Conflicting Environmental Goods
Caroline Lucas, Leader of the Green Party, gave CPRE’s 2009 Annual Lecture on ‘Reconciling Conflicting Environmental Goods’ on Thursday, 9 July.
We’ve posted an edited version of the speech (click here for the full version) below for you to read and comment on, and will be passing your comments on to Dr Lucas. We will be wrapping up the debate with some final comments from Dr Lucas and Shaun Spiers, CPRE’s Chief Executive, toward the end of the month.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening.
I’d like to start by paying tribute to CPRE for the critical role it plays, not only in actively protecting our environment, but also in contributing to the vital debate over how we develop broader agreement about the value we place on the countryside, and how we best maintain and improve it.
That has never meant pickling it in aspic, refusing to allow it to change. As long ago as the 1920s, CPRE’s very first President, Lord Crawford, put it very well, when he acknowledged:
’We have got to have new roads and bridges, new suburbs, new villages and perhaps new towns. Our desire is that they should be comely, and shall conform to modern requirements without injuring the ancient beauty of the land.’
That pretty much sums up the same challenge that faces us today – how to reconcile the need for development, without compromising the integrity and beauty of the countryside.
The aspect of that challenge that I’ve been asked to address today is a very particular one: how can we reconcile competing environmental objectives. The case I’ll make is that there are neither generalised, off-the-peg answers to be applied in all circumstances, nor technocratic fixes, such as cost-benefit analyses, that will make such difficult decisions for us.
Instead, I believe we need to be guided by a set of principles:
- Firstly, any decision must be informed by genuine engagement with those affected.Good decisions won’t be made in the abstract, but rather through a thorough understanding of the specific and concrete effects of any proposed development or initiative. To gain such an understanding, we need involved dialogue with those who are likely to be affected.How do we weigh the views of local residents against the need to protect the interests of others elsewhere (in time or space) who could be negatively affected by what appears to be a local decision, but which has more global consequences?One corollary seems to be to remember that the principle of subsidiarity doesn’t simply mean decisions made at the most local level, but decisions made at the most appropriate level – and that means that we need to explore ways of hearing the voices of the wider, global community.
- Secondly, in addition to being informed by the views of stakeholders, we need to take decisions informed by the best available scientific evidence. Robust scientific research into climate change and our impact on the environment needs to be marshalled in support of sound decision-making.
- Thirdly, we need to be wary of setting up false dichotomies between supposedly competing environmental objectives, and instead think creatively and innovatively about possible alternatives that may eliminate, or at least reduce, any unintended negative consequences.
Competing environmental objectives
As soon as the topic of competing environmental objectives was proposed, I was prompted to reflect on two of the most high profile recent instances where respected environmentalists and environmental organisations found themselves on opposing sides. Both examples revolved around energy: the need to provide cleaner, renewable forms of energy, on the one hand, and the need to protect natural habitats, wildlife and landscapes on the other.
The first example that came to mind was the proposed tidal barrage on the Severn, near Bristol. With the potential to generate nearly 5% of all the electricity consumed in England and Wales – the equivalent of three nuclear power stations – it is not difficult to see why some environmentalists looking for cleaner forms of energy, with the urgency of climate change becoming more apparent every day, would be in favour.
But the Severn is also a unique natural environment and landscape. It has a 45-foot tidal range – the second largest in the world – and the outgoing tides leave large areas of mudflats, saltmarshes and rocky islands, and food for an average 65,000 birds in winter. It is also used by an estimated 30,000 salmon and tens of thousands of shads, lampreys and sea trout use the estuary to reach spawning grounds in the Usk and Wye rivers.
Fault lines soon emerged among environmentalists in the debate over whether the development should go ahead. The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) came out in favour, but with strict conditions attached. But a coalition of environmental groups, including the RSPB, WWF and National Trust, launched a campaign to oppose the proposed development. Their concern was with the threat posed to wildlife, habitat and with disruption to landscape.
In the Green Party, I remember, we had robust debates. As the political party that for longer than any other in the UK has called for the adoption of renewable energy to reduce damaging carbon emissions, the decision over whether to support the tidal barrage in the face of mounting evidence of the impact on local habitats and landscape was a difficult one to take. In the end, we decided that on balance we could not support it: that it had the potential to be a damaging, and wasteful, gamble.
The decision-making process within the Green Party over the barrage, and also the public debate that ensued in the media among the various environmental actors, are a good illustration of the principles that I put forward as guides for decision-making when competing environmental objectives come into play:
- The debate showed very clearly that we cannot take decisions at an abstract level. They must always be informed by the specific and concrete impacts on the local environment, including landscape and community, and stakeholders must be involved in helping us understand these.
- Secondly, decision-making must be based on sound evidence. The coalition of environmental groups and SDC presented robust scientific evidence on the likely effects on habitats and wildlife of the development and, conversely, also of the likely impact on carbon emissions from energy production if it went ahead.
- Finally, the debate in the Green Party and among the environmental groups avoided falling into a false dichotomy between clean energy in the form of the tidal barrage, on the one hand, and protecting habitats and landscapes on the other.
Instead, we put forward alternative, potentially more cost-effective, means of meeting renewable energy targets. These included smaller renewable projects in the Severn area that would not come with the large attendant risks to habitats.
At this point, I want to sound a note of caution about technocratic fixes. When we, or governments, are faced with difficult decisions, it is tempting to seek out tools that, cloaked in a veneer of objectivity, appear to be able to make such decisions for us.
When it comes to decision-making about conflicting environmental objectives, the most common and most developed fixes are often cost-benefit analyses that use economic value to translate competing environmental ends – such as reduced emissions, the preservation of bio-diversity, and protection of landscapes – into a common language in order to make the relative value of these, and the trade-offs between them, visible.
But we should be cautious about cost-benefit analyses, both for practical and philosophical reasons.
Most fundamentally, these tools ultimately only ever have the appearance of being objective – the process of valuation that underpins them is always necessarily subjective no matter how developed techniques of economic valuation might be.
After all, if we return to the example of the Severn tidal barrage, who is to say what value it has for the 65,000 birds that feed there? Or the worth of the preserved natural landscape? Or the wetlands for that matter?
In other words, how can we possibly put an objective price on the intrinsic value of our environment? Value that comes from resources like food and water, as well as from the contribution made by landscape, beauty, tranquility, distinctiveness and quality of place to our whole experience of life.
Cost benefit techniques can only ever open up, rather than provide definitive answers to, questions about value and priorities.
More generally, there is also another reason to be cautious when deploying such techniques. By attaching monetary values to environmental outcomes, we risk giving the impression that such outcomes can indeed be traded for each other, that some kind of substitutability exists between them.
That is, in the case of the tidal barrage on the Severn, by viewing both the benefit of reduced carbon emission and the loss of habitat, wildlife and landscape in monetary terms, these diverse outcomes might seem to be able to stand in for, or compensate for, each other. Yet, can the reduced carbon emissions really substitute for the loss of birds, or the landscape?
The answer, of course, is no. This is not to say that we might not need to take a decision to prioritise reduced carbon emissions over the birdlife – there may be good reasons for doing so – but we should be fully cognisant of the fact that they are not substitutable when taking such a decision. Cost-benefit analysis can be dangerous because it masks this.
I now want to turn to the second example, which also relates to energy: the tension between on-shore wind farm developments and countryside preservation.
It is on this issue that the Green Party and CPRE have on more than one occasion found themselves on opposing sides.
We have not found ourselves on opposing sides, however, because CPRE has a disregard for the threat posed by climate change or the Green Party a disregard for the value of the countryside, aesthetically or otherwise. Quite the opposite is true. CPRE recognises the need to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Green Party has a well-developed policy on the countryside.
But this is difficult terrain. And faced with the evidence in each particular case – because, again, we cannot make a decision in the abstract about the value of wind as a clean energy form versus the countryside – a judgement has to be made.
For the Green Party, however – and we make no apology for this – the threat of climate change has to be a central consideration. There is increasingly a scientific consensus that we should not exceed greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere of 450ppm – and some would argue for a much lower concentration.
If we are to provide some room for poorer countries to develop, then industrialised countries such as the United Kingdom will need to cut their emissions by 90% by 2030 – or the equivalent of 10% year on year. The scale of this challenge becomes all the more apparent when we acknowledge, as demonstrated by the latest research from the Tyndall Centre, that emissions are actually still going up.
Clean energy is clearly a major part of the solution. That’s not to say that all wind farms should always be approved, but that they will have a significant role to play – and here in the UK, we have one of the best potential wind resources in the whole of Europe.
In essence, the same principles that I outlined earlier need to be applied when deciding on wind farms.
- There needs to be involved dialogue with those affected. The word ‘involved’ is key here. This cannot simply be a one-sided debate, but would ideally follow a Citizen Jury model where expert witnesses are called to increase the likelihood that a shared understanding of concerns is developed and perhaps new ways of addressing concerns, such as alternative sitings, are able to emerge.
- Scientific evidence informs the decision-making. A good example here is the Romney Marsh wind farm in Kent – an instance where the local Green Party and CPRE did indeed find themselves on opposing sides. There was some concern about birdlife, but we argued that the weight of scientific evidence suggested, as a High Court judge later agreed in a subsequent appeal, that the risk of endangering bird life was low.
- Finally, we need to always be thinking creatively and innovatively to see if there is a way out of the wind farm/countryside preservation dichotomy.
Wind farms are not appropriate in every setting, but there is scope for them to become part of our countryside landscape in many places, and indeed to even be welcome additions that attract new people, as the building of viewing platforms on some turbines attests.
We also need to explore ways in which local people can derive a direct advantage from the wind farm in their locality. I’ve been excited, for example, by the emergence of community-owned wind farms, like the Westmill windfarm in South Oxfordshire.
The benefits of community ownership are not simply financial. If they were, one could simply opt instead for the potentially higher financial gains to be reaped from “goodwill payments” from corporate wind farms. But the principle relates to the inherent character of ownership, to the inclusive decision-making that community ownership necessarily creates. It is this kind of creative opportunity to enhance environmental gain with clear social benefits that is at the heart of genuine Green thinking.
Concluding: Bringing it back to the big picture
In concluding, I want to bring us back to the politics that most of us face on a daily basis. Tonight we have been concerning ourselves with competing environmental objectives and, to a lesser extent, competing social and environmental objectives. Yet, as I said right at the beginning of my speech, the main battleground still pits the interests of business and profit against people and planet.
For this reason, at the Green Party we have been putting a lot of effort into thinking about how we can redesign the economic system at this crucial juncture so that it serves us better. I set out proposals for how to do this in a recent pamphlet on a Green New Deal, which I encourage you to read.
It is clear that CPRE is grappling with that same challenge. I read CPRE’s 2026 Vision for the Countryside, published last month, with great interest. And as you put it in that document, ’There is a growing recognition that the country has been on the wrong path, that crude economism has not resulted in greater happiness, that we need a values-based politics’.
It is precisely a values-based politics that is at the heart of the Green Party’s approach, and I look forward to working more closely with you on this shared agenda of promoting urgently needed change.