to do exactly that; it’ll even navigate you straight to your own MP once you’ve entered your post code. Easy!

A plea to young people

Tony Juniper and Harry Barton (Chief Executive of the Devon Wildlife Trust) both pointed out that the government are prioritising young peoples’ voices at the moment. This is because young people didn’t vote for them in the 2017 election, and after doing some research they’ve discovered a major reason for this was the lack of attention given to the environment.

Therefore, a plea to young people was made; we need to contact our MPs, request meetings, share the environment act proposal widely on social media, and generally get our voices heard. There are over 2 million students in the UK, many of which are aware of environmental issues but are often afraid to speak out in case they’re not heard. However, if our voices accumulate, the government will have little choice. Spread the word! It may seem like one small voice won’t make a difference but you could be surprised.

Less but better meat

If everyone cut meat consumption by 40%, land twice the size of India would be able to recover. If you like eating meat, fine, but try to eat less of it but of better quality. Organic, pasture fed meat is nutritionally better, has higher welfare, and is often less damaging. A lot of people are starting to reduce their intakes but there still needs to be a huge amount of change.

Spread the word

Share the campaign on social media, tell your friends and family, and ask them to write to their MPs too! #WilderDevon

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