UK investment in a new plan for our planet
My personal belief is that we should protect and restore the planets’ biodiversity for its own sake. However, I know that not all people think as I do. But when we consider that 55% of global GDP relies on what nature provides (even if GDP is a poor measure of progress) it becomes obvious that biodiversity loss is of substantial economic importance to us. That is why it is an existential threat on a par with climate change.
For far too long we have sacrificed natural capital for economic capital and we need now to rapidly reverse the status of global biodiversity.
The fact is, we need as much investment into the sector as possible, to make the large scale, long term, impacts required to deliver positive net biodiversity gains and restore nature, which is on the brink of irreversible collapse. The UK government grants just under £1bn a year on biodiversity-related initiatives, though how much of this delivers projects on the ground is opaque and biodiversity continues to decline rapidly. It is time to change the narrative on investment.
The UK’s new National Infrastructure Bank was formed to help deliver large scale development projects, but also to support our race to Net Zero by 2050. What does that look like in reality? As James Alexander, the Chief Executive of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association wrote in his letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak MP recently, positive biodiversity net gain (BNG) should be reflected in the upcoming investment criteria for the Bank, forming part of its net-zero mandate.
Essentially, corporates must be required to account for their impacts on natural capital to attract investment into their businesses and buy into land-based management interventions to restore nature at scale. And this needs to happen quickly.
At the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month, the prime minister reiterated his vision to build back better, to level the playing field and to get on with the job. From hospitals to schools, housing to HS2, nationally significant infrastructure projects will define our next decade and beyond. And the government has indicated that biodiversity net gain will be a part of all new infrastructure projects.
But it must not simply be assumed that this will happen. In fact, in my decades of experience, it very rarely does. At best it becomes a tick-box exercise, with supposed BNG sites (especially where BNG is delivered within a development site boundary) often left unchecked with little statutory regulation to enforce the long-term care of habitats to the required standard. We need to ensure biodiversity net gain – at a minimum 10% – is managed to the very highest of standards on all new development and infrastructure projects. Good governance will be key to this – as a passionate conservationist, I have spent much of my career campaigning to make this happen.
To recap – under current proposals within The Environment Bill passing through Parliament as I write, a mandate for delivering BNG on all new developments is set out and will become law when the Bill is enacted. This not only covers the compensation of habitats impacted by the development but includes a provision to actively increase habitats and hence the wildlife they support by a minimum of 10%.
The government must ensure that the policy that underpins BNG is of the very highest standard. The devil will be in the details. The standard and agreed metric needs to be applied rigorously and transparently on all new developments and planned on-site as well as off-site delivery must be registered on Natural England’s central registry. Without this governance, there is a large risk of the Environment Act failing, with developers undermining their net-gain pledges, resulting in an unenforceable policy – and our planet paying the price.
I have heard that Natural England won’t make it a requirement for the on-site BNG to be registered. That will create an unlevel playing field and a high risk of judicial review. And developers will need to provide a guarantee of 30 years of funding of the on-site BNG otherwise the likelihood of failure (and hence the failure of BNG generally) will be very high.
Market-driven solutions will be key to scaling the UK’s BNG provision to a size that will have a positive and restorative impact on nature and climate change resilience. As long as Government doesn’t interfere with the market, such as through selling statutory credits, then a huge amount of private capital will come into the market, reducing reliance on public funds and grant-making bodies, and will make the UK a world leader in offsite BNG delivery where biodiversity gains are far greater than within the boundary of a development site.
We will fail to recover nature if we continue business as usual. Only by securing private investment into private landholdings at a substantial scale will we have a hope of restoring our country’s wildlife. Indeed, even the future of ELMs relies on private investment rather than public funding. If the Government gets it wrong with BNG then private investors will stay away and the whole of ELMs and other funding areas will have to be covered by the Treasury. The stakes are therefore high for the Government.
We must use the current opportunities – through the Environment Act and the UK Infrastructure Bank to ensure change happens in a meaningful way that makes a lasting impact on our environment.
Ahead of the UK’s presidency of COP26, I am calling on the UK Government to confirm that they:
- Ensure biodiversity net gain is enshrined in the criteria for the UK’s National Infrastructure Bank, forming part of its Net Zero, or better still Nature Positive, mandate. Biodiversity should be specifically targeted in the criteria and mechanisms for exemplary governance on all new infrastructure projects developed otherwise investment into these projects should be disallowed.
- Ensure the policy framework that underpins the Environment Act contains good governance mechanisms. It must be robust and of the very highest standards across the board as well as applicable to all developers – so that BNG can be measured realistically and in line with the ambition of the Act. It is critically important that Government (local and national) does not distort the market for providing biodiversity restoration linked to development needs. The private sector is able and willing to deliver nature restoration at scale and the government needs to ensure a level playing field by not distorting the market
This is our chance to make a real and lasting difference to our planet and we must not fail.