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Green recovery: a field guide

Richard Benwell offers some ID tips for a green recovery

October 2020

Green recovery: a field guide

Sometimes, in the field, a flash of colour or a distinctive shape dashing through the trees can get your heart racing—was that a firecrest in the hedgerow? was it a hen harrier that put the smaller birds to flight? When I was younger, there was always a temptation to say, “it must have been!” and leap to conclusions. Now, the excitement remains, but it’s tempered with more discipline. We reach for the field guide and look for distinctive identifying features to make a positive ID.*

The same can be said of political promises.

Today, the Prime Minister has announced £160m as the first part of a 10-point plan for a green recovery, pledging to generate enough electricity for every home with offshore wind energy within a decade. This follows the promise to protect 30% of the land for nature. These are the silhouettes on the horizon—are they the first glimpses of that rare species, a “green recovery”, or is it just another common or garden variety.**

So, to help us all ID a green recovery here are some distinguishing features to watch out for:

A green recovery must cover climate, oceans and nature

The ecological and climate emergencies are inseparable. There will be a temptation for Government to prioritise certain climate change mitigation measures where the early economic returns are apparent, such as clean energy generation and energy efficient, while neglecting nature.

But a green recovery can’t just be about immediate financial returns. Economic resilience depends on facing up to ecological economic risks (like biodiversity loss, flood and fire), as well as improving the ecological assets that underpin production (such as soil health, fish stocks and pollinators). Of course, there are ways to do both—a National Nature Service would create new green jobs as well as providing a workforce to undertake some of the conservation work needed with investment in environmental improvement.

If it doesn’t provide for ecosystem recovery on land and at sea as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation, then it’s not a green recovery.

A green recovery can’t have grey features

The green recovery must be the whole recovery. It’s not enough to announce a few positive policies if they come alongside other proposals that will cause ecological harm. A vast road infrastructure programme, or planning reforms that speed up development at the expense of nature, could easily undermine the positives of nature announcements. At the moment, we are particularly concerned that the Government’s Planning White Paper appears to prioritise easier permission for investment in development, with little regard for the positive role planning should play in delivering the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Unless every element of the recovery package is in line with net zero and ecological recovery, then it’s not a green recovery.

It must include strong laws

In the past, a feature of economic downturns has been a drive toward deregulation. The infamous “red tape challenges” have prioritised reducing costs for businesses, rather than the environmental benefits that regulation can bring. This time, that risk is multiplied by the urge to move away from EU-derived law. This puts important regulations like the Water Framework Directive (with good water quality monitoring) and the Birds and Habitats Directives (with Environmental Impact Assessments) at risk.

Already, there are indications that some laws may be weakened, such as the Environment Bill clause that could vary the rules on water quality, and the announcement of a review of EU-derived environmental planning rules this

Meanwhile, there is a risk of delay to more positive regulation such as the Environment Bill (missing from Parliament for 201 days now) and Environmental Land Management (were details of public money for public goods are still missing). In particular, Government must prioritise the return of the Environment Bill to parliament, strengthening key measures such as the inclusion of binding interim environmental targets, legally linked to delivery plans, as a way to give regulatory confidence for investment in nature.

If it doesn’t include strong laws for nature, then it’s not a green recovery.

It must be backed by serious, on-going investment and early action

Nature needs ongoing investment. By our reckoning, £1bn a year is needed in the next Spending Review to make a start on nature’s recovery on land and at sea capable of delivering the 25 Year Environment Plan. Of course, this would deliver many thousands of jobs, health benefits, and economic resilience.

The £640million in the Nature for Climate Fund is helpful, but far from sufficient. The Green Jobs Challenge Fund of £40million is massively over-subscribed and doesn’t even get the environmental movement near to pre-covid levels of investment in nature. At the same time, public bodies like Natural England, the Environment Agency and Local Authorities continue to be under-funded for the delivery of their environmental purposes. Nature was already in sustained long-term decline and the coronavirus has weakened the environment movement’s ability to stave off further losses. Environmental investment must be brought forward and multiplied by orders of magnitude to stand any chance of delivering the 25 Year Environment Plan.

If it doesn’t include sustained and substantial investment in nature now, then it’s not a green recovery.

Is it a bird, is it a plane?

So, is this a green recovery? Will it be remembered as a boost for the birds, or a bail out for the planes?

The Prime Minister’s announcements give that early impression that this could be that rarest of sightings—a moment when our political leaders take the long-term view and invest in a greener future. But at the same time, there are some behavioural traits that hint at a more conventional outcome, like the proposals for planning reform that would favour development, and large-scale investment in infrastructure.

Along with our colleagues at Green Alliance, we’ll be looking for a green recovery that brings forward sustained investment in nature and climate, reinforces green regulations, and avoids old-fashioned industrial investment.

The days ahead will reveal the answer.

Richard Benwell
is CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link

* Or, more often than not, a BTO video or the RSPB website.

** With no offence intended to common birds, but lots intended for conventional economics.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.