A price too high? The risks of not protecting nature are startling

The Natural Environment White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice’, does offer some hope for protecting UK wildlife, writes Friends of the Earth campaigner Paul de Zylva.

Paul de Zylva is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth

Twenty years of inaction have passed since the government’s last white paper on nature, and England’s green and pleasant land is under threat. Our much loved forests were almost sold off. The pressures of housing a rising population are threatening greenbelt. And the proposed high speed rail line will cut through some of Britain’s most ancient woodland.

The Natural Environment White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice’ (pdf), does offer some hope for protecting UK wildlife – even if the proposals it puts forward fall short of the bolder, wider policy changes needed to safeguard the economic, social and health benefits of nature for future generations.

There are plans for 12 Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) to boost natural habitats and help species adapt to climate change, as well as new Local Nature Partnerships, schemes to offset environmental damage, and measures to restore peatlands – useful carbon sinks.

Green spaces in urban areas will be revived. Local communities will get to choose the areas they want to be protected. Children will be encouraged to make the most of the natural world by boosting outdoor learning.

So far, so good. The government has taken on board the findings of last week’s National Ecosystems Assessment, which found that UK green spaces are worth £30 billion a year in health and welfare benefits. It pledges to create a Natural Capital Committee to ensure the economic value of nature is put at the heart of the government’s economic thinking.

At what point, though, will words translate into action?

If David Cameron is going to deliver on his pledge to be the “greenest government ever”, offsetting environmental damage in one place by protecting nature in another simply won’t cut the mustard. What we need are policy changes to prevent damage being caused in the first place – at home and abroad – and all government departments must play their part.

To start with the UK should push for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to give more support for small-scale planet-friendly farming. Funding should only be given to farmers who meet mandatory environmental standards, and to support the production of home-grown animal feed to reduce our reliance on soy which is destroying rainforests and contributing to climate change.

Shoppers need clear guidance when it comes to reducing meat and dairy in their diets – and government should walk the talk itself by buying less but better quality meat for our schools, hospitals and care homes.

The biofuel in our petrol is creating more environmental damage than many people realise – it could even be increasing emissions. To stop companies buying up huge swaths of land, and trashing rainforests to grow palm oil monocultures, we must ditch high biofuel targets and develop greener alternatives.

Many would argue that a thriving natural environment is priceless. It’s hard to put economic value on a nice pretty view or a walk in the park – nature has intrinsic value that cannot be easily traded. But what we now know for sure is that the services we get free from nature would cost more than we could ever afford to pay. Costly in terms of welfare, costly in terms of health.

Unless we urgently change our policies to protect the world around us, we’ll be picking up one almighty price tag.

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