The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

The nature of prosperity

23rd March 2015

Richard Benwell asks: What is prosperity?

Last week, in London – one of the richest cities in the world – the Mayor announced a “Level 7 Warning” on air pollution. High levels of pollutants like NO2 and particulates fill the air, causing a perceptible haze in areas like St James’s Park. Pollution causes almost 30,000 premature deaths each year in the UK, and the Mayor is advising people to stay indoors and avoid strenuous exercise. This will exacerbate other public health challenges like obesity, diabetes, poor mental health and heart disease.

This pollution is caused by vehicle exhausts and emissions from power stations, which help to drive the economic activity of cities like London. In other words, the power that fuels our productivity is hurting our prosperity, on any reasonable definition of that word.

This is just one of the ways that damaging the environment compromises our prosperity. Others can be found in Tony Juniper’s new book, What nature does for Britain. For example, when we damage our peatland for short-term economic gain, the consequences are manifold: greenhouse gases are released, flood risk is increased, water bills are boosted by costs of cleanup, and the natural amenity value is reduced.

All too often, the effects of environmental degradation are felt most acutely by the poorest and most vulnerable, like inner-city communities along busy roads, or people in small island developing states who will be first to feel the effects of a changing climate. Conversely, investing in nature can help solve society’s biggest challenges: trees help clean the air and reduce flooding, insects are wonderful pollinators for our agricultural sector, and rich environments are great for our physical and mental health.

So, the message is an obvious one: prosperity is about much more than a growing economy. Unfortunately, the way we measure our success retains a myopic focus on economic growth, and political leadership routinely favours short-term growth in GDP over the long-term sustainability of our economy and people’s health, happiness and wellbeing.

To redress the balance, we need to refocus attention on the need for nature in our lives. That’s why the RSPB is part of a growing movement calling for a Nature and Wellbeing Act in the first Session of the next Parliament. We want long-term legally binding targets to restore nature for the next generation. To help achieve them, we are proposing policies that would:

  • build the value of nature into decision-making: through a stronger Natural Capital Committee or ‘Office for Environmental Responsibility’
  • protect nature and landscapes that matter to people: through reform of local planning powers, marrying up local protection with national and international priorities
  • connect people with nature: by setting standards for access to natural greenspace so everyone benefits from nature.

You can see one version of the Nature and Wellbeing Act here, introduced by Rt Hon Sir John Randall MP. All political parties should commit to including a version of the Act in the next Queen’s Speech.

The Budget Statement is the centrepiece of the political year, but what’s the point of reducing the financial deficit if we accrue a natural deficit at the expense of society and future generations? This year, there was a glimmer of hope in the protection for Pitcairn Island hidden in the detail of the Budget, but new tax cuts for oil exploitation received much more fanfare.

In future, Budget Statements should account for natural assets as clearly as they do our financial capital. To increase our natural wealth, we must make environmental responsibility the natural choice for politicians, businesses and individuals. This means integrating social virtue in markets and decision making through mechanisms like the “polluter pays principle”, while activities that enhance public goods like environmental protection should be rewarded.

As the air clears in London, there are grounds for optimism. Down the road from RSPB’s office in St James’s Park, DEFRA has invested in a beehive for the roof. Under that roof, the Secretariat of the first Natural Capital Committee is beavering away with recommendations for a 25-year plan to grow our natural wealth.

Fighting climate change has helped to unlock new innovation and green growth in the economy. People are starting to appreciate the value of nature and that something must be done to turn round its long-term decline.

So, as we approach the General Election, let’s call on all political parties to commit to a Nature and Wellbeing Act. Let’s reward virtuous actions that contribute to social benefits and make sure that all politicians remember the real meaning of prosperity.


1 comment on “The nature of prosperity”

  1. David Collins says:

    It’s incredible how much apathy still exists around the environment and climate change. Many aren’t going to stand up and try to make a difference until it’s all too late! Keep up the fantastic work.

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