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SNAP ELECTION: Our economy still needs an Environment Plan

 

The UK Government promised in its 2015 manifesto that we would become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. To achieve this, and in recognition of the crucial role that the natural environment plays in underpinning our economy and well-being, they committed to producing a ‘25 Year Environment Plan’ for England. We certainly welcomed these promises at the time, but when the snap election was called this week the Plan was still nowhere in sight. Why should businesses care about this policy gap and how can they help shape the Plan?

River Itchen. This chalk stream winds it way through beautiful Hampshire countryside near Ovington, Hampshire, UK © Andrew Parkinson / WWF-UK

The idea for a 25 Year Environment Plan first came from the Natural Capital Committee, and the UK Government has said the Plan would have a natural capital underpinning. In other words it would be based on a recognition of the value of natural assets – rivers, forests, soil, and oceans – to our economy, and would ensure that decision-making avoids further damage to our stock of natural assets and instead works to restore them.

From what we heard from the Government, the Plan would look at issues including: how new data and technology can facilitate improved environmental management; how people can be better connected to nature and understand its value in their lives; how improvements can be incentivised and financed with a strong emphasis on the contribution to be made by the private sector; and what regulatory framework is needed to aid delivery.

An ambitious set of headings! But after two years, and despite repeated assurances that its publication was imminent, nothing appeared. Now the General Election has been called, we’ll be waiting longer still.

Why should it matter to business?

A 25 Year Environment Plan is crucial not only for nature, but for our own resilience and continued prosperity as a society. In a world of climate change and growing competition for resources, we depend on the sustainable management of our natural assets. This is widely recognised in the business world; the World Economic Forum Risks Outlook 2016, rates environmental issues highly in their Top 10 risks, with failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, water crises, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse all cited near the top.

Tanya Steele, WWF Chief Executive, addresses corporate sustainability leaders at an event in London, UK. 2017 © Charlotte Aitken / WWF

We have consulted a range of business leaders on these issues in recent months and what has come across loud and clear is that Government inaction was blocking progress. While many forward-thinking businesses are trying to manage their environmental risks, voluntary measures alone can’t deliver at the scale we need to reverse environmental degradation, and there are plenty of businesses getting a free ride, benefiting from the efforts of others.

For sustainability to be embedded in all business decision-making the private sector needs clear incentives to take action, and a level playing field to ensure that those who do take action are not competitively disadvantaged. We need the next UK Government to provide clear environmental policy measures that give businesses the incentive to invest and innovate. This would also spur the development of lucrative new markets for environmental goods and services and better position the UK to compete globally. This market is huge and growing fast, expected to be worth USD $2 trillion by 2020.

Business will be a key player in the delivery of an Environment Plan and – because public sector finance is in short supply – this includes the creation of new markets and innovative financing mechanisms. Mechanisms like Payments for Ecosystem Services schemes, biodiversity offsetting or compensation schemes and financing mechanisms like green bonds, have all been considered.

Aerial view of palm oil plantation on deforested land, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia, 2007. © naturepl.com / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF

But it’s not only risks to domestic natural capital that the next Government should be addressing. As a country we are enormously dependent on natural resources ‘embedded’ in the products we import from other parts of the world. Previous studies have shown that 41% of the land used to make products that we consume in the UK was located overseas, as is around one third of the biomass used in the UK and nearly two thirds of the water embedded in products we consume. If they are not managed sustainably our own access to these resources is threatened as competition for them increases.

We also want to see a Plan that provides an overarching framework that guides other policies, because it’s often not explicitly environmental policies that have the biggest impact on environmental outcomes. For example, the location of new housing and infrastructure, and how they are built, can have a huge impact on environmental outcomes and economic risks like flooding and water shortages. So the UK’s Industrial Strategy also needs to be fully joined up with its Environment Plan, by ensuring it takes account of the impact and dependency of different economic sectors on natural resources such as water, energy and land, and promotes a low carbon and more resource-efficient, circular economy.

The need for business to work with the next Government on the plan

For all these reasons, it’s crucial that the business voice is heard as a Plan is developed by the next Government. We need a policy framework that catalyses business to play its part an avoids  creating counterproductive or contradictory regulation that undermines the business contribution.

Even after the election there may be many more weeks before the next Government gets down to business on environmental policy. That’s why we are calling on businesses to work with us to develop a joint set of asks that we can submit to the new Government while it’s developing its policy frameworks. We want to demonstrate our joint support for an effective Plan and express our desire to work with Government to shape it. We also want to put forward some concrete ideas on how NGOs and businesses can work together with Government and authorities to deliver the plan at local level.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at night, London, UK. © Global Warming Images / WWF

But time is ticking…

Meanwhile, every day, week and month that goes by without coherent policies in place means more environmental damage and associated risks. As WWF’s own stress testing study is showing, a continuation of current environmental trends will pose significant risks to the UK economy.

Matters are of course complicated by the process of the UK leaving the EU. Many of the environmental laws and regulations shaping policy in the UK came from the EU and now need to be transposed and re-established in UK law as we leave. There are risks that important environmental protections could be lost or watered down in this process, but managed correctly it’s an unprecedented opportunity to achieve a coherent framework of environmental goals and policies.

We need an Environment Plan to be in place while we negotiate our exit from the EU in order to provide the framework against which environmental policy and regulation will deliver. We must have a set of benchmarks against which the impact of policy decisions can be judged, including the trade deals the UK will be striking with the EU and other states and environmental standards these deals contain. This will be especially important to ensure the next Government resists the temptation to sacrifice environmental standards in a headlong rush to do post-Brexit trade deals which could undermine UK producers and precipitate a race to the bottom.

Work with us now

Let’s not miss this opportunity. Join us in putting pressure on all parties to commit to delivering a plan and make sure the voice of business, which ultimately depends on nature for its prosperity, is heard. Together we can ensure that the policy frameworks developed by the next UK Government position UK PLC to thrive and prosper in a changing world.

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to discuss how we can work together
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