Dr Richard Benwell is head of government affairs at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and a director of Westmill Solar Cooperative
From backbenches to Brussels and back again
When the Commons Environmental Audit Committee rightly concluded that “the UK’s membership of the EU has been a crucial factor in the shaping of its environmental policy”, there was something of a backlash.
How can it be possible that: (a) the EU has made Britain adopt higher environmental standards; and (b) Britain has made the EU adopt higher environmental standards?
The answer is that the EU allows for UK leadership when we’re forging ahead with innovative policy, but it also keeps us on course when we’re prone to stray.
The perfect example is on climate change. The UK led the world with the Climate Change Act 2008, setting legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. By ourselves, that would have been important, but as part of the EU, it prompted something truly amazing. The UK played a leading role in the EU climate change package and, in turn, the EU has kept the global climate negotiations alive, which ultimately led to last year’s brilliant Paris Agreement. The UK made the EU greener and the EU made the world greener.
Then economic turmoil struck and the UK’s environmental resolve waned. Review after review followed, in which the costs of climate change mitigation were criticised. Fortunately, though, the UK’s climate commitments have been reinforced and enriched by the EU: we are part of an effort-sharing agreement, a carbon trading scheme, eco-labelling laws and common carbon standards. In tougher times, the EU has kept the UK on course.
But there is another fantastic element to this story. Several of the most progressive policies pioneered in the UK have begun on the backbenches, with a Private Members’ Bill. The Climate Change Bill was first tabled by Michael Meacher MP, supported by other green MPs like Tim Yeo and Martin Horwood. EU marine conservation laws have been influenced by the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act, first tabled as a Private Members’ Bill by Sir John Randall.
So, over the next fortnight, there’s more than one big decision ahead.
Of course, the EU referendum is seismic in its environmental and political importance. Please #thinkenvironment when you make your choice. Remember that the EU has magnified UK environmental leadership when it is strong, and shored it up when it is weak.
But there is also a quieter decision: what bills will be tabled by the MPs chosen in the Private Members’ Bill Ballot this year?
If there is one area where the UK is leading the world in environmental thinking today, it is in the development of natural capital—the valuation of the economic importance of nature. We have all heard of the economic importance of pollinators, the potential NHS savings from access to nature, the benefits of natural flood mitigation. These are worth billions of pounds to the economy, but we don’t account for the value of these assets and services, or our investment to maintain them.
The Government is putting together a 25 year environment plan that will incorporate natural capital thinking and it has renewed the ground-breaking work of the Natural Capital Committee. However, the Government has not yet committed to a legislative basis for natural capital.
At the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT), we are calling for a Natural Wealth Bill. It would take the simple step of requiring the Government to deliver a Natural Wealth Statement each year alongside the Budget. This would give Parliamentary accountability for the condition of our natural capital assets and how we invest in them.
I hope that when MPs consider their choice of bill they will remember the story of UK climate leadership — from the backbenches to Brussels and back again — and consider tabling a Natural Wealth Bill. It’s time we started valuing nature properly, not just here in the UK, but all around the world.