Making sense of environmental change

Blenheim Palace fields with trees in the Cotswolds

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a defining moment in our lives. A civil crisis has followed a health crisis, bringing challenges for almost everyone. Governments around the world have deployed trillions of pounds in bail-outs and stimulus, and imposed new laws and demands on all of us. The depth of the crisis has prompted many of us to re-think fundamental aspects of our lives.

As the vaccination programme gets underway, there is an opportunity to emerge from this crisis on a better path than before. The pandemic could prove to be a catalyst for transformational systems change, particularly in our relationship with the natural environment. It is worth taking stock of some of these changes over the last year, and what this means for land-based businesses.

Building back better’. Now a familiar slogan on both sides of the Atlantic, and embraced by the OECD, this approach to economic recovery is based on long-term emission reduction goals, resilience to climate impacts, slowing biodiversity loss and increasing circularity of supply chains. As hosts of COP26, the UK Government has made ambitious commitments to achieving a climate-resilient, zero-carbon economy. It has already legislated for net zero emissions by 2050, and in December 2020announced a new target to reduce emissions by at least 68% by 2030compared to 1990 levels. This puts the UK on a path to cutting emissions at the fastest rate of any major economy, and nature-based solutions are seen as one of the most important means of achieving this. Specifically, the government has committed to:  

  • Increasing the Green Recovery Challenge Fund to £80 million, meaning that over 100 nature restoration and creation projects are delivered on the ground over the next two years;
  • Establishing 10 long-term Landscape Recovery projects over the next four years, covering more than 30,000 ha;
  • Creating new National Parks and AONBs, with a target of designating 30% of UK land by 2030;
  • Establishing 30,000 ha of new woodland in England by 2025. ;

Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM). The new Agriculture Act received royal assent on the 11th November 2020, creating the legislative framework necessary for the UK government to set its own post-CAP agricultural policy, of which ELM will be the cornerstone. At the end of November, Defra published its Agricultural Transition Plan, setting out how Direct Payments will be reduced over the next four years, and providing more detail on the shape of ELM. It will consist of three components, with farmers and land managers able to choose which component is best-suited to their land:

  • Sustainable Farming Incentive, which will support approaches to farm husbandry that deliver for the environment, such as actions to improve soil health, hedgerows and integrated pest management;
  • Local Nature Recovery, which will pay for actions such as creating, managing or restoring habitats, natural flood management and species management;
  • Landscape Recovery, which will focus on landscape and ecosystem recovery through projects looking to achieve large-scale forest and woodland creation, peatland restoration, or the creation and restoration of coastal habitats.

Biodiversity Net Gain. With the Environment Bill continuing its journey through parliament this winter, the Government’s commitment to Biodiversity Net Gain should soon become law. It will become mandatory for developers to provide 10% biodiversity net gain in respect of any new development that results in habitat loss or degradation. If developers cannot meet this target within the red line of the development site, they will be able to purchase biodiversity ‘credits’ from compensatory habitat restoration or creation schemes on third party land. This could prove to a be a really significant step-change in the way we manage and finance conservation projects in England, channelling significant private investment into habitat restoration and creation.

Recreational use and welfare value of accessible open spaces. Our natural environment provides massive public benefits in terms of recreation and physical and mental health, and this has become all the more apparent during this year’s pandemic. ‘Social prescribing and community-based support’ is one of the key components of the NHS Comprehensive Model of Personalised Care, and it is based on emerging evidence that interventions such as encouraging access to green space leads to a range of positive health and wellbeing outcomes for people, reducing pressure on NHS services and GP attendances.

Behind all of these changes is the idea of the natural environment as an economic asset: it underpins our economy and wellbeing. Good stewardship of natural resources is no longer seen as a ‘nice-to-have’; instead, it needs to be fully embedded in the way our businesses operate, and we all need to be more aware of our impacts and dependencies on it. If this is the basis of our recovery from 2020, then there is much to be optimistic about.

“In light of these far reaching developments, it is critical that land based businesses understand and utilise their natural capital assets effectively. If you would like to discuss undertaking an assessment of your natural capital assets or you would simply like to know more about these significant changes, please get in touch.