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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

UK acutely vulnerable to environmental breakdown after policymakers’ ‘historic disregard’ for risks to nature

IPPR calls for Royal Commission to assess UK preparedness for nature crises after Covid-19 exposed ‘fragility’ in face of major threats 

UK policymakers remain woefully unaware of and ill-prepared for parallel threats posed by the climate crisis and destruction of nature, despite growing awareness over the last year, according to IPPR. 

In a report following a year-long investigation into environmental breakdown, the think tank has found the UK is ‘acutely vulnerable’ to the impacts of the climate and nature crisis and unprepared for the policy challenge ahead.  

The report concludes that the overall environmental crisis has already reached critical levels due to the ‘historic disregard’ for the destruction of nature. Soil has been degraded, species are going extinct, and oceans are polluted. 

IPPR argues that this accelerating process of environmental breakdown will leave no area of human society untouched, with potential global consequences including persistent financial instability, food crises, and conflict. These and other impacts amount to persistent destabilisation on a global scale, so policy makers around the world need to ‘wake up’ to this ‘new domain of risk’ of unprecedented complexity and severity, according to IPPR. 

Researchers argue that the global coronavirus pandemic serves to remind policymakers of the risks inherent in the destruction of nature and of the fragility of humanity to such exponential threats. It also reminds them of the immense response that can be mobilised across societies in moments of extreme need. The environmental crisis is an even more extreme moment. 

The report states that nothing less than the overall transformation of society and the economy is required to fairly bring human activity within sustainable limits and prepare us for the consequences of the damage already caused to nature. 

IPPR’s own ‘traffic lights’ assessment of the UK’s readiness for the urgent and pressing demands imposed by environmental breakdown paints a stark picture of a country ill-prepared for the shocks ahead, and failing to undertake action on the necessary scale. 

The report identifies 21 measures of readiness and concludes that the UK is failing fully to meet any of them. It is making only partial progress in 15 areas (amber) and almost completely failing in the remaining six (red).  

To meet this challenge, the report calls for an overhaul of policymaking. Key to this is the establishment of a Royal Commission on Preparations for Environmental Breakdown. The commission should assess the UK’s preparedness, covering everything from supply chains and resource management to foreign and security policy. It would also establish the criteria by which the UK’s preparedness can be assessed. The body would also play a vital role in conveying the necessity and scale of action required, to policy makers and the public. 

The report also proposes key measures to drive the UK towards meeting the criteria for a more sustainable, just and prepared society, including: 

  • A Sustainable Economy Act – modelled on the Climate Change Act, to bring all economic activity into line with ambitious targets for cutting environmental damage. Crucially, these targets should encompass the environmental impact of goods and services both produced in and imported to the UK. The government could use the current Environment Bill as a vehicle for these ambitions. 
  • A minister for the UN Sustainable Development Goals – to champion sustainable development at the very top of government, backed by a cabinet committee for coordinating the response to environmental breakdown. 
  • A fair environmental foreign policy – recognising the UK’s historic contribution to environmental damage, our international relations should be orientated around a commitment to be a ‘supporting partner’ and pay a fair share to help others decarbonise and protect nature. This should include investing £20 billion in the UN Green Climate Fund up to 2030, and reforming international organisations that have helped entrench environmental damage, such as the World Bank and the IMF. 
  • Votes at 16 – expanding the franchise to those with the most at stake in the future of the planet. A Future Generations Act should also ensure all policy is constrained if it causes undue environmental harm to those not yet born. 

The report emphasises that in responding to environmental breakdown, a better world is possible; one in which cleaner, more efficient, fair and better prepared societies can flourish under a new conception of abundance. A thriving UK economy is possible without destroying the natural environment and the animals that inhabit it. 

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.”  

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 COP 26 to try and help build an era of unprecedented global cooperation and a brighter future for all.” 

ENDS 

Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Luke Murphy are available for interview 

CONTACT 

David Wastell, Head of News and Communications: [email protected]  

Robin Harvey, Digital and Media Officer: [email protected]  

NOTES TO EDITORS 

  1. The IPPR paper We are not Ready: Policymaking in the Age of Environmental Breakdown by Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Joshua Emden and Tom Hill, will be published at 0001 on Wednesday 24 July. It will be available for download at: https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/we-are-not-ready
  2. Advance copies of the report are available under embargo on request 
  3. Register for the launch event: journalists are invited to join a webinar discussion at 4pm on July 24 with expert speakers, including Professor Sir David King, who is founder of the independent SAGE advisory group and the former UK chief scientific adviser. Sign up here
  4. This is the final report of IPPR’s Responding Environmental Breakdown programme. It follows a series of briefing papers and the award-winning launch report This Is A Crisis, published in February 2019, which can be found here: https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/age-of-environmental-breakdown 
  5. Details of the Responding to Environmental Breakdown programme and all the associated reports is available to view here: https://www.ippr.org/environmentalbreakdown 
  6. This report is not the work of IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission but will be submitted to the Commission as evidence. More on the Commission and its interim report can be found here: https://www.ippr.org/environment-and-justice 
  7. IPPR is the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank. With more than 40 staff in offices in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, IPPR is Britain’s only national think tank with a truly national presence. www.ippr.org