My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
If humans are to live in harmony with nature, we need to find a way to decouple economic growth from environmental harm and that means finding a way to reflect the true value of nature in decision-making.
To me, this has always felt a bit like nature conservation’s Holy Grail. Fix the economic system and the problems facing nature should subside.
So, I’m excited to be in Edinburgh this week to take part in the World Forum on Natural Capital. This is the bi-annual opportunity for people from around the world to share ideas and experiences about how well they are doing to rising to this challenge.
This is particularly timely, given the UK Government’s commitment to produce a 25 year environment plan (due either side of Christmas*) as a roadmap for how they plan to restore the natural environment in a generation.
Our contribution to this conference will be the publication of a Natural Capital Account for the RSPB’s nature reserves in England. We have produced this because there has been a lot of talk about how natural capital accounting could provide a major leap forward in how we reflect nature in decision-making.
The theory goes, that if businesses, landowners, local authorities and even central government were obliged to produce natural capital accounts alongside financial accounts, they would be a greater accountability for the state of nature which in turn could lead to greater investment in and protection of nature and the services that it provides**.
Yet, this remains a theory. Some businesses have piloted this approach, but the implications for biodiversity remain uncertain. We wanted to see what natural capital accounting might mean for biodiversity. And that’s why, as a contribution to the debate, we have looked at our nature reserve network in England.
RSPB Dovestone by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Our reserves are amazing; in England there are 110 of them covering over 60,000 hectares, from purple-clad heathland at Aylesbeare Common in Devon, through wildlife-rich wetlands at Minsmere in Suffolk, dramatic seabird colonies at Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to swathes of restored blanket bog at Geltsdale, Cumbria.
However, until now we have not tried to quantify the value they provide to the public. The Natural Capital Account is the first step to doing just that, and even its partial assessment reports that the benefits*** provided by our reserves are more than double the costs of meeting our nature conservation objectives on our reserves.
These benefits are largely invisible in standard financial accounts, highlighting the contribution that Natural Capital Accounting can make in providing better information for decision-making. The account also demonstrates the importance of the public benefits provided by nature reserves and the need for public policy support to ensure that nature is managed in a way that is better for people and nature. This is particularly timely given Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s intention to reform the agriculture payments system so that farmers are rewarded for providing environmental services – living up to the public money for public goods mantra.
Done well, I believe a Natural Capital approach (which is a broader concept than Natural Capital Accounts) must have a central role in correcting the current paradox. This approach needs to be at the heart of the way decisions are made by both the private and public sectors. It is gratifying to see pilots being explored by individual businesses and the approach is already reflected in some of the UK Government’s recent initiatives, such as the Clean Growth Strategy and the National Infrastructure Assessment. This indicates movement towards the step change that is needed.
But, critically, Natural Capital approaches need to be applied in a way that reflects some of the more intangible values of nature. It is not possible to monetise all the values of wildlife and, therefore, there is a risk that Natural Capital assessments can exclude and even undermine the importance of biodiversity. This is increasingly acknowledged as a challenge in the way that the tools have been developed.
Our report, using the RSPB estate in England, therefore offers clues to what the steps are needed to ensure that biodiversity’s values remain visible within a Natural Capital Account. Crucially, we believe that biodiversity targets (for sites, species and habitats) are essential in making natural capital accounts work.
Why do I say this? Well, the RSPB is a nature conservation organisation and so we invest resources in meeting biodiversity targets for our reserves. We can measure these costs and reflect them in a natural capital account. What happens if you are not a nature conservation organisation? You can measure costs of meeting business targets and measures the value (positive or negative) in terms of contribution to water, carbon and human well-being, but will struggle to assign a value for biodiversity. The costs of managing land for nature will only feature if the business, landowner or public body has a stated ambition for the state of wildlife it wants. Introducing and publicly reporting against biodiversity targets are essential in making the accounting approach work. What’s more, natural capital accounts for public bodies could bring to life their legal obligation to have regard to conserving biodiversity (under s40 NERC Act 2006).
My final point is this, our ecologists and economists have worked together for a year to produce this account. It is a fabulous piece of work and reveals the range and scale of benefits that we, and others, who managed the land and seas for conservation provide to the public at large. But it still provides only a partial estimate of the public value of our English nature reserves. Embedding this approach across all parts of society will take time and investment. Until we have this, we need strong political commitment to and investment in meeting targets for nature.
Please do read our report and let me know what you think.
It would be great to hear your views.
*Given that we have been waiting for the 25 year environment plan since May 2015, you’ll note I don’t specify which Christmas the plan is due. A bit like the Chilcott Inqury, we just have to wait until those in power are ready.
** In 2002, before the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the RSPB assessed the global costs of degrading natural habitats along with the benefits of conserving them. The conclusion was that financing an effective global programme for the conservation of remaining wild nature would yield an estimated benefit one hundred times greater than the cost. Around the same time, we estimated that our reserves supported over 2,000 jobs, providing evidence of their local economic impact, helping to dispel the myth that protecting the environment is an obstacle to economic growth.
***Our account is partial as we were only able to provide estimates of the value of managing greenhouse gas emissions, providing opportunities for quiet recreation and volunteering. We were unable to measure contributions to clean water, flood regulation or reducing coastal erosion.
This is my annual update on how well the RSPB is doing in reducing its own environmental footprint. We spend a lot of time encouraging others to adopt positive environmental behaviour, so it is only right that we try to practice what we preach.
Here, I pull out some highlights from this year’s report compiled by my colleague, Sarah Alsbury (who leads our environmental performance programme).
Our top priority has been to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% (per staff member) between 2010 and 2020. This is roughly in line with targets set by the UK Government. Our focus has primarily been on accounting for emissions through our built estate, travel, paper and publications.
As shown in the figures below, we have made good progress particularly because we have established a number of renewable projects and installed energy savings measures. Most noticeably, we have made considerable savings through the wind turbine established last year at the RSPB’s Headquarters. It generated 1,378,335 kWh of electricity in its first year of operation, which is equivalent to powering approximately 354 homes.
My colleague, Paul Langshaw's great picture of the Lodge turbine
This was a big deal for us and every time I go past it to and from work, I feel really good about what we have achieved. Clearly, this project was not without risk. But, we carried out stringent ecological monitoring before giving the go ahead to the wind turbine and we and our partners Ecotricity have continued monitoring for potential impacts on birds and bats. From pre-construction surveys, we identified that bats could potentially be affected and we therefore agreed with Ecotricity that the turbine is switched off for an hour either side of dawn and dusk between May and October when bats are most active. Ecotricity has fitted bat detectors to the turbine to check that this is working and carried out casualty surveys on the ground. From this data, we are confident that the system is working for bats. The detectors are also providing valuable information about how bats behave around wind turbines.
As well as the turbine, we are putting the finishing touches to a major programme of LED lighting, solar PV car ports and biomass boilers, which will help us hit our targets. The biomass boilers have been tested to make sure that they can take reed from our wetland reserves, which we cut to provide the right conditions for a wildlife.
Through these actions, we are demonstrating that it is possible to generate renewable energy in harmony with nature.
Two final things to report…
…all our cafes and the staff restaurant at our headquarters have achieved the Food For Life standard, the Soil Association’s mark for sustainable catering outlets.
…our whole approach is driven by an externally credited scheme called Green Dragon which recognises the great greening work done by our staff and helps us do even more. We retained Level 2 of Green Dragon in Wales in January 2017 while our East of England and Scottish teams are making good progress towards achieving Level 2 by the end of January 2018.
All of this requires planning, investment and sustained action by staff and volunteers. While we might not get everything right, I am proud of what we have collectively achieved. I hope to be able to report more success next year.
If my memory serves me right, the last time the environment received a mention in a Budget speech was in 2011 when George Osborne said “we will make sure that gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren't placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”. That was the start of a five year defence of the EU Nature Directives that started in England and spread across the European Union.
So, it was hugely heartening that yesterday the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond said, “Because we can’t keep our promise to the next generation to build an economy fit for the future unless we ensure our planet has a future.” It is incredibly important that the whole government (and not just the incumbent Environment Secretary) both understands and frames the natural environment as fundamental to our economy and prosperity.
The government seems to have renewed enthusiasm to intervene to address environmental problems to improve air quality, to incentivise the development of electric vehicles and to tax plastics. It would be nice to have more specific action on nature but perhaps we shall have to wait until the publication of the 25 year environment plan.
It’s not all rosy, of course. Defra, despite getting a Brexit boost in capacity, has been cut 40% compared to where it was was seven years ago (£1.5 billion this year compared to £2.6 billion in 2009/10). What's more, some of the measures on fossil fuels (such as continued tax exemption for North Sea oil and gas, frozen Air Passenger Duty, frozen fuel tax etc) don’t quite seem consistent with domestic carbon budgets or the commitments made at last week's Climate Change talks in Bonn.
Perhaps the biggest next test of the Government’s green credentials will be the planned infrastructure and new housing. These developments need to be in the right place, away from sensitive wildlife sites and built to high environmental standards.
But my final thought is that a government that believes our economy and prosperity is dependent on the natural environment is a government that has a chance of restoring nature in a generation. And that must be a good thing.