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‘Historic disregard’ of nature a ‘catastrophic mistake’, finds report

Words: Laura Edgar
Climate change / Shutterstock_86013754

Policymakers in the UK and around the world need to ‘wake up’ to the ‘accelerating process of environmental breakdown’, according to think tank IPPR.

Despite growing awareness in the past year of the threats posed by the climate crisis and the destruction of nature, policymakers in the UK are “woefully unaware of and ill-prepared” to deal with them. 

We Are Not Ready: Policymaking in the Age of Environmental Breakdown “states that the historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake”.

The think tank says the UK is “acutely vulnerable” to the impacts of the climate and nature crisis and is unprepared for the policy challenge ahead.

This disregard has left soil degraded, species at risk of going extinct, and oceans polluted, states the report. 

Furthermore, this accelerating process of environmental breakdown “will leave no area of human society untouched”. Global consequences include, but are not limited to, persistent financial instability, food crises and conflict, all amounting to “persistent destabilisation” on a global scale. Policymakers around the world, says IPPR, “need to wake up to this new domain of risk of unprecedented complexity and severity”.

The report is the conclusion of IPPR's research programme, ‘Responding to Environmental Breakdown’. It has investigated how to realise a more sustainable, just and prepared society in response to environmental breakdown, and seeks to inform the debate over the relationship between policy and politics and environmental breakdown. 

According to the report, environmental breakdown is a problem of socio-economic systems. 

“It is driven by the structures and dynamics of these systems, with political-economic models across the world achieving social progress at the expense of the environment.

“Many socio-economic systems have developed under conditions of remarkable stability, often prioritising efficiency over resilience, and are therefore acutely vulnerable to the domain of risk imposed by environmental breakdown. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of these vulnerabilities,” it states.

Researchers contend that the Covid-19 pandemic should remind global policymakers of the “risks inherent in the destruction of nature and of the fragility of humanity to such exponential threats”. 

Laurie Laybourn-Langton, IPPR associate fellow, said: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the UK was not adequately prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. The threats posed by the environmental crisis could also emerge quickly and could overwhelm our capacity to respond. So the pandemic gives us a window into a future increasingly beset by the consequences of environmental breakdown.  

“In the UK, we are not ready for this future – far from it. But all is not lost. We can be better prepared for environmental breakdown. And the changes we need to make to our society and economy are exactly those that can also make a happier, healthier and fairer world.”  

To address the challenges, IPPR recommends an overhaul of policymaking, including establishing a Royal Commission on preparations for environmental breakdown, which should assess how prepared the UK is. It should consider everything from supply chains and resource management to foreign and security policy, as well as establish the criteria by which the UK’s preparedness can be assessed. 

IPPR says the body would also play a “vital” role in conveying the scale of action required to policymakers and the public. 

We Are Not Ready: Policymaking in the Age of Environmental Breakdown also sets out a number of measures aimed at making the UK a more “sustainable, just and prepared society”. These include:

  • Creating a sustainable economy act that mandates statutory goals or targets for the rapid reduction of a full range of environmental impacts.
  • Making changes to the decision-making structures of government, including establishing a minister for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, making decisions in reference to a suite of indicators of societal wellbeing, and establishing a council for the response to environmental breakdown at the heart of the government.
  • Developing a green industrial strategy to reorient the direction of economic development towards rapid environmental sustainability and maximising societal wellbeing.
  • Introducing votes at 16 – expanding the franchise to those with the most at stake in the future of the planet. A future generations act [for the whole UK] should also ensure that all policy is constrained if it causes undue environmental harm to those not yet born. 
  • A national education programme on environmental breakdown, to rapidly develop a shared understanding across the population of the reality and risks of environment breakdown, and a ‘future leaders fund’, to help outstanding young leaders develop the experience and competencies needed to lead in a future of unprecedented destabilisation.

Luke Murphy, head of the IPPR environmental justice commission, said: “The lights on the environmental dashboard are flashing red. As we recover from the Covid-19 crisis, we must not accelerate headlong into another crisis for which we are not prepared. 

“The UK should use the recovery from Covid-19 to transform its economy, to address climate change and increase preparedness, and tackle wider inequalities – all of this can and should be done at the same time. 

“But the UK is not alone. Countries around the world are unprepared to tackle the crisis of environmental breakdown. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK can take a lead as host of COP26 to try and help build an era of unprecedented global cooperation and a brighter future for all.” 

We Are Not Ready: Policymaking in the Age of Environmental Breakdown can be found on the IPPR website (pdf).

Earlier today, The Planner reported that The Wildlife Trusts say that the climate and nature crises should be tackled together as one. They have urged the government, industry and local authorities to “step-up” investment in nature’s recovery and climate mitigation. 

A report published by the trusts today (24 June) outlines that a wide range of land habitats – grasslands, peatlands and wetlands – should be restored to store carbon, likewise seagrass and salt marsh. 

Read more about this report here on The Planner.

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