June, 2012

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Ambitions for Rio+20: a guest blog from the Deputy Prime Minister

    The countdown to the Rio+20 conference continues and I hope that you (like me!) have been enjoying reading Mark’s short essays reflecting on the state of the planet and the challenges facing nature.  Today, I am delighted to welcome a contribution from the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP.  He will be leading the UK Government’s delegation to Rio next week and his ambitions are outlined below.  At the end of his blog I have outlined how you can ask the DPM a question and I have also shared with you the ambitions that the RSPB has for the conference.


    From the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP

    Next week I’m leading the UK delegation to the Rio+20 Summit, two decades after the original Earth Summit. Back then world leaders agreed – for the first time ever – that development must not come at any cost. They recognised the dangers of making a dash for growth by hoovering up or destroying precious resources: you’ll only find yourself poorer in the end. 

    But the legacy of that momentous meeting is seriously under threat. Despite the progress that has been made, the vision set out in 1992 remains a long way off. And, now, as turmoil continues in the Eurozone, there is a real risk that in many major economies we’ll see sustainability sacrificed in the name of growth.

    That would be a huge mistake. Our economic and environmental agendas go hand in hand (a point the RSPB has been making for years). We will only deliver lasting prosperity by conserving resources and learning to live within our means. And it’s more important than ever that we respect the natural environment on which future wealth depends.

    So Rio must – once again – deliver a show of solidarity from the international community: there can be no more living only for today if we are to deliver a better tomorrow. I want to pay tribute to the work Birdlife International has been doing to encourage governments around the world to be bold when we meet next week. I’ll be pushing – with the help of Caroline Spelman – for three big things:

    First, national governments must move beyond a narrow understanding of wealth. Right now we judge how well a country is doing by looking almost exclusively at the money it makes. But to fully judge success we need a kind of ‘GDP+’, which takes into account the state of assets like forests or coastal areas – vital natural capital. We’re reforming the UK’s national accounts so that, by 2020, they also reflect our natural wealth. In Brazil I’ll be pressing our international partners to follow suit.

    Second, Rio must set out a plan for the future. That’s why I want us to kickstart a package of Sustainable Development Goals to help meet the fundamental challenges we now face. Like feeding growing populations; ensuring everyone has clean water; giving people access to green energy too. Agreeing these goals will be no mean feat – it will take an enormous diplomatic effort. But now is the moment to get them off the ground.

    Finally, Rio must get business on board. Many firms still have no idea how they impact on our environment. That isn’t just bad for the planet. It makes companies inefficient and depletes the resources they themselves depend on. Plus their customers and investors have a right to this information too. So it’s time for governments to give ‘sustainability reporting’ a much-needed global push, getting more companies to green their books.

    1992 was a triumph and next week governments from across the globe must revive the spirit and ambition of our predecessors. It’s time to set the agenda for the next twenty years. 


    What would you like to ask the Deputy Prime Minister about Rio+20?

    You can ask your question by commenting on this blog (if you are not already registered on RSPB Communities you will need to do so - see here for find out how) – alternatively we will be taking questions via Twitter and Facebook.  We’ll pick the best 20 questions for the Deputy Prime Minister to answer on his return from Rio+20.

    Finally, today two of my colleagues (Tim Stowe and Sacha Cleminson) will be flying out to the conference to join our BirfdLife International Partners in Rio. You will be able to recieve updates on their experiences by reading their blogs which will apear hereIn preparation for this conference, we have worked with Green Alliance to produce a series of essays entitled ‘Rio+20 Where It Should Lead’ from business, political and NGO leaders to stimulate fresh debate about how we rise to the sustainable development challenge set twenty years ago. You can read a copy of this report hereAs BirdLife International, we shall at Rio be making the case for the following:

    1. A green economy in the context of sustainable development: We want governments to demonstrate global leadership to re-direct the global economy towards a sustainable pathway.  The resilience of the global economy is intimately linked to the state of the environment . Will want governments to mainstream consideration of nature across policy formulation and decision-making processes, and reflect it clearly in indicators of socio-economic development and growth. We want governments to recognise that healthy ecosystems underpin our lives and that the poorest and most vulnerable are frequently the most dependent on them. Governments must provide the investment needed to maintain and restore healthy ecosystems.  We also want governments to phase out and redirect harmful and perverse incentives that act to undermine sustainable development.

    2. Securing our oceans: We strongly support efforts to protect and restore marine ecosystems and in particular we a) support the call for negotiation of an implementing agreement to the United Nations Law of the Sea that would address the sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including effective safeguard for ecologically and biologically significant areas and b) calls on states to reduce fish harvest to levels that allow stocks to rebuild, in order to restore, by 2015, and maintain depleted fish stocks above levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield. For stocks which, despite targeted measures, fail to achieve this target, science-based management plans should be implemented in order to restore and maintain populations to these levels within the shortest timeframe biologically possible

    3. Biodiversity and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): we support the development of a set of universally agreed Sustainable Development Goals that will accelerate and help measure progress towards sustainable development. However, it is essential that Governments ensure that a) the underpinning role of nature and biodiversity is clearly reflected in the SDGs b) the SDGs and their indicators link explicitly to the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 (agreed in Nagoya in 2010) and its associated indicators c) a process is established to follow from Rio+20 that will agree the themes of the SDGs.and d) Any indicative list of themes to be decided upon at Rio+20 should not restrict the choice of SDGs by this future process.

    4. Framework for action: To ensure coherent progress towards sustainable development, priority cross-cutting issues (e.g. forests and biodiversity, oceans, food security and agriculture, energy and water) identified in the Rio+20 outcomes require urgent action. They must link and refer to the delivery of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

    Good luck to all those (politicians, business leaders and NGOs) that are going to Rio.  Please do come back with concrete commitments.  Mark’s final essays will appear over the next few days after which I shall reflect on the successes (we hope) of the Rio conference. 


  • Winning hearts and minds

    This week I am reflecting on Rio+20 and considering how we rise to some of the big challenges facing us and the natural world.  I am not claiming to have all the answers but simply want to continue the debate. Today I consider the importance of winning hearts and minds.

    I enjoyed the comment from Hesychast on yesterday's blog - arguing that we need to decide "when we need emotion to drive change and when what we really need are very, very cool heads".  I imagine that it is the politician that keeps their head in the middle of a long night of negotiation that gets their way, but occasionally, raw emotion can win the day.  No doubt, the Government has learnt from the scars they bear from recent rows over forests, planning and buzzards.  These were issues which touched a nerve with people who care passionately about the natural environment.

    The recent debate about the Natural Capital Committee is a good example of when to engage the head but to recognise the limitations with this approach.  In yesterday's Independent for example, Terence Blacker argued that "putting a price on everything is no way to treat the countryside". 

    My view?

    I think that the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) is undoubtedly a good thing and something the UK Government deserves great credit for having the foresight to create during trying economic times.  One of today's great challenges, brilliantly articulated in the National Ecosystem Assessment, is how to get the most from our land and seas.  To do that we need to be able to describe the whole array of benefits these assets can deliver.  The NCC is therefore as much about natural science as it is about economics.  It’s as much about understanding ecosystem stability, resilience and connectivity as it is about clean water to drink or crops to eat.

    There is no presumption whatsoever that all benefits can be reduced to monetary benefits or that valuation will be the sole criteria for future decisions.  Even economists recognise that there are some things in the natural world that cannot be expressed meaningfully in monetary terms.  The existence value of species, for example.  My guess is that most of the ten million people that support BirdLife International partners in 120 countries (including the RSPB in the UK) love nature and think that there is a moral imperative to look after it.  They express this time and again through the generous support they give to our conservation efforts.  We have, for example, raised millions to protect threatened species which most people will never see (such as albatrosses, endemic seabirds on Henderson island, vultures etc). 

    The whole rationale for understanding natural capital is because we currently overexploit it by undervaluing its importance to us.  This failure is reducing current wellbeing and undermining prospects for achieving a tolerable future for our children.  Understanding why natural capital is so vital, and finding systematic means to articulate that importance into decision making is a no-brainer.  It helps to win the minds of decision-makers keen to improve our well-being.


    As I argued yesterday, valuation on its own is not going to be a panacea to solve the biodiversity crisis.  Politicians are brilliantly in touch with the electorate.  We need more support for nature conservation and more people prepared to exercise their vote for nature.  And that means we need to reach out differently to more people in new ways. But it also means we need to encourage more people to have contact with nature ideally from an early age.  This is something that the RSPB is evangelical about.  More young people having contact with nature means more young people being aware of what's going on around them, more young people wanting to find out more, becoming passionate about nature and wanting to fight to save it.  When you have nature in your heart, you can be a powerful force for good.

    Simple really.

    How would you go about winning hearts and minds for nature conservation?

    It would be great to hear your views.


  • Stepping up for our nature on our overseas territories?

    Yesterday, the Government published a new White Paper on the UK Overseas Territories.  The first key test post Rio for the Government to demonstrate its intent to step up for nature.

    The Overseas Territories are unique: British territory, mostly small islands, located far away in distant seas, but home to unique and threatened wildlife for which we have a responsibility. The Territories in the South Atlantic are home to over a third of the nesting population of one of the world’s most iconic group of birds, the albatross, whilst the British Indian Ocean Territory harbours the planet’s largest coral atoll.

    Many of these species, which have evolved in isolation on their island homes, are now threatened with extinction. Indeed, the Territories hold over 85% of the threatened species for which the UK is responsible, and have more threatened bird species than the entire European continent. Sadly, extinctions in the Overseas Territories are not theoretical: the rare St Helena Olive Tree, which was specifically mentioned in the last Overseas Territories White Paper in 1999, went extinct as recently as 2004.

    The White Paper was therefore an important test of how seriously the UK Government takes its responsibility and whether it would work to ensure a step-change in environmental progress.

    In reality, the paper is strong on vision, with the environment placed as a UK Government priority ‘to be cherished’. It also confirms the very welcome recent decision that all UK Government Departments (including most importantly Defra and DECC) have a responsibility to the Overseas Territories in their policy areas. By announcing a new secondment programme between UK and Territory civil servants, this could be a real opportunity to increase the capacity of the very small Territory Governments.

    Whilst the vision was good, the detail underneath it was sadly lacking. No detailed commitments on what would be delivered, by when, nor any new commitments on funding (the Overseas Territories received only £1.5m from Defra’s biodiversity conservation budget in 2010/11).

    So the Paper doesn’t deliver a step change, and represents something of a missed opportunity - nowhere else could the UK Government save so many British species for so little investment. We’ll therefore be closely following the Government’s next steps to make sure that positive vision does result in positive action, and will keep you posted.

    Have a read and let me know what you think.