I have talked a few times about the conferences organised by Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum (WEET). Despite its name, WEET’s conferences almost always seem to be about something to do with the net zero/”carbon” reduction agenda, and precious little to do with the environment. And so it made a pleasant change to receive an email today telling me about a WEET conference to take place on 25th April 2023 with the title “Next steps for the natural environment in the UK” and the sub-heading “Policy, regulation, implementation and the way forward for ELMs, biodiversity net gain and the UK’s approach”.

On reading the notes about the conference, it was a pleasure to find not a single reference to net zero or climate change and only a single reference to “carbon storage” (in the context of a session about “the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment: development – investment – environmental reforms – addressing air quality, biodiversity, carbon storage, habitat protection, and resilience”. It is gratifying to see a conference devoted to environmental issues without there being an assumption that concern for the environment and attempts to “deal with” climate change are just two sides of the same coin, when the reality is that they are often in direct conflict.

Environmental Land Management Schemes

In case you’re wondering (I was), ELM is apparently short for Environmental Land Management Scheme. This is another new area for me, and I have an open mind about it. DEFRA put up a fairly detailed explanation of the plans on its website on 22nd August 2022, and for those interested in this kind of thing, it’s well worth a look. In essence they say “we [of course they mean we the taxpayer] will pay farmers and land managers to enhance the natural environment alongside food production.” This will be done via the Sustainable Farming Incentive:

Through the SFI, farmers will be paid for looking after the natural environment in the course of their farming.

This initial offer will pay farmers for taking care of their soil or assessing the condition of moorland.

In future, we’ll add more actions that farmers can get paid to take.

Also, a Local Nature Recovery Scheme:

Perhaps inevitably, at this point net zero and climate change receive a mention, but at least they aren’t high on the list of priorities:

Through Local Nature Recovery, farmers will be able to contribute to important national priorities, including:

reversing the decline in biodiversity

improving water quality

net zero

building the resilience of the environment to climate change

improving air quality

natural flood management

coastal erosion risk mitigation

heritage and access

Reading further, climate change and net zero seem to move up the pecking order. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound too bad, from an environmentalist’s perspective, albeit there is a mildly worrying lapse into the borderline meaningless language of bureaucrats everywhere:

We will work with farmers and other experts to design the detailed options over the course of this year. In designing options for the scheme, we will take into account:

their potential contribution to the statutory targets we will set under the Environment Act, including our new target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030, and our Net Zero and climate change adaptation commitments

affordability and value for money for the taxpayer

their coherence with private schemes and markets for climate and environmental outcomes such as carbon offsets, biodiversity net gain, and nutrient credits

their viability as options for farmers and land managers to deliver and for government to manage effectively

Assuming DEFRA is true to its word and there are no hidden catches, farmers should be happy:

There are already around 30,000 farmers in existing schemes and we have reviewed the payment rates and revised them up, on average, by around 30%.

Environmental Improvement Plan

Apparently there is a 25 year plan in place to improve the UK’s environment, and there is a 151 page document to prove it. The introduction starts well, but in short order I start to worry:

By using our land more sustainably and creating new habitats for wildlife, including by planting more trees, we can arrest the decline in native species and improve our biodiversity. By tackling the scourge of waste plastic we can make our oceans cleaner and healthier. Connecting more people with the environment will promote greater well-being. And by making the most of emerging technologies, we can build a cleaner, greener country and reap the economic rewards of the clean growth revolution.

It’s those “emerging technologies” that have the potential to be a concern. If they include wind farms, then we have an immediate contradiction, since filling our oceans with them, whatever else it does, won’t make them cleaner and healthier. And putting them onshore has to date involved cutting down rather a lot of trees, ploughing up a lot of peat, and killing a lot of bats and birds. It was signed off by Theresa May in 2018, and we’re on our third Prime Minister since then, with the prospect of another one after the next general election, so who knows whether all this still holds good. That said, it’s easy to be cynical, and the document does make a reasonably impressive read. It’s nice to know that somebody in a position of authority is thinking about these issues, however it all plays out in the end.

Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment Programme

Again, who knew? Not I. More can be found about it here. It seems to be about better data capture, in order to enable better decision-making to take place:

Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment (NCEA) is a science innovation and transformation programme, which spans across land and water environments. It has been set up to collect data on the extent, condition and change over time of England’s ecosystems and natural capital, and the benefits to society.

All the groups one might hope to see being involved in this collaborative exercise do get a mention – Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas); Environment Agency; Forest Research; Natural England; Joint Nature Conservation Committee; Marine Management Organisation; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

There are a few references to “carbon stocks” and “carbon accounting”, but not so many as to skew the programme unduly, so far as I can see.

Sundries

Reference is made to lots of other schemes and plans, such as the government’s (now closed) Consultation on Biodiversity Net Gain regulations and implementation; the 10 Point Plan for financing biodiversity; the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund (“Apply to become a facilitator to bring together groups of farmers, foresters and other land managers to improve local environmental outcomes”); the Nature Recovery Green Paper (“We are setting out proposals to create a system which better reflects the latest science and the impending impacts of climate change, which better reflects our domestic species and habitats, and which will help us achieve our significant goals to recover nature”). There is also a reference to the announcement of some (in the scheme of things – certainly in the scheme of things net zero – minor) funding: £30m to the Big Nature Impact Fund, aimed at unlocking significant private investment into nature projects, such as new tree planting or restoring peatlands and £12m to the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance, to protect and restore vulnerable coastal communities and habitats.

Conclusion

I am grateful to WEET for the information set out as background to its forthcoming conference, for drawing all this together in a single place. It is good to know that a lot is going on. From a brief perusal it seems a bit scatter-gun and a bit repetitive; concerns remain that net zero, “carbon” reduction schemes, and “green” energy plans seem in the eyes of most government officials to be synonymous with environmentalism, when the reality is that they are often in conflict with it; and the sums available for real environmental projects look like chickenfeed compared to the money thrown at climate change projects.

On the other hand, it seems that a lot is going on and that a lot of thought is being given to important issues. I am not as depressed as I might be if I relied solely on the environment pages of the Guardian website for my news.

13 Comments

  1. Regarding “carbon” reduction schemes, and “green” energy plans seeming in the eyes of most government officials to be synonymous with environmentalism, …Matt Ridley observes in ‘The Rational Optimist, ‘ (2010) that to supply the US with its current power demand would require solar panels covering landscape the size of Spain, wind farms the area of Kazikstan or hydro dam catchments larger than all the continents together.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beth, that’s an interesting variation on numbers the Guardian itself quoted, as I revealed here:

    Saving the Planet by Trashing it

    If America finally weans itself off planet-heating emissions, the country will look and feel very different.

    Landscapes from coast to coast would be transformed, carpeted in wind turbines and solar panels, with enough new transmission lines to wrap around Earth 19 times…A gargantuan effort [will be required] to erect solar panels and wind turbines – first an extra 300GW of wind and 300GW of solar by 2030, before supply soars further to five times today’s transmission capacity by 2050.

    This endeavor [sic] will require around 590,000 sq km (or 227,800 sq miles) of America to be blanketed in turbines and panels, around a tenth of all the land in the contiguous US. If you took a stroll along an Atlantic-facing beach there would be a good chance you’d see renewable energy in all directions, with an expanse of ocean the size of Belgium dotted with towering offshore wind turbines.

    … As solar and wind are intermittent, moving clean energy to all corners of the country will require the current electricity transmission system to triple in size, an extraordinary roll-out of new poles, wires and substations…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One generation’s environmental damage will be no more than landscape for the next.

    Like

  4. Here’s an illustration of the thinking that wind turbines are OK in sensitive locations. IMO it almost beggars belief, especially in the context of the story:

    “The Highland peatbog seeking worldwide recognition”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-63902143

    A vast area of peatbog in Scotland's Flow Country could become one of Unesco's newest World Heritage sites. But why do some people believe the landscape deserves the attention?

    Heather Jardine was a girl when the machinery arrived to carve up the ground on hills around her home in Sutherland in the 1970s.

    She remembers the peatbogs being drained as huge diggers were used to create massive ditches.

    The land was being prepared for large blocks of commercial forestry, which involved the planting of millions of non-native trees.

    Heather says: "It seemed quite exciting as a young child seeing all the planters and the activity.

    "But later it was realised this had been the wrong thing to do.

    "In the 2000s work started on taking all the forestry down and blocking up the ditches."

    In the intervening years, the importance of the environment which had been damaged had become clear. The repair work continues to this day…

    I wonder how long it will be before people realise the same is true of intrusive and environmentally damaging wind farms? Meanwhile…

    …However, there are others who have worries about the potential effect of the designation.

    Willie Findlay has farmed on 3,000 acres near Melvich for almost 30 years. He has diversified into offering buggy tours of his farm, and says world heritage status could help bring more tourists to the area.

    But he has concerns about possible negative effects on agriculture, and restrictions on developments such as wind farms….

    Like

  5. “Green farming schemes to be paid more taxpayers’ money”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-64169485

    Farmers in England will be paid more public money for protecting the environment and producing food more sustainably, the government has said.

    It is hoped the increase in payment rates will encourage more farmers to sign up to new environmental land management schemes (ELMS).

    ELMS is designed to replace the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP).

    Farmers’ union the NFU welcomed the rise but warned it could be “too little too late” in the economic climate.

    The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the new system would put “money into farmers’ pockets” while enhancing nature and driving innovation in agriculture.

    The announcement comes amid rises in the cost of food production, with farmers hit particularly hard by increases in the cost of animal feed, fertilizers and fuel.

    The increased rates under ELMS will come from existing money, reallocated from the previous direct payment subsidies given to farmers under the EU scheme.

    NFU vice president David Exwood said it was still unclear what work farmers – who will be losing direct payments – would actually be paid for under ELMS.

    He said: “While some of these latest changes are welcome… it risks being too little too late, especially given the current economic challenges we are experiencing and the rapid erosion of direct payments.”

    Concerns had previously been raised that the new nature-friendly payments system would not offer smaller farms enough to stay in business.

    Now 30,000 farmers who have signed up to a countryside stewardship scheme – which is being expanded under ELMS – will see an average increase of 10% to the money they receive for ongoing environmental work, such as habitat management.

    Bigger, one-off green schemes, such as hedgerow creation, will see an average payment increase of 48%…

    Interesting choice of words for the headline – “to be paid more taxpayers’ money”. I can’t remember ever seeing that form of words on a BBC article about subsidies for renewable energy.

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  6. “The increased rates under ELMS will come from existing money, reallocated from the previous direct payment subsidies given to farmers under the EU scheme.

    NFU vice president David Exwood said it was still unclear what work farmers – who will be losing direct payments – would actually be paid for under ELMS.

    He said: “While some of these latest changes are welcome… it risks being too little too late, especially given the current economic challenges we are experiencing and the rapid erosion of direct payments.”

    wonder how much they were payed/granted under the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP).?

    Like

  7. “Dry stone wallers call for subsidy rise to protect environment”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-64254781

    The environmental benefits of dry stone walls are at risk unless the government rethinks subsidy rates, it is warned.

    The Northumbria Dry Stone Walling Association said the government recognised the walls’ contribution to “biodiversity recovery”.

    But chairman Paul Foster said the subsidy for the “physically demanding, skilled job” was “woefully inadequate”.

    The Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the rates were “kept under review”.

    Mr Foster said farmers wanted to maintain dry stone walls but “getting decent wallers to work for the grants available is virtually impossible without a top-up”.

    A subsidy of £25 per metre, granted via the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, was raised to £31.91 on 5 January but he said £45 per square metre was more realistic, with some craftsmen needing to charge up to £70 to make a living.

    “Bearing in mind that a skilled waller can rebuild three to four metres a day, this is poor remuneration for a physically demanding, skilled job,” Mr Foster said.

    I agree that the pay is poor, and it’s difficult and demanding work. A well-built dry stone wall is a thing of beauty. But can anyone (Jit?) explain to me their “contribution to “biodiversity recovery””? It seems everyone wants to be subsidised, and claiming that their work protects the environment is the way to get the subsidy. By the way, in the case of dry stone walls, I can see what the case might be, and I am ready to be persuaded by Jit.

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  8. Mark, I see only one potential reason, which is that the repaired wall will be stock proof, and therefore will encourage sheep grazing, rather than cereal production. Probably not relevant above certain elevations, but driving down the A17 in Lincs you see ruined dry stone walls around fields that have now gone over to wheat etc, which doesn’t try to escape, wander into the road, etc. Grazed land has lower inputs and is more biodiverse than arable.

    A ruined wall would otherwise be as good a habitat as a good wall for ferns etc and things that like to make nests in crevices.

    In short, no idea!

    Like

  9. “Government falling ‘far short’ on environmental targets”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-64321622

    This section doesn’t fill me with confidence:

    A spokesman for Defra said it would publish a new environmental improvement plan later this month that would help it to meet its targets to protect the natural world, tackle climate change and halt the decline in species populations by 2030.

    We (the UK) can’t tackle climate change, but recognition of this fact is still lacking. As is recognition of the fact that much that they do in their misguided belief that we can tackle climate change, is itself environmentally damaging.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “Elms: England green farming subsidies detail unveiled”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-64399799

    …In England, the Elms will now comprise three payment schemes:

    The Sustainable Farming Incentive focuses on soil health and reducing the use of “inputs” such as fertilisers and insecticides
    The Landscape Recovery Scheme will pay landowners for ambitious large-scale “rewilding” projects
    The Countryside Stewardship Plus scheme will reward farmers for action to support climate change adaptation and help nature
    The Sustainable Farming Incentive is being expanded to include payments for looking after hedgerows, grasslands and soils.

    The Countryside Stewardship Plus will reward farmers for “taking coordinated action, working with neighbouring farms and landowners to support climate and nature aims”.

    This includes natural flood management, peatland restoration and enhancing woodland.

    NFU Vice President David Exwood said the detail was “incredibly useful” and provided “some of the clarity we have been asking for.”

    Martin Lines, chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said it wasn’t perfect, but it was a “start”…

    Like

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