Resources The Path to Nature Recovery is not the Slow Lane

The Path to Nature Recovery is not the Slow Lane

Bruce Howard's profile picture

Bruce Howard

19 April 2023

Last week, the Government Office for Science released the report ‘Net Zero Society: Scenarios and Pathways’. This careful analysis tests our assumptions about what society will look like in 2050. Why does this matter? Because these assumptions shape the way we pursue Net Zero locally and nationally. 

Here, we weigh-up the scenarios used in the report against what we know about the connections between people and nature. Through three simple points, we discuss the need for the scenarios used in the report to be more closely aligned with both central and devolved government policy for environmental improvement. In particular, the path to nature recovery is not the slow lane for greater wellbeing and prosperity. 

  1. Land and sea are our greatest asset for net zero. Let’s plan to harness this fact. The Net Zero Society report rightly gives plenty of consideration to energy efficiency technologies and measures. But the role of land and sea in both carbon removal and carbon emissions is given far less attention. A previous report by the Government Office for Science – Land Use Futures – articulated the role of land very clearly. Two scenarios in the latest refer to “rewilding”, but they don’t consider a future of nature-rich and carbon-storing farming, where land is multi-functional. Rather than turning all the heat and hope on farming, we must also factor-in the prospects for turning UK peatland and saltmarsh from being a net emitter of carbon to being a growing store of carbon and other economically beneficial outcomes. We must consider how the UK can grow and use far more timber of its own. It is about ensuring that we produce food nearer to home. 
  1. Environmental restoration is not the “slow-lane”. Let’s listen to the economists. The review by Sir Partha Dasgupta on the economics of biodiversity made it abundantly that we don’t have an economy without nature. The Natural Capital Committee for England made this point repeatedly. For this reason, it isn’t so helpful to to be setting out long-term scenarios whereby, somehow, society has ignored this reality. Isn’t this a bit like including a net zero scenario in which aliens have landed and made us all become carnivores? 
    Surely the realities of the biodiversity and climate crises mean that the self-preservation society scenario is far more befitting of the slow land society – at least in the long run? A healthy environment is the basis for a healthy economy, not the other way round. That is the reason why Scotland uses an index of its natural capital as a measure of economic performance. 
  1. Nature recovery can be a meeting place for delivering societal change. Let’s use it. The recent People’s Assembly for Nature sets out a vision for the relationship between people and nature. But it is much more a reality than a vision. If we are to quibble with that report, we must quibble with the 103 citizens who took part. We must also quibble with the hundreds of businesses large and small that are making use of the outputs of the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures. Government in all parts of the UK is setting out ambitious plans for the recovery of nature alongside food production. Surely we need to view net zero within the frame of a ‘nature-based society’ scenario? 

As Sir Patrick highlights in his introduction to Net Zero Society, effective responses to the pressing challenges of our time – such as net zero – requires us to think outside the box. Those who have nature and net zero at the fore of their minds must engage with those who currently have this at the back of their minds. And vice versa. It is possible that nature was a bit too much in the back of the minds of those who prepared the recent Net Zero Society report.  

The green lane may not be the only path to net zero. But it is a whole lot smoother and more equitable than any other. And it is not the slow lane.

Bruce Howard