Overdrawn at the Bank of Natural Capital

29.02.12

Sue Riddlestone, BioRegional's CEO, reports from last night's House of Commons' debate on Rio+20.

There’s a lot of talk about banks and the economy these days. Last night at the House of Commons debate on this June’s Rio+20 Earth Summit, MP’s from all parties agreed; we are overdrawn at the bank of natural capital having overspent on fish, forests, fresh air and all the rest. Worse than that, we’ve been living it up, being wasteful while over a billion people live in absolute poverty.

The resource crunch is upon us and it’s starting to affect our economy with rising food and energy prices hitting household pockets. Zac Goldsmith MP told us that a KPMG report out last week notes that food prices will rise by 90% by 2030. There is a deluge of such reports these days, usually from top accountancy firms or business consultants in the hope that we will all take it more seriously. And Business is taking it seriously; the World Economic Forum cites income disparities and unsustainable resource use as two of its top business risks.  As the MP’s noted, to reduce their risks and future proof their companies, businesses like Unilever and Kingfisher are moving faster than governments. At BioRegional, we’ve shown how we can actually enjoy a higher quality of life and be happier and healthier in better designed communities which are just more efficient with resources. So it’s definitely not about a hair shirt existence.

The theme of Rio+20, so named because it comes twenty years after that iconic Earth Summit in Brazil, is “the green economy in the context of sustainable development and the eradication of poverty”. It doesn’t trip off the tongue, but it’s spot on. Everyone has been asking what’s the definition of green economy? The UN’s High Level Panel on Sustainability says it’s an economy which integrates social equality and environmental sustainability. Well our current economy certainly doesn’t, we’ve got the 99% and the Arab Spring. We’re all fed up with bankers’ bonuses and fat cats. It’s definitely time for a fresh start.  The “zero draft” of the Summit agreement includes the idea of green economy roadmaps and global sustainable development goals. But it will never work until the treasury and the economic system take account of these things which we are all saying are important.

Caroline Spelman’s move to get us valuing and accounting for natural capital is a clever one. A whole raft of policies to make sure we don’t take nature for granted are set out in Defra’s natural environment white paper which came out last year. We have to wait until 2020 for the Office of National Statistics to start including metrics on natural capital in our national accounts but this is the way the world is going.

Environment Minister Richard Benyon, standing in for Caroline Spelman who had another Rio+20 event to go to, said the UK government’s priorities are a global set of sustainable development goals, access to energy for all, corporate social responsibility and yes, natural capital.  Heroic Joan Walley MP, the self effacing but dogged chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, managed to re-ask her question “When will the Prime Minister tell us if he will attend the Summit?” just before the 10pm guillotine. The answer was he’ll let us know soon.

Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton had earlier asked, “Will we look back like sole survivor Pete Postlethwaite in the movie the Age of Stupid and say “Why is it knowing what we knew then we didn’t act when there was still time”. So come on Dave and George, do the right thing, go to Rio and do your bit to get us an economy which adds up for us and for future generations.

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