How to compete for nature

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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

How to compete for nature

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The EU referendum has dominated the headlines over the past week and this looks set to continue right up to 23 June.  This triggers two thoughts.  First, journalists will need different angles to keep folk interested and so the environmental consequences of remaining of leaving the EU should (eventually) get decent coverage.  Second, I have a feeling that many will tire of the EU debate pretty quickly. 

So I promise to help with the former and try to avoid the latter.

Despite the wall to wall news coverage, one aspect of the EU reform deal secured by the Prime Minister (here) that has to date attracted little media attention is arguably the most important from an environmental perspective. 

This is the one focussed on enhancing the EU’s economic ‘competitiveness’ by reducing ‘red tape’. Specifically, the deal includes a commitment to introducing targets for reducing the total cost of EU regulation to business, similar to the targets that were recently introduced in the UK.

Within the UK and the EU, a more competitive economy is interpreted as key to delivering more growth and jobs.

In that context, it is sometimes argued that, by placing restrictions on what businesses can and cannot do, EU regulations (including those protecting the environment) put EU firms at a disadvantage compared to their non-EU competitors (at least to the extent that these competitors face less stringent rules). However, an alternative view is that such regulations actually promote environmentally-friendly innovation and protect the ‘natural capital’ assets that underpin the economy as whole. Meaning that they can be good for people, for business, and for nature too.

This latter view has come to the fore in the review of the EU Nature Directives. Many businesses have supported them, in part because they provide common standards across the EU thereby providing a level playing field, but also because they deliver demonstrable benefits for people and nature too.

Recent studies have shown that the natural environment supports almost 750,000 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) jobs and over £27.5 billion of economic output across the UK (photo credit: Ben Hall

A more ‘competitive’ economy should not mean weaker environmental safeguards; the notion that we can only ‘compete’ globally by trashing our environment is one to which few economists should give much credence.

To be clear, it is not that I don’t see the argument that reducing so-called ‘unnecessary regulatory burdens’ on business is important;  making sure that our laws are properly enforced and that they do not impose any unnecessary costs on business is eminently sensible. But, the drive to reduce regulatory ‘burdens’ could result in unintended consequences including for nature.

As highlighted by the UK Environmental Audit Committee in their report on the subject in late 2014, regulation is “the essential underpinning of environmental protection”.  What's more, the UK Government's own report suggests that the benefits provided by Defra's stock of environmental regulations (which includes EU environmental regulations) are estimated to outweigh costs at least 3:1 and for biodiversity regulations 7:1 (see here).

So, we need to ensure that any approach that seeks to review and potentially revise existing laws is based on the best available evidence as to what works (or doesn’t work), why (or why not), and for whom; we need a balanced approach that looks not only at short-term costs to business but also long-term benefits to the economy, the environment, and wider society. Setting arbitrary targets to reduce regulation without any proper scrutiny of what this might mean for the protections that such laws provide could be an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Whatever the result of the referendum, the ‘competitiveness’ and 'better regulation' agendas will continue to have an important impact on the ways in which we protect the natural environment in this country.

We will be keeping a close eye on what happens next in this and other aspects of the EU debate.  As promised yesterday, in the run up to the referendum I shall continue to try to separate fact from fiction but I promise not to bore you on the subject.  Well, I’ll try...

  • That's 3 blogs in 3 days on the EU referendum! Clearly the issue fires you up Martin. I await the issue of the joint report you referred to before drawing any conclusions.