With the scale and breadth of the Government’s environmental ambitions, the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) is set to have a key role for years to come, says Matthew Farrow.
Recently I was in a meeting with some of the Treasury officials who worked on the recently published Dasgupta review on the Economics of Biodiversity. They ran through the key tenets of the review – the need to recognise that the natural environment is as vital to the functioning of the economy as manufactured assets, the need to build the value and benefits of natural capital into economic decision-making and broaden the measures of economic success, like GDP, to include wider benefits.
I’ve listened to hundreds of presentations making these points for over 15 years, but never from that Whitehall bastion of economic orthodoxy, HM Treasury. The extent to which the orthodoxy has changed was evident in Boris Johnson attending the report launch and environment secretary George Eustice accepting that new policies should be developed to implement it.
In the same week of the Dasgupta review, the Times reported that the Treasury is actively considering an economy-wide carbon tax (a topic that has been around for years but until recently was seen as something that idealistic economists would propose and political advisers would laugh at) and carried an article by their business editor arguing that financial markets now assume that the future will be net zero and are valuing stocks accordingly.
All this made me reflect on the Environmental Industries Commission’s (EIC) changing role. When EIC was founded in the mid-1990s it was as a voice for those businesses swimming against the tide in their belief that high environmental standards could go with economic prosperity and business growth. A little over 25 years on and that tide has comprehensively turned. EIC’s role is changing, but is no less vital. As the parliamentary public accounts committee complained recently, actual progress on the ground in improving the environment remains painfully slow. Policies are often either still lacking or poorly thought through and EIC is needed to help government deliver what it is promising.
Sometimes we need to use members’ frontline expertise to help officials understand how technical policy is (or is not) working. Take the Definition of Waste Code of Practice, which supports the shift to a ‘circular economy’ by enabling the reuse of uncontaminated soil of construction sites. EIC members helped create this guidance some years ago yet it is at risk of becoming ineffective due to unnecessary attempts to align it to aspects of EU waste law which the UK is now free to change. So, we are talking to Defra to explain the need for a more pragmatic approach.
At other times we can co-create better implementation of policy through sharing members’ own expertise. Our engagement with Natural England on its plans for digital platforms to implement the forthcoming biodiversity net gain requirements is helping them get the balance right between ensuring the ‘platform’ makes the policy effective but is not so overcomplicated it is unworkable for developers.
So, Government officials are keen to hear from EIC and its members and get our help. And with the scale and breadth of the government’s environmental ambitions, it looks like EIC will be needed for at least another 25 years.
This blog originally appeared as Matthew’s regular column in the most recent Infrastructure Intelligence.