Natural capital in concept works. They know it, we know it, but how come it rarely translates at the coal-face of sustainable development?

My last blog focused on the threat of reduced protection for our most valued wildlife conservation sites. Thankfully initial comments from Brussels were reassuring, and the headlines satiated my smugness by stating more or less what I had written; Directives work, nature is valuable, enforcement is broken etc etc. 

That’s fantastic, so far the consensus is that wildlife conservation legislation is fit for purpose, and many of those in the know, at least claim, to value nature. But what does that matter if we still fail in our duties to correctly enforce and implement?

There has been a lot written lately regarding natural capital and the green economy. The concept that nature provides value for us is unquestionable, and has even found its way into the mainstream political rhetoric on occasion – see the 2009 election commitments by the then shadow Chancellor.

The green economy is also a crucial model that underpins the entire notion of sustainable development; encourage growth in such a way to encourage protection of natural capital, which in turn fosters growth. The green economy relies upon decoupling between growth and our environmental footprint, whether absolute or relative – increased growth, greater resource efficiency, ad infinitum.

The success of these concepts however at the most basic level rests upon policy.

Cameron stated at COP21 last week that we need to act now before it’s too late, and we’ve also committed to the ‘high ambition coalition’, both of which are great. Not sure he’s shared this opinion with anyone in the Cabinet however, particularly not his Chancellor or Liz Truss.

The autumn statement’s only reference to nature conservation was its commitment to ‘safeguard England’s countryside through the Common Agricultural Policy’ (a policy that is unquestionably leading to major degradation of nature, and is partly responsible for a £3 billion annual cost to the taxpayer) and provisions of ‘£350 million funding for public forests, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty over the Spending Review period’. Climate change was barely touched upon and the idea of natural capital or the green economy not mentioned once – which begs the question of whether anyone at the Treasury read Dieter Helm’s Natural Capital Committee Reports, despite continuing the NCC’s charter over the current parliament.

In addition, numerous subsidies were maintained or enhanced which actively erode natural capital; again farming a big issue, as well as some relating to fishing and hunting. In other missed opportunities, the positive feedback loop that could be stimulated, with £8 billion raised over the next 5 years through taxing the environmentally damaging practises and feeding investment in sectors such as remanufacturing – perfect outcomes for a Government targeting a circular economy – were missed.

Following this week’s devastating floods, Liz Truss also generally failed to mention the impact that climate change and poor upstream flood risk alleviation (i.e. upland mismanagement) likely had upon the amplitude of the event, choosing to focus on the money invested in downstream flood defences – defences aren’t as crucial if we manage our flood storage capacity better in the first place (let’s see some re-wilding please).

So, all in all, it’s a good thing we’re acting now before it’s too late, eh?

The Tories stated in September: “We agree with the NCC that if economic growth is to be sustained, natural capital has to be safeguarded.” Do something about it then!

To play devil’s advocate for my own counter argument, regionally, industry will have noticed step-changes in planning policy in relation to nature conservation and climate change adaptation (although rarely – and wrongly so – are the two linked as interconnected principles); cities such a Bristol and London in particular have been great in setting precedents. And this is all well and good, helping to bridge the gap between academic concept and policy.

Once we pass the Gulf of Evidence Based Policy however we are faced with an ocean of problems between policy and practical implementation – uncharted territory.

This asymmetry between rhetoric and action is where decoupling, in practice, seems increasingly more high-concept, and less attainable. The models show that we can achieve greater resource efficiency whilst fuelling economic growth (read protect natural capital whilst building houses), but more often than not it is an exhausting Sisyphean task to avoid the value engineers and loopholes available to developers to get around actions that may support nature conservation or compliment green infrastructure policy.

Money can be saved through implementation of climate change adaptation and nature conservation policy, however enforcement of the implementation costs money that we are unwilling to spend, from the public coffers or private investment; this then leads to cumulatively greater stresses upon other sectors, such as the health service, in an endless feedback loop. Consequently, a wave of research and best practice related to sustainable growth, building on flawed policy, has washed over the industry of late, whereas, still, only the spindrift makes it unfiltered to practical implementation.

The environment isn’t a big vote winner, but I think the public care. Societal opinion is evolving at a different rate to politics and the construction industry – in conceptual sympatry. Big changes are potentially happening in Paris, but we need to fundamentally re-think our approach at the small scale (i.e. in every planning decision and design team meeting) to align with the science base and societal long term goals. Maybe then we can see some meaningful results.