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
  • A lesson from the Archbishop of Canterbury: it is time to reclaim sustainable development

    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.  I will argue that we need to do more to inject emotion into the debate, refresh the way we inspire people to take action, choose to fight the right battles but also get down to the brass-tacks of mainstreaming the environment in decision-making.  It is to this rather dry topic that I turn to today.

    I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  It might have something to do with the fact that he once gave my little girl a cheery little wave outside Canterbury Cathedral.  Or more likely because, when he intervenes politically (which is understandably a rare event), he speaks a lot of sense. 

    This weekend his forthcoming book was heavily trailed.  In it, he takes issue with the idea that economic growth, defined as increasing production, is necessarily a good thing. He argues that this mindset creates new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. He says "By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things."

    This is not as revolutionary as it first sounds.  It has echoes of the 2005 definition of sustainable development (in Securing the Future) that argued that a sustainable economy was a means to an end (to create a healthy and just society that lived within environmental limits) rather than an end in its own right.  This has to be right.

    Which is why I was delighted that the UK Government rearticulated this definition in the National Planning Policy Framework published earlier this year.  My worry is that attempts to apply the term in the real world have floundered and some might have given up bringing the concept to life.  I think that it is time to reclaim and revitalise this term.

    In the run up to Rio+20, the RSPB, in partnership with Green Alliance, published a series of essays on sustainable development - a term that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.  I was also pleased to see that the Labour party also commissioned some new thinking to compete with that emerging from the Deputy Prime Minister.  We need fresh ideas to help us rise to the crises of biodiversity loss, climate change and extreme poverty and turn the sustainable development dream into reality.

    But some of the answers might be found in the nuts and bolts of decision-making.  I recently dipped back into a publication which the RSPB produced a few years ago (Think Nature)  which tried to indentify the key principles which would help us live within environmental limits.  It was essentially a guide to influence policy making and decision-taking.  Looking at these principles again today, they still seem relevant.

    They are a little dry (sorry) but have a read and let me know what you think. 

    1. Environmental limits should be defined
    While it might be possible to quantify absolute limits for some things (such as the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases which would trigger catastrophic climate change) it is harder to quantify limits for others (such as how many bitterns do we want/need).  But that simply provides a greater reason for politicians to make judgements on what limits they deem to be socially acceptable.  This is why the RSPB continues to support a target-led approach to nature conservation and natural resource protection. These targets provide a focus for conservation, encourage scrutiny and ensure accountability.  Defra seems to agree as it has some ambitious targets in its Natural Environment White Paper and England Biodiversity Strategy.

    2. Living within environmental limits should be core to governmental strategy
    I don't really mind how its done, but public bodies and all parts of government need clear direction. They should be charged with living within environmental limits in the context of sustainable development. While there are merits in enshrining this in law in a consistent fashion, living within environmental limits requires more than a duty and will need to be complemented by the other tools and principles described below.

    3. Decision-making should be informed by sound science
    I think that most of us would prefer politicians to govern by evidence rather than anecdote.  Science matters, should be invested in and should inform policy making. 

    4. Policy making should be coherent and consistents
    Incoherent and inconsistent government policies can confuse and disempower the public. Arguing for a low carbon economy on the one hand and then sanctioning the expansion of aviation capacity on the other (a trait of recent governments) does not send the right signals to business and individuals.  Politicians should clearly communicate the scale of the challenge, and explain the nature of policy reform and behavioural change required to live within agreed targets.

    5. Government should play a leadership role and demonstrate best practice
    The coalition Government was right to set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for each Whitehall department.  We need a similarly diligent approach to  meet or exceed their natural enviornment targets on their land estates.

    6. Public participation should be core to decision-making
    This ought to be core to the Big Society ideology.  Increased civic engagement and participation of environment stakeholders will help improve the quality, relevance and effectiveness of government policies and ensure that socio-environmental concerns are addressed alongside economic issues. An inclusive approach is likely to create more confidence in the policies and decisions, and in the institutions that develop and deliver them. 

    7. Monitoring progress should include indicators of wellbeing
    There seems to be growing consensus that GDP is too crude a measure of prosperity. Alternative indicators of wellbeing, which assess whether we are living within environmental limits, should be adopted instead.

    8. Scrutiny and accountability arrangements should have teeth
    Every government needs a constructive critic capable of giving truth to power (a bit like a prococious teenager).  We need parliamentary select committees but these should be complemented by strong, independent champions of the environment to ensure transparency and accountability. If well resourced and properly mandated, these agencies can report on the state of the natural world, assess government performance; advise central government to influence change in policy and legislation; and act as a focus for public concern.

    9. The true value of the natural environment should be assessed and taken into account when developing and implementing policies
    Yes, this does mean improving our understanding of the services that nature gives us, where possible improving our understanding of their value and reflecting these values in decision-making.  This is why I am a fan of the Natural Capital Committee.  I shall return to this soon.  Valuation is unlikely to be a panacea, as it is impossible to put a price on everything that nature gives us (what price a redshank?), but it can certainly help.

    10. Government should be prepared to intervene through fiscal, policy and legislative reform
    It is an inconvenient truth that no environmental problem has ever been solved through voluntary means alone.  Governments should be prepared to deploy the right mix of regulation and incentives.  Without this, we will continue to bear the costs of greed and short-term thinking, and will increasingly suffer the impacts of failing to live within our environmental limits.  I'd hope the Archbishop of Canterbury would at least agree with me on that one.

    How do you think we should mainstream the environment in decision-making?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Rio agreed a future we didn't want: it’s time to move on... with a new sense of urgency

    And so the world left Rio once again – this time leaving us all a little underwhelmend.  In 1992, six major agreements came out of the Rio summit, three of which were legally binding: on climate change, biological diversity and desertification.

    On this occasion, we have the "Future We Want", a 49 page document with a lot of words with at best, some baby steps towards saving the planet and, at worst, confirming a future we really didn't want.

    This week, I thought I would reflect on Rio, what our response should be and highlight some of the major global challenges that need attention right now.  I shall also consider what it now means for action here at home: for politicians, business, civil society organsiations like the RSPB and individuals.  While the RSPB is underwhelmed by the conference, it has, as I expected, provided us all a chance to reflect on what we need to do to reinvigorate action to help us deliver the twin goals of sustainable development: a fair and just society that lives within environmental limits.  It's just a shame that having reflected, politicians were unable to do anything about it.

    My intention is to keep the debate going.  50,000 people descending on Rio for ten days was unlikely to ever fix the world’s major social and environmental challenges.  But it would calamitous if people now went back to business as usual.  The agreement has too few commitments and too many opportunities for nations to do nothing.  This is just not good enough. 

    Politicians need to recognise the inadequacy of this agreement and think afresh about what we need to do to allow our species to live in harmony with nature. 

    So what did Rio achieve?

    Today, I’ll focus on the substance of what was agreed and relate this back to what we, as part of BirdLife International, were seeking (which I highlighted here).

    In summary, there are some positive words (for example in the biodiversity section or green economy below). But the final agreement is largely a text of recommitments rather than new commitments.  There are a few new initiatives but these are largely to plug gaps in delays because ambitious agreement could not be reached.

    The RSPB and Birdlife International wanted...

    ...a green economy in the context of sustainable development.  We did not get this.  The text says the green economy prescriptions should be underpinned by Rio principles (good); that corporations will be invited but not mandated (bad) to report on their environmental and social impact of their operations; that there should be “Urgent action” on unsustainable production and consumption (good), but gives no details or timetable on how this can be achieved (bad); integrating environmental factors into decision making  should take place “where national circumstances and conditions allow" (awful); that we need for broader measures of progress to complement GDP and asks for UN statisticians to begin work on this issue (good but support from nations was weak); that there is a recommitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and subsidies that contribute to overfishing but the language is incredibly weak (bad).  In addition to the text, Nick Clegg announced at the conference that UK will be the first country in the world to force major companies to measure their Carbon footprint (good).  Alas Bristish businesses have reacted by calling for a cut in green taxes.

    ...better protection for our oceans.  The ocean text is very weak, particularly because of the refusal to start negotiations on the implementing agreement for high seas biodiversity but also because the maximum sustainable yield paragraph is essentially just a re-commitment to the aim already agreed at WSSD in 2002.  Instead of negotiating an implementing agreement to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that would address sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including effective safeguard for ecologically and biologically sensitive areas it looks like Rio+20 will pass the buck to UNCLOS to take forward.

    ...progress on agreeing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with biodiversity at their heart.  The intention was to try to find a way to agree binding goals to replace the millennium development goals which expire in 2015.  There is acceptance that having a clear statement of intent on social and environment crises is important.  However, Rio failed to agree how SDGs would be set up.  This should worry our Prime Minister, David Cameron, as he (with the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia) will be co-chairing a process to agree the post-2015 framework for  international development. 

    ...a framework for action. I think it is difficult to find anything in the document that fits the bill.  If we want to drive change, then documents like the one agreed at Rio are woefully insufficient.  But, we cannot expect mutli-lateral environmental agreements to save the world on their own.  Action within countries, within grassroots communities and constituencies, and by businesses, civil society organisations, individuals and yes domestic governments count much more.  And it is this that I shall turn to this tomorrow.

    What did you think about what was agreed in Rio?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • Some friendly advice

    The dust has barely settled over Buzzardgate, but here we are again: another call on the Government to permit the widespread destruction of not just one this time, but two of our native bird species. 

    It’s not pheasant shoots this time, but angling.  The Angling Trust has got together with its friends at the Countryside Alliance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and a few others to urge the Minister, Richard Benyon, to add cormorants and goosanders to the general licence (which would allow unlimited killing of these birds). They say this is necessary to protect fish stocks.

    I’ve blogged previously on the many reasons why this proposal – like that on buzzards – is…well…just plain wrong (read it here) so I won’t repeat myself.  But it surprises me that this band of organisations is apparently so unconcerned about landing the Minister in hot water again.

    I’d like to think that, within Defra, lessons have been learned from buzzards – if not, I would certainly advise that they are, and quickly.  Cormorants and goosanders may not be as familiar to people as buzzards, but that doesn’t mean that they are any less valued as part of our native wildlife. 

    It is remarkable that this debate appears to have reopened at a time when political leaders have converged in Rio to determine how to save the planet and help us live within our environmental means.  I am not sure Defra ministers will want the first post-Rio action to involve sanctioning unlimited killing of two native species. The public won’t stand for their unrestricted destruction, and neither will we.