On 4th October the UK State of Nature report was published and the picture was pretty bleak: 41% of species have declined since 1970 with 15% in serious threat of extinction. In truth this is not a surprise, and we never seem to learn from these types of reports.
If you cast your minds back to the 1980s the Nature Conservancy Council (a previous incarnation of Natural England) was so concerned about the loss of ancient woodland (at the time, a 50% loss in the period following the end of the Second World War) that it commissioned a Ancient Woodland Inventory. Since then things have just got worse but at least the Inventory allows us to document the losses accurately. Shamefully, today the UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe with just 12% (compared to France – 29%, Spain – 35%, Sweden – 68%, Finland – 75%). And yet plans for HS2 would remove 34 ancient woodlands and negatively impact 74 more. Even though work has been halted for this year, work is scheduled to restart ‘early 2020’; that’s in eight weeks time.
Above: Ancient pollarded Hornbeams standing in the way of progress. © Rob Read/Nature Photographers Ltd.
Sir David Attenborough, who knows a thing or two about wildlife, has described the UK as “one of the most nature-depleted places on the planet.” He also says “Nature urgently needs our help to recover”
Above: Greater Mouse-eared Bat, just one of many species on the verge of extinction in the UK. ©Sdueard Bisserot/Nature Photographers Ltd.
Disappointingly, our mass media doesn’t tend to devote too many column inches to the decline of wildlife, particularly in the UK.
Around the same time the UK State of Nature report was being published thousands of people joined the protests led by Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR, as we all know, is primarily focused on climate change and the need to take bigger and bolder action to prevent the consequences of rising temperatures. Their message is clear: we need to move away from a fossil fuel economy.
Extinction Rebellion have done a great job of raising awareness, taking action and grabbing the headlines; the fact many of those in power deride them as being “uncooperative crusties” is a testament to their effectiveness. Add Greta Thunberg into the mix and we can see why ‘climate’ has quickly risen up the agenda.
However, we need to be careful what we wish for.
In 2015 the UN produced a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Number 13 is Climate Action. There are also goals for clean water, marine life, biodiversity, and responsible consumption and production. It’s a framework for everything that needs to be tackled to achieve real sustainability for all. It’s hardly surprising then that businesses have been accused of ‘cherry picking’ the goals they want to focus on to ‘help drive their own business growth’ – and that’s from PwC, a friend of businesses.
A perfect example of cherry-picking and using climate as a way to grow revenues came in a recent interview with Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever. Unilever, who use 700,000 tonnes of virgin plastic each year, announced that they were going to start using recycled plastic in their packaging to grow more sales with the younger generation. When asked why they didn’t switch to a wholly recyclable product like glass, the answer was: “A hysterical move to glass may be trendy but it would have a dreadful impact on the carbon footprint of packaging.” This is to ignore to fact that plastic doesn’t degrade (Goal 12) and is the cause of significant marine pollution (Goal 13), it enters the food chain and is the cause of death for many fish, mammals and birds globally (Goal 15).
I felt sure that Unilever must be alone in their thinking but no. The organisation, Break Free From Plastic recently published a report on the World’s Top Corporate Plastic Polluters. Over 72,000 volunteers across 51 countries collected almost half a million pieces of plastic waste, 43% of which was marked with a clear consumer brand.
The reports states: ‘For the second year in a row, Coca Cola came in as #1 Top Global Polluter’ with 11,732 plastic items bearing the brand’s name across 37 countries. Oh, and look who else is in the top 5 – Unilever.
#1 Coca Cola
The BBC interviewed James Quincey, Global CEO of Coca Cola, who, like Unilever, rebuffs the idea of using cans and glass because, he claims “it misses what has economic value and what can be re-used. Part of the problem with plastics is that people are saying they will have cans or glass, but when you bring the climate crisis into focus as well, we ultimately as world need to radically reduce our use of carbon so that everyone can enjoy the same living standards as the West. Glass and cans have much higher carbon footprint than recycled plastic.”
Once again, we see a global brand, a top polluting brand, using carbon reduction as a weapon against all other sustainability issues.
Above: Here we see a familiar scene from rural Gambia. Of course, the curse of plastic is not unique to the UK and is so much worse in the developing world where notions such as recycling are almost an alien concept. © Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd.
Even the National Farmers Union (NFU) has found cause to be cheerful, publishing a plan focussed on carbon neutrality ‘without cutting beef production or converting substantial areas of farmland into forest.’ The NFU President, Minette Batters said “We aspire to be producing the most climate-friendly food in the world.” Not the tastiest, not the most sustainable, the most climate friendly.
Above: There’s no escaping the fact that meat means methane. © Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd
Some of the measures that the NFU suggests to achieve this lofty ambition include: ‘The use of controlled release fertilisers and inhibitors to increase efficient use of nitrogen and reduce emissions; feed additives to reduce methane emissions from ruminant livestock; gene editing for disease resistance to improve health and productivity of crops and livestock and reduce emissions.’ All sounds perfectly healthy.
Above: What hope for Skylarks and other farmland wildlife in the envisaged brave new farming world? © Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd.
Whilst there is a suggestion to improve soil quality to lock-up carbon, it doesn’t say how that would be achieved while using the same fertilisers and pesticides that have degraded soil quality to now. There is also a suggestion to make hedges bigger and plant more trees, but this would be dependent on government funding and ‘carbon pricing’. No mention of wildlife or water quality. Odd, that.
I fear that this a sign of things to come. I worry that 16 other Sustainable Development Goals are going to be sacrificed because big business is going to cherry pick climate action as justification for doing business as usual. Let’s be honest ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’ (Goal 12) just isn’t in their interests.
Wildlife in particular is going to suffer because it’s not climate that has made the UK one of the most nature-depleted places on the planet. It’s because we have systematically destroyed habitat, polluted, poisoned and persecuted, primarily for profit. That hasn’t changed and won’t change if we focus solely on climate.
The climate action groups have done a great job but what we need is a broader narrative if we are going to address plastic pollution, water quality, biodiversity loss, health & well-being and the plethora of other issues that global brands contribute to.
It’s now up to the conservation sector to bring biodiversity loss back into the debate but they’ve got a lot of catching up to do.