At the last Conservative conference, George Osbourne announced “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”. While he was referring specifically to climate change, he articulated a commonly-held view: that protecting the environment always comes at an economic cost. And so in times of economic hardship, environmental action is a luxury or worse, a barrier to human progress. Those who oppose environmental action do so because they assume that the needs of humans are isolated completely from the needs of nature, and discount the possibility of embracing both. But we know enough of the workings of our planet now to know that such thinking is both wrong and destructive.
Doubtlessly, the UK must face up to the realities of a rising population and the phenomenal level of consumption required for economic growth. Without policy and culture shifts to address these two issues, any attempt to achieve environmental sustainability will founder. At the same time, the UK must recognise the need to safeguard and husband its natural resources. Agriculture; housing; infrastructure; water abstraction; human health; these things are all tied inextricably to the environment. To name just a few examples, forests and wetlands retain water and prevent flooding; trees have a cooling effect on cities; places of nature measurably improve people’s mental wellbeing; and without pollinating species, farming in the UK would collapse.
Pollination is high on the news agenda at the moment. Bees in the UK and more widely are suffering population crashes, with research identifying neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides, as one of the main causes. Just recently the European Commission announced a temporary ban on these pesticides from December 2013. The UK government voted against the ban, claiming there was not enough evidence for it. While it is true that there may be other contributing causes, not all of them man-made, the government’s failure to react at all to the bee crisis exemplifies its entrenched way of thinking – that the benefits of taking environmental action cannot possibly recoup the economic losses suffered elsewhere. The charity Buglife estimates that bees and other pollinating insects, many of which are also threatened, contribute £510 million per year to the UK economy. Yet using alternative methods of pollination would cost us £1.8 billion per year.
Tony Juniper, author of What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?, argues that we must see the environment as a form of capital, and the destruction of it for short-term profit as the destruction of future dividends. For example, a wood can absorb rainfall; maintain the fertility of the surrounding soil; provide a home for pest-controlling species like birds; and act as a community space. It can also help prevent or reduce flooding in times of heavy rainfall. If the wood is cleared for buildings or a road, its capital is liquidated. The psychology of short-term profit that reigns in governments and markets worldwide is understandable, but not excusable.
Climate change is the elephant in the room for any discussion about the environment’s role in economies. It is a global problem, and only global action can hope to prevent or at least reduce its consequences. Yet this is no excuse for the UK to shrug it away, as George Osbourne would rather do. The UK has the opportunity to be a trailblazer in developing viable renewable energy, and indeed it is already on the way according to the Confederation of British Industry, which estimated that over a third of our economic growth between 2011-12 came from green business. According to a recent BBC News article, it will cost a trillion euros for Europe to have infrastructure in place for cheap renewable energy by 2020. But compared against the costs of climate change’s potential effects – flooding, drought, agricultural and fishing industry collapse, disease, to name but a few – this would be a bargain in the long-run.
The UK has been either in or teetering on the brink of economic recession for the last six years. But another, far more insidious recession has steadily been creeping up on us for much longer. The human race is living beyond its means, currently consuming one and a half planets’ worth of resources. We are accumulating a vast environmental debt in the form of disasters like carbon emissions, deforestation and desertification, extinctions, and phosphate pollution (phosphate fertilisers being the only reason we can even feed 7 billion people). More so than ever, individuals and governments must consider the future and not just the present. This may well prove impossible in the end, or will be realised too late. But when the green deficit reaches critical mass it will not manifest in a poor credit rating or cuts to public services. It will change our world entirely, and only for the worse.
Chantal Lyons recently graduated from the University of Nottingham having completed a BA in Politics. Chantal has previous written for The Huffington Post.