Three high impact policies to protect and improve our natural environment

Photo: Konstandin Minga

The Labour Party’s consultation document, A Greener Britain, seeks proposals about different aspects of environmental policy. In this series of articles, Redgreenlabour supporters offer their thoughts. Please comment on these contributions which the authors may well revise and submit to the consultation in due course. We also urge you to submit your own responses to the Party – whether as individuals or through your branches, CLPs, unions, SERA or other environmental groups. The deadline is 24th June.

There are vast numbers of environmental policies that it would be good to see a future Labour government pledged to adopt, but if our manifesto is to inspire people to vote for us we need to persuade people that we can really make a difference. To do this I think that our manifesto needs to focus on a few key policy pledges, with maximum potential to make a difference. These pledges also need to be specific and clearly deliverable.

In the area of bio-diversity and the natural environment I would like to suggest 3 policy pledges that I think would fit this bill.

Full implementation of the recommendations of the 2004 Royal Commission Report “Turning the Tide”

The marine environment has tended to be “out of sight, out of mind”, but public awareness of the dire state that it is in and of what we are in danger of losing is increasing. This is a policy that would really make a difference in this area and I believe that it has the potential to enthuse a lot of people.

Adopting full implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations as one of our headline policies would also provide us with a policy that has already had much of the work on supporting evidence and supplementary policy detail completed already. In addition it would be a policy that would be hard to attack as unrealistic, given that the proposals were put forward by a cross party committee.

Central to the Royal Commission’s proposals was the recommendation that we need to set up an ecologically coherent network of genuinely no take marine reserves, covering 30% of UK waters out to 200 nautical miles. Such reserves have been highly successful in helping to restore the marine environment to a much healthier state, in areas where they have been introduced. They have also been shown to help to restore fish stocks and boost catches beyond their boundaries, in areas where commercial fishing is still allowed.

Those of us who were campaigning for a requirement to fully implement the Royal Commission’s report to be included in the Marine & Costal Access Act 2009 obtained legal advice at the time that unilateral implementation of the Royal Commission’s proposals would not be incompatible with EU law, as long the measures were intended to protect the marine environment as a whole and not just fish stocks, so our ability to implement this policy would not be dependent on the eventual outcome of the current Brexit negotiations.

Despite the important role that implementation of the Royal Commission’s proposals could play in ensuring the long term viability of the UK fishing industry, we probably do need to recognize that many sections of the industry might oppose this policy, because of the short term impact of restrictions on where they could fish, but major restrictions already exist in terms of catch quotas and as a supplementary policy in this area we could address the concerns of the vast majority of those in the industry by also pledging a much more equitable distribution of fishing quotas, since the vast bulk of allowable catch is currently allocated to a few big companies, rather than to the vast majority of smaller boats and the big UK companies often don’t even use the allowance themselves, but instead sell it on to big foreign companies.

A change to subsidy regimes and other measures to encourage and facilitate re-forestation of a substantial portion of the UK’s ecologically impoverished uplands. (As is being strongly advocated by George Monbiot here. )

The UK has one of the lowest proportions of tree cover of any country in Europe. In most parts of Europe productive lowland areas are intensively cultivated, but less productive upland areas remain heavily forested, providing a haven for wildlife. This is not the case in the UK, where most of our uplands are barren, ecological deserts, kept that way by three activities, sheep farming, deer stalking and grouse shooting.

Upland sheep farming suppresses the regeneration of tree cover, contributes virtually nothing towards UK food production and produces minimal amounts of wool. It is only sustained by agricultural subsidies and then only precariously. We should promise to reform the subsidy regime to at least offer farmers the option of getting out of upland sheep farming and allowing the regeneration of natural tree cover on their land.

It is not just sheep farming that keeps our uplands bare and impoverished, however. Concentration of landownership in the UK is greater than it is nearly anywhere else in the world and the other major contributor towards the ecological impoverishment of our uplands is the existence of vast private estates, managed for deer stalking, or grouse shooting.

Those estates managed for deer stalking tend to maintain deer at artificially high population densities that prevent the re-establishment of tree cover, while grouse moors are maintained as ecological deserts by burning, to encourage the low lying heather habitat favoured by grouse (and little else); and by the deliberate slaughter of competitors and predators (many of the latter illegally).

These vast estates also attract big public subsidies, due to the government bizarrely choosing to count grouse shooting as an agricultural activity and by their refusal to put any cap on the maximum area of land on which any one individual or company can claim a subsidy.

Ideally; I would like to see us adopt a policy of expropriating these vast estates, without compensation, so that they can be managed for the benefit of all and in a much more environmentally sustainable way. I think that such a policy could be fully justified on the basis that no one has the right to claim exclusive title to more land than they themselves need to live on, or personally farm; and on the basis that the predecessors of the current owners of these vast estates themselves acquired ownership by expropriating the land by force in the first place.

If this is considered too radical; however, then at the very least we should promise to stop wasting public money on subsidizing the environmentally destructive activities of a small number of incredibly rich individuals and we should supplement this by promising to bring in tight rules, restricting environmentally destructive activities such as burning and by promising to greatly extend the protection afforded to other species that are currently persecuted as predators, or competitors. This should include making confiscation of their land the penalty for landowners found guilty of breaking these rules, or killing protected species; or of allowing their agents to do so.

A ban on bio-fuels and on the large scale use of bio-mass as a fuel, except where they are sourced from waste.

While my other two policy proposals are largely about positively improving the natural environment here in the UK and around our coasts, this last proposal is about halting the UK’s contribution towards a major source of environmental destruction worldwide.

Bio-fuels, such as ethanol and bio-diesel, along with bio-mass, in the form of wood chips, as an alternative to coal, have been promoted as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, because the CO2 released into the atmosphere when they are burnt will eventually be removed again by the growth of new crops, or trees. The environmentally friendly credentials of such fuels are illusory; however, and their use often causes more environmental and other damage than using fossil fuels does.

The problem with bio-fuels is that for them to make any significant contribution towards meeting our energy needs a lot of land needs to be set aside to grow crops to produce them. This both pushes up food prices, by competing with food production and is a major driver of deforestation, due to the increased demand for land that it creates. This increased clearance of land for agriculture is not only having a major negative impact on bio-diversity, it also leads to the release of vast amounts of carbon stored in the trees and soil, so that far from helping to reduce carbon emissions bio-fuels actually end up increasing them. This is even an issue with bio-mass, because even if the carbon released by burning trees is eventually removed from the atmosphere again by growing new ones, this will take 100s of years.

Reversing current misguided polices that promote bio-fuels and bio-mass is one of the most straight- forward and high impact measures that we could take to help to slow bio-diversity loss and destruction of the natural environment; and it would respond to increasing public concern about the relentless loss of tropical forests and the threat of extinction facing iconic species such as orangutans


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