Monday, 1 February 2016

The price of everything and the value of nothing.

Back in November 2015 the Scottish Wildlife Trust hosted probably the most important event you’ve never heard of - The World Forum on Natural Capital.  Around 600 people from 45 countries attended, and they were there to discuss the benefits that nature provides to people. 

Our economy is fundamentally flawed.  We know the price of everything but the value of nothing.  We attribute value to useless things (like diamonds and plastic robots) and attribute no value at all to things on which we totally depend (like oxygen, wildlife and an equitable climate).  The idea of natural capital is to recognize that nature – natural capital – does have value even if this value cannot be quantified or expressed in monetary terms.

If we do not value nature then it has a very low priority in any economic decision making.  Listen to the language that is normally used: putting money into anything to do with the economy is called “investment”; putting money into anything to do with the environment is call “grants” or “subsidies”.   Normal measures add up everything to do with the economy (whether positive or negative, it’s all counted positive) and call it GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  Activity to look after the environment is called “a burden”.  The implication is clear – the economy makes money but the environment costs money.

A few simple examples expose the nonsense of this situation.  If you over-fish the sea for economic gain in one year then you’ll have no fish, so no money, long term.  If you neglect soil conservation in order to gain maximum crop productivity on a farm in one year then soil will be degraded and you won’t farm, or make money, long term.  Fossil fuels short term – climate change long term.  Degrade wetlands short term – flooding long term.  Throughout many of these examples wildlife gives you a pretty good clue as to whether you are getting it right or not.  Landscapes rich in wildlife are probably the ones that are going to provide the most public benefit in the long term (perhaps indefinitely).

So – natural capital is our stock of nature.  Like any capital, if you erode the stock then you reduce your revenue.  As Dieter Helm (Chair of the Natural Capital Committee) put it “successive natural capital deficits have built up a large natural capital debt and this is proving costly to our well-being and economy”.

Reduce the stock of nature and you reduce the benefits we get.  If this is not reflected in decision making then either you need to recognize the economic value of nature or recognize that nature lies outside quantification and correct the market failure – probably both.  At present we do neither, so nature has no value and it is consistently degraded in the name of economic growth.

Some have reasonable concerns that a natural capital approach might result in the “monetisation” of nature, where we try to put a £ sign against every aspect of nature.  But what price an orchid, a molecule of oxygen or a sunset?  However, by ignoring nature as an “externality”, our economy can all too easily be used to undermine the very natural systems on which everything else depends.  We therefore need to question whether our current economy is fit for purpose.  Is our current obsession with economic growth really delivering human prosperity, now and in the future?  If not then why are we driven by it?  

Instead of “monetising nature” what we need should be viewed more as the “naturalization of the economy.”

Monday, 25 January 2016

Flooding, fossil fuels and unpaid bills

There is a myth in circulation today - “expensive green energy”.  You know the story – green energy is fine but it is expensive.  Hard-pressed businesses have to pay “green taxes” to satisfy an ideology of green energy.  “Hard-working families” (that phrase so beloved of politicians) have to pay this unreasonable cost through higher fuel bills – because of the lobbying of overly influential green pressure groups.

There is no truth in any of this but it is part of a manipulation to resist change and stick to an old fashioned economy fueled by coal, oil and gas.

Whilst green taxes are mentioned in almost every other news bulletin, the cost of fossil fuels barely gets a mention.  Staggering ironies are generally completely missed in news reports; climate change, flooding and extreme events are detailed alongside news reports promoting new airports, roads and tax relief on energy intensive industries.  We despair at climate change and bemoan the effects of burning fossil fuels whilst at the same time promote activities that inevitably result in the burning of more fossil fuels.

But fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas – are cheap in comparison to wind, solar and tidal power, aren’t they?  Well they are only cheap for one reason – they don’t pay their bills.  I would be rich if I didn’t pay any of my bills!  Fossil fuels have an unpaid bill that all of us have to cover.  We may not pay it at the petrol pump, but we do through our tax system and, increasingly, in many other ways as well.  Even if we manage to avoid paying these bills, then future generations will have to pay instead.  However, the past is catching up with us; we are turning into the past’s future generations, paying the bills from the poor decisions of the past.

A classic case is flooding.  We are now as certain as we can be that climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events, and making those events worse than they would otherwise have been.  The billions of £ of flood damage, increased insurance bills and lost productivity is a cost caused by climate change, itself caused by burning coal, oil and gas.  It is an unpaid bill.  But someone has to pay – those people affected by flooding.

Wildlife issues are also central to the climate change debate – though often forgotten or misused.  Even the Prime Minister seems to imagine that these floods are down to the eco-fanatics desire to conserve a couple of water voles!  The truth, however, is that restoration of natural systems, with their rich wildlife, produces a landscape that is resilient and more able to adapt to the changes forced upon it.  In the process a living landscape can reduce flood risk, reduce erosion, improve water quality and more.   Fossil fuels are the problem and promoting natural systems are part of the solution – not the other way around.

Nevertheless, improving nature can only go so far in ameliorating the effects of climate change.  We should not over-claim and society should not over-expect – extreme weather events are going to have an impact, they will get more frequent and they will get worse.

If we remove the tax advantages for fossil fuels, pay the true costs of exploitation, pay the true and increasing costs of flooding, coastal defense, wind damage, increasing heat, drought, sickness and so on, then fossil fuels start to look rather like an expensive and old fashioned luxury.  Some say that a weakness is a strength over-played.  Maybe this is the case with fossil fuels.  They have been an enormous strength, creating the society we all live in today.  They are now way past their sell-by date and hugely over-played.  We need to move on.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Flooding - the inconvenient truth

“Flooding equals lack of river dredging” is the simplistic message often promoted by the media, sometimes with bizarre claims that rivers were left un-dredged just to protect wildlife.  Some pundits even go so far as blaming “eco-zealots” for the floods, with accusations that environmentalists are more concerned about bugs and beetles than they are about people!  It’s all so simple in some minds.

To all complex problems there is a solution that is simple, clear, obvious – and wrong!  And this is where we are with some responses to flooding.  The simple solution is the wrong one – the one that makes the effects of flooding far worse.

The practice is that flood risk can be reduced (not eliminated) with careful and sophisticated approaches that actually deliver results, rather than political knee-jerk reactions.  And the practice is that careful management of river catchments to reduce flood risk downstream, also supports a rich and varied wildlife.  Rich wetland wildlife is a sign that we are getting flood management right.

This has been shown time and again. In academic studies, government reports, careful case studies and direct on-the-ground experience.  The problem for the media is that showing an area that didn’t flood because of some careful work done upstream does not make a good story.  “Here’s a place where nothing happened” is not very riveting - far better to show misery and then blame someone.

Clear examples of where a proper approach has worked are places like Pont Bren, the Exmore mires and Pickering where Natural Flood Management has been successfully employed alongside more traditional flood engineering.  Not heard of them?  Of course not – nothing dramatic happened there.  Other examples in the past include management by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust of their Potteric Carr preventing Doncaster from flooding and Hampshire Wildlife Trust managing of their reserve probably preventing flooding in Winchester

Rivers flood for three reasons. 

First of all, lots of rain!  When huge amounts of water fall out of the sky it has to go somewhere.  The maths is actually quite simple, eloquently articulated in a recent farming conference.  The catchment area that picks up the rain is likely to be well over 1000 times larger than the area of the river it eventually goes into.  So 1 inch of rain in the catchment, if delivered to the river all at once, becomes 1000 inches in the river.  No amount of concrete pouring, dredging or defence building will cope with that. If we defend one area then water will go somewhere else.  If we prevent flood plains from flooding (there’s a clue in the name!) then water will move to the next weak point, often an urban area.

Second, what causes increased storminess and more intense rain?  Climate change.  There is little scientific doubt that climate change increases the energy in the system and this increases the incidences and severity of heavy rain storms.  This is no surprise.  Climate scientists have been saying this for 20 years.  Governments have preferred not to hear this and hope it might all just somehow go away.  Storm damage and flooding is therefore another hidden cost of climate change, essentially a cost of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas).  Hidden costs have a habit of not staying hidden for long.  The billions of £ of flood damage and lost productivity to the country is largely an unpaid bill for the fossil fuel industry (paid instead, by us, through the tax system).  If the true cost of fossil fuels was reflected in the price we paid then it would be clear that green energy is a great deal cheaper.

The third reason is catchment management.  How we manage river valleys can increase, or reduce, the flood risk to people downstream.  Building hard flood defences, concreting over land with new development, woodland removal and river dredging upstream forces water ever quicker down the river and just increases flood risk to people downstream.

Building houses in floodplains is nonsensical, and yet it is still allowed.  Even if we protect them with engineering from small floods, we can never stop the big floods.  Furthermore, by preventing flooding in one area, we simply create it in another – maybe this is why areas that have not flooded in the past are now starting to get flooded.

The key is to allow areas of low-lying land away from people and property - flood plains - to flood, and then to slowly release water afterwards.  This reduces the height of a river in flood.  In Sussex there are now many examples of landowners doing woodland planting, washland creation and river re-naturalisation (such as putting back meanders and allowing rivers to merge with their flood plains) to reduce flood risk and to deliver other public benefits.  This is done because of the careful thought and good will of the landowners involved, with a small amount of financial help from incentive packages.  What is needed is good government policy and financial packages to enable this to happen in a planned and strategic way. Oh – and by the way, all this is good for wildlife too. 

There is a place for dredging and engineered hard defences, but these have to be part of a far more sophisticated approach to managing flooding across the whole river catchment.

Does this all sound expensive?  In truth it is expensive not to manage our catchments in a more sophisticated and naturalistic way.  A study in the West County calculated the costs of such naturalistic catchment management against the financial returns in terms of reduced flood risk and other benefits.  The result was a 65:1 return on investment!  A cost of £1 delivered £65 worth of benefit.  Bad catchment management is not £1 saved, it is £65 spent!  At present it is hard for farmers and landowners to gain the funding – even stay in business – by allowing flood plains to flood and deliver these public benefits.  This is ludicrous.  It should be easy, even lucrative, for a landowner to have the opportunity to manage catchments in a positive way.

The sad thing is that this is not even new.  They have taken this approach in The Netherlands for decades and here the Environment Agency moved to this approach many years ago.  A media frenzy, backed up by a lack of support by government for its own agencies could, however, throw us back into the dark ages.

Flood management is not a balance of wildlife versus people, as was implied to the Environment Agency’s CEO recently. Currently both people and wildlife are struggling with an antiquated approach to flood management which has left a legacy of poorly planned infrastructure, too much urban surface water run-off and over-drained landscapes which flood too easily.  In the past we have chosen badly, perhaps we can make better choices for the future.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Joint West Sussex Minerals Local Plan; an update from the Wiggonholt Association

I am indebted to Janet Aiden of the Wiggonholt Association for the following update on plans for mineral extraction in West Sussex.  This is an important subject, from an environmental perspective, as plans could have a major impact on local countryside, with places like Pulborough and bury at risk in particular.  It is worth keeping an eye on the situation and being prepared to respond when a consultation comes out:

The draft policies of the Plan were issued for consultation in May 2014, followed in August by the draft sites which were being considered by the Minerals Planning Authority (MPA) which consists of West Sussex County Council and the South Downs National Park Authority.  This revealed that the MPA was considering silica sand (a specialised and valuable form of soft sand) within its targeted figure for soft sand.  (The two are often distinguished as ‘industrial’ and ‘building’ sand.)  The Plan also makes provision for ‘sharp’ or concreting sand, and gravel, in one separate category.  There are thus two categories of aggregate: Soft Sand, and Sharp Sand/Gravel.  These categories are dealt with quite separately in the Plan and an abundance of one type cannot be used to compensate for a shortage of the other.

A report on the Sites Consultation was issued by the MPA in the spring of 2015.  The two local silica sites, Wickford Bridge (Pulborough) and Horncroft (Bury) have not been withdrawn. The next stage has been to filter all sites in the South Downs National Park through a Sustainability Appraisal.  This evaluates specific  features of all sites, such as landscape quality.  These two sites are both in the Park.

The MPA originally expected to publish a series of updates on the appraisals and it also wrote of consulting local communities which would be directly affected by proposed sites, such as Pulborough.  (All sites affect people to some extent, but the Wickford Bridge site is adjacent to a high density of housing on the outskirts of Pulborough, at Mare Hill and in the approaches to Nutbourne and West Chiltington.  The Wiggonholt Association has twice written to the MPA requesting such a consultation.

The MPA has also undertaken a Soft Sand Study, which would evaluate the amounts of soft sand in West Sussex and no doubt identify and distinguish between ‘industrial’ and ‘building’ sand (see above).   The conclusions of this document are much anticipated as they will determine the amounts which the MPA must provide for in its Plan.  They will also shed light on other areas of silica sand.  (Silica sand was previously unknown in West Sussex and it has a higher value than building sand.)

In July, the MPA revealed that it had decided not to give out any more information to “stakeholders” (those affected by, or with an interest in, minerals extraction).  All must now await the draft Minerals Plan itself, when special studies (such as the Soft Sand Study), amended policies, and the short list of sand sites will all be revealed at a blow.  At this stage evaluations of each site will be published and it will be either “in” or “out” of a short list.   This is likely to happen at the beginning of 2016, and the information will come in a flood.  There will then be a formal consultation, probably lasting six weeks.   But even if a site is “out” of the shortlist, the industry – and anyone else with an interest – will have the opportunity to challenge its exclusion before and during the public hearing on the Plan (the Examination-in-Public) which will be held by a Government inspector, probably later next year.

The Wiggonholt Association is considering what action might be taken to persuade the MPA to release some of its background papers ahead of the Draft Plan as it believes that publication as a flood would put non-professional stakeholders at a great disadvantage. 

Support your local Rivers Trust

I currently sit on the board of the Arun and Rother RiversTrust – an excellent charity dedicated to making practical improvements to our local rivers.  Their key role is to deliver projects in collaboration with other environmental organisations, local authorities, government agencies, water companies and universities.  In particular they have made excellent links with the landowning community and indeed landowners are fundamental in the work of the Trust.  They are now looking for a new trustee, a volunteer to contribute to the governance of the Trust.  The current board of volunteer trustees has a wide range of experience and interests but they are seeking a new member with expertise and relevant experience in fundraising and marketing to help achieve their strategic aims. 

If you are interested please email the Trust on with a cv and supporting statement, or ask the Trust to put you in touch with one of the other Trustees for further information.  The closing date for applications is 31st October 2015.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Lewes Railway Land Festival

On Sunday 5th July the Lewes Railway Land is hosting the Biosphere Festival.  There will be a host of events and displays, including a small stand from the SWT, but the event will be opened with a fascinating geological perspective on 500 million years of climate and sea-level change.

A geology display by Professor Rory Mortimore will be formally unveiled at the Railway Land Festival.  This display, which will feature drilling cores, fossils, drone shots and QR code- triggered videos sets out long term historical climate change that brings yet another aspect to the pioneering Linklater Pavilion dedicated to the study of environmental change.

Said Professor Mortimore, who will open the exhibition at 3pm on 5th July, ‘Climate and sea levels have constantly changed throughout geological time.  The rocks that make the South Downs record nearly 40 million years of environmental change. Sea-level was 300 metres above present day (two times the height of Beachy Head) when the Chalk, exposed in the river-cliffs at Lewes opposite the Linklater Pavilion, formed.

The animals that lived in that sea and on the seafloor are the fossils that we now find in our local chalk pits and shown in these displays.  As well as high sea levels the Chalk represents a time when the Earth was a ‘hot-house’ with no or little polar ice.  Yet we can see in the Chalk that there were also small ‘cycles’ of temperature and climate change represented by the alternating beds of marl-limestone in Southerham Grey Pit.’

The free Railway Land Live! Festival, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will include many family activities - a Minecraft game based on the Reserve, underwater wildlife images, a puppet show, displays by the young sea level rise group of teenagers called the Linklater Rats, live music, refreshments and much more.  It runs from 2-5pm at the Railway Land Local Nature Reserve, situated at the end of Railway Lane, Lewes BN7 2FG.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Happy Birthday to the Brighton and Lewes Downs Biosphere.

The Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere is now a year old and in that time it has built up a good record of pioneering a positive future for people and nature in the area.

The Biosphere – an area of land and coastal waters between the rivers Adur and Ouse – was officially recognised by UNESCO on 11 June 2014. With the city of Brighton and Hove at its heart, it joined a unique global network of over 600 international demonstration areas across 100 countries.

The Biosphere name confers a high level of international recognition on an area, but it does not come with any extra guaranteed money or powers.  So action has to be delivered through imaginative approaches.  And since its launch the Biosphere has developed new partnerships, improved the natural environment, organised a campaign of community engagement and provided more opportunities for local people and visitors to experience its special nature.

Paula Murray, chair of the Biosphere Board, says “We want to build on the success of our first year through more innovative major projects, novel partnerships and greater community engagement. Our aim is to sustainably improve our environment, our relationship with it and ourselves too.”

The work of the Biosphere programme has successfully:
  • Worked with Brighton & Hove City Council’s Cityparks team and the University of Sussex to create new wildflower areas for bees and butterflies in Brighton, including a new ‘bee-bed’ at The Level
  • Created fun and stimulating educational programmes for children including a virtual world of the Biosphere based on the popular computer game,  Minecraft
  • Developed projects with a range of public and private bodies to reduce impacts of flooding and to improve the quality of our drinking water from the chalk downs
  • Worked with Visit Brighton to develop a 'Best of our Biosphere' guide for visitors and local people, as well as a host of new materials for promotional and educational purposes

The Biosphere Partnership of some 40 local organisations, including the Sussex Wildlife Trust, aspires to not just enhance the environment but also to raise the profile and awareness of how special our area is with both residents and visitors, as a key foundation for the local economy too.

Murray says, “We have established a Biosphere Board that will work with the Greater Brighton Economic Board to take forward a programme of new projects that deliver for both people and the environment, for example by diversifying our visitor offer to include eco-tourism.”

We all rely 100% on the environment for our health and well-being, yet people in towns and cities can become isolated from this reality.  Brighton, Hove and Lewes are set within a world-class environment, both in the surrounding Downs and threading into the urban areas themselves.  The Biosphere has created the perfect opportunity to increase awareness of this precious resource and hopefully provide a stimulus for us to care for it for years to come.