State of Nature at the Conservative Party Conference

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State of Nature at the Conservative Party Conference

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There has been some reaction (see here) to last night's fringe event organised by the RSPB at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

I was not there, but our own Westminster Wigeon gives this report from last night's events...

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The last of the State of Nature Question Time events, at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, was certainly the liveliest of the three.

It was great to have Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for a full hour of question and answer. He was joined on the panel by Dr Mike Clarke, our Chief Exec, and Guy Newey, Head of Environment and Energy at the think tank Policy Exchange, under the chairmanship of journalist Charles Clover.

The audience was a mix of RSPB members and conference delegates, from a conservative councillor asking about farming to a “reformed twitcher” (Young Ornithologist of the Year 2008!) posing serious questions about the environmental credentials of fracking for shale gas.

Three topics really stood out, getting to the heart of the State of Nature report: the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); the role of Government in defending biodiversity; and the imminent threat of climate change.

One of the clearest messages of State of Nature is how much responsibility farmers hold in the protection and improvement of the natural environment. A local plant recorder had observed a steady decline in biodiversity in Lancashire over many years. She asked the Secretary of State how farmers could be encouraged to be better land managers alongside running a successful business. We were delighted to hear Mr Paterson restate his commitment to using reform of CAP to create incentives for farmers to look after the land and wildlife. In particular, transferring the maximum amount of money from support for production to support for agri-environment schemes could make a real difference for nature.

After a convincing case on CAP, our audience wanted to know what Government could do to reverse the decline in British biodiversity. In response, Mr Paterson described his plans for “biodiversity offsetting”, where developers could compensate for damage to habitats by funding replacements elsewhere.

RSPB has serious concerns about biodiversity offsetting, but we recognise its potential. A badly planned scheme could create the impression of green development while hastening damage to the environment. The Secretary of State clearly acknowledged the dangers of poor implementation and said that DEFRA’s system would ensure real gains for nature. We were pleased to hear him take on board the case for a mandatory scheme, in which developers are obliged to use proper offsetting measures.

The most provocative question of the evening came from the Chair, Charles Clover. He asked the panel how the UK should respond to climate change, in the light of the IPCC’s worrying new report.

Contrary to previous reports of Mr Paterson’s position, the Secretary of State explicitly recognised the human contribution to climate change. Sadly, the rest of his response was more complacent. He questioned the extent of anthropogenic contribution, using the tired line that temperatures have been fluctuating for centuries. He went as far as to identify possible benefits for the UK, such as extended growing seasons and fewer winter deaths from the cold.

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It sounds like it was a lively event - I wish I'd been there!  The Secretary of State’s firm CAP commitment and obvious determination to make offsetting work for nature are very welcome and I am glad that he interacted so openly with our members.  I'll be saying more about these issues in future blogs - starting this week by offering our view on how the c£3.2 billion annual UK spend on the CAP can be put to best use.

But, on climate change I have to say that selective reading of the IPCC report is deeply unhelpful. The scale of human-induced climate change is unprecedented and the associated dangers are the global threats of droughts, desertification and extremes in weather that will have potentially devastating effects on society as well as nature.  As RSPB scientists and reserve managers will tell you (and the statutory nature conservation agencies recently reported - see here), we are already seeing direct effects of climate change on wildlife in the UK and things are only set to get worse.

Facing up to climate change remains a real problem for all of government - not just Decc.  Defra has specific responsibility for adaptation and the challenge for Owen Paterson now is to set out how his Department will develop a strategy to allow nature (and us) to cope with the many threats that climate change will bring.  It seems like the next IPPC documenting the impacts of climate change on people and the natural world cannot come soon enough.

Comments
  • It all comes back to results - and the talk about reversing the impacts of farming on biodiversity go on, there are some huge contributions from many farmers, but the slide continues. Whilst development does damage, its not the root cause and like so much of what this Government has done vague promises have a nasty habit of turning into damaging detail. And, as for climate change, has Owen Paterson actually read what Lord Krebs' committee has to say about water - both floods and shortages, rather critical to farming benefitting from increased temperatures.

  • I must say I find Mr Paterson's attitude to the IPCC report on climate change as amazing and not least a little arrogant. Firstly, is he better qualified to assess the risks of climate change than the scientists who put the report together? Does he have a PhD in Earth Sciences and/or meteorology? I think the answers are no and no, so on what scientific grounds is he making a different interpretation than that made by so many much better qualified people? To say the least a little arrogant and quite amazing.

    (Actually he is wrong again as the UK's winters are likely to get colder because of the probable decay of the Gulf Stream due to global warming).

    Secondly what about the affects of climate change on other countries world wide. It will be disastrous for some but he seems to ignore all these aspects.

    Overall I submit, that it is a rather irresponsible approach by the UK's Secretary for the Environment and sets a poor example to other countries when the world is facing a very serious international problem concerning the future of this planet.