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
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.
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.
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.