Why Conservation Should Be Top Of The Politicians' New Year Resolutions

The introduction of new environmental laws is a rare event these days. But 2015 could see growing momentum toward one of the most important pro-nature legislative initiatives that the UK has ever seen, manifest in the growing campaign for a new Nature and Wellbeing Act.
The runup to this year’s general election will see the case for a new act of parliament being made by groups including The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB. In my new book, What Nature does for Britain, I also make the case for such a “nature and wellbeing act” and call on political parties to introduce the idea into their manifestos.
The proposed new legal framework aims to build on existing rules and policies to achieve the restoration of nature within a generation. Restoring lost woods, making rivers more natural, improving peatlands – these kinds of aims are ambitious, but can certainly be done if a strong enough case can be made. Backers of the initiative point not only to the value that nature has for its own sake, in terms of its beauty and spiritual dimensions, but also to the benefits for health and wellbeing that arise from connections with wildlife and the natural world.
Promoting more of that is at the heart of the proposed new Act, including through changes to education laws. By helping children to enjoy nature, it is more likely they’ll continue to do so as adults and reap the benefits as more support for conservation goals becomes available.
In addition to promoting how nature benefits our wellbeing, there is a call for investment in the protection and recovery of ecological networks, such as those that sustain pollinators, replenish freshwater and protect against flooding. All these things, from public health to the cost of water, are critical issues and help to take “environment” out of its policy ghetto and toward the political mainstream.
This is one reason why the proposed new legal framework includes provision for the more systematic economic valuation of nature. The idea is to make the real and full contribution of nature more transparent, and through that the case for nature’s recovery in a generation even more compelling. There would, for example, be a new independent statutory body, such as an Office for Environmental Responsibility, with powers to hold government to account when it comes to wise use of the country’s natural assets. This could be a powerful step because when you start to stack up the numbers they are certainly compelling.
Take, for instance, the sum of £1.5tn. That’s the immense size of the UK’s fiscal deficit. It is also, according to the Office for National Statistics, more or less the value of certain elements of Britain’s natural assets to its economy. This is important because one of the main reasons we continue to tolerate the destruction of nature in our islands is because it is effectively treated as valueless in our official national accounts. This oversight reinforces the idea that protecting nature is costly and encourages ministers to see that process as an optional luxury rather than an economic necessity. If nature’s true and vast economic value were better appreciated then measures to protect it would be all the more likely to follow.
The new Act would also promote more traditional nature conservation objectives to assist in the recovery of some of our threatened and declining wildlife species. Of course, this would be all the more possible to achieve if integrated with its other provisions.
The increasing recognition of nature’s practical contribution to our health, wealth and security, alongside the intrinsic, aesthetic and spiritual values it brings, presents an opportunity to wrest ecology from the bottom of the list of national concerns and to embark on the most ambitious programme of environmental restoration we’ve ever seen. It will require conservationists to be confident about nature’s multiple values and to see how the case for conservation is not only about protecting nature from people but protecting people through nature.
For the past four years, we’ve been in reverse when it comes to the effort devoted to the protection and restoration of nature. Next year might well see the agenda once more go forward, driven by a powerful new narrative.
This article was first published by The Guardian 5th January 2015.