Begin as you mean to go on: Infrastructure’s “nature-positive” future

By - World Infrastructure Journal

Begin as you mean to go on: Infrastructure

While it is encouraging that the UK government has committed to ensuring all future “nationally significant” infrastructure projects will “protect and enhance the supply of our natural assets,” it is important not to get carried away with the good news. Yes, acknowledging and taking into consideration the concept of “natural capital” is the first step towards reshaping infrastructure and creating a greener Britain. However, commitments need to be made towards protecting biodiversity and remaining carbon neutral across all infrastructure projects (not just those considered nationally significant”), and anything less will not do.

The UK government has recently outlined its intentions to ensure that every new major national transport and energy infrastructure project leaves the environment in “a better state than we found it. ” On top of this, there has also been a promise made to ensure that new bilateral aid spending does not go towards “harming nature. ” These commitments have come in response to the recently published Dasgupta review, which warned that the neglect of environmental costs within the budgeting and planning of economists has placed the planet at “extreme risk. ” The “devastating cost” of this oversight on life-sustaining ecosystems, according to the review’s author Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta, will be experienced not only in the traditionally imagined sense (extinctions, natural disasters, etc.) but will also significantly impact the functionality of economies in the future.

It is thus welcome news that the UK government has officially endorsed the central claim of the report – that nature fundamentally sustains human livelihood. It has also accordingly promised funding for public and private schemes that will begin accounting for “natural capital” (i.e. monitoring the world’s stock of natural assets and creating data that can be used to factor in the environmental cost into future economic strategies). Additionally,  there have also been promises to deliver a net-gain for biodiversity on the Crewe-Manchester stretch of HS2. However, though these steps are very encouraging, they are not a sufficient response to what is an incredibly serious threat that requires immediate and drastic action.

The solution proposed in the 600-page assessment, commissioned by the UK Treasury in 2019, is for governments around the world to abandon the use of GDP and instead understand economics in relation to the vitality of the natural world. On top of this, it is recommended that supranational organisations are created to be overseeing bodies that ensure the protection of the natural world. In light of these recommendations, the decisions of the UK government to limit their initial commitment to major national projects and insist on the continued use of GDP, do not appear particularly progressive or forward-thinking. Rather, they appear reactive – especially considering the British Standards Institute (BSI) has published the world’s first guidance for preparing natural capital accounts, and a number of other British firms are beginning to do the same.

There may also be cause for concern regarding the degree to which the current government is behind their own commitments. While the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, and the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Kemi Badenoch, signed off on the official government response, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, did not. Given the current state of affairs within the Conservative Party, where the chancellor finds himself between a rock and a hard place on the issue of corporate tax, the absence of Sunak’s signature may signal that his priorities are elsewhere. If that is the case, the lack of cohesion within Whitehall might not only scupper the potential of the initial government response to the Dasgupta review, it may also result in the failure of even the most tepid attempts at creating environmental policy.

A good litmus test for the appetite for environmental policy will then be the recently tabled amendment to the Environment Bill that looks to mandate that the decline in wildlife “slow down” by 2030. Though the amendment falls short of Tanya Steele’s, Chief Executive of WWF, recommendation that a “legal commitment” be made towards halting “the decline of species and to restore nature - at home and overseas - by 2030,” it will still signal a growing support for approaches to environmental policy that hold the whole of the UK’s economy accountable if passed. If not, however, the future of the UK (as both a habitat and an economy) may be rather bleak.

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