This article was first published in The Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/07/08/worlds-poorest-hardest-hit-effects-climate-change-species-destruction/
When nature thrives, people thrive too – it’s time for our development policies to restore the environment
Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston
Every minute, forty football pitches worth of forest disappears. Our oceans are being filled with plastic at such a rate than by 2050 they will contain more plastic than fish. In the last fifty years, we have global wildlife populations decline by an average of sixty percent. And now whole species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, with over a quarter of animals and plants threatened with extinction.
These sobering statistics are just a glimpse of the environmental tragedy that the world faces. This is a crisis on its own terms – we are facing the wipe-out of iconic animals and the destruction of beautiful landscapes – but it represents an existential threat to people too.
Nature is at the root of everything we rely on as humans – from the air we breathe to the water we drink, and from the soil we use to grow our food to the places we go to relax. So when we cut down forests, we deprive people of a source of clean air and income; when we pollute the oceans, we deny people access to fish to sell and eat; and when we degrade soil, it is people who suffer as crops fail and food becomes scarce.
This undeniable link between the destruction of the natural world and its impact on people means that the environment is a major development issue too. With seventy-five percent of the world’s poorest households relying directly on fishing or farming, and with over ninety percent of the poorest people depending on natural resources for basics like food, fuel and transport, it is they – the most vulnerable people on the planet – who face the most dire consequences of the degradation of the environment. Whilst we in the developed world are – for now, at least – able to insulate ourselves against the worst effects, millions of people simply cannot.
Look at Somalia in East Africa. Its coastline of nearly 2000 miles has £104m worth of potential fish stocks, but years of poor governance and environmental neglect means that those stocks have been illegally exploited and overfished by foreign vessels, plunging thousands of local people into poverty and unemployment, with many turning to piracy and terrorism.
And yet despite this clear link between the natural world and poverty, the Government does not act accordingly in the way it makes policy and spends money. We in the UK can be immensely proud of our country’s aid work overseas – the annual 0.7% of GDP spend cops a lot of flak but it has time and again helped those in dire need after natural disasters, it has supported thousands of girls through school, and it has vaccinated millions of children against deadly diseases. But we do not yet do anywhere near enough to protect the natural environment as a means of preventing the base poverty that we are rightly focused on tackling.
Nobody now denies the inextricable link between poverty and climate change. It is manifestly true that rising global temperatures will make vast swathes of the world uninhabitable and force millions more into poverty and mass migration. Because of this, the UK has taken an international lead in reducing our own carbon emissions and supporting developing countries to do the same through the International Climate Fund. The nature crisis is intimately related to this and has the same destructive potential, but it receives a fraction of the political attention and government funding. It is time for that to change.
What would this look like in practice? I am part of a new, cross-party campaign – People and Nature – supported by MPs, environmental organisations and development NGOs and we are calling on the Government to act on three key areas.
Firstly, we need to make sure that all UK overseas aid is nature positive. That means that all our aid should be shown to be, at a minimum, doing no harm to the natural environment, just as every penny we spend at present must be shown to be good for sustainable development.
Secondly, the Government must stop harmful practices that contradict our stated support for the natural world. Whilst we have made great efforts to stop coal use and to plant more trees at home, we are still investing billions of pounds overseas in fossil fuel projects through export finance and unsustainable practices. We should comprehensively review all such spending and make sure that it is not harming the planet.
And finally, we need to take an international lead – just as we have with climate change – in negotiating a new global deal for people and nature. That means new binding goals for things like biodiversity increase and allocating significantly more of our overseas aid money to initiatives that protect and restore nature as a means of poverty prevention and alleviation.
More than anything, we need a marked shift in the way we do aid. The challenges of poverty, climate change and environmental destruction are intimately related – it is time we treated them as such. The idea that we have to choose between people and nature is entirely false. It is only by supporting people and nature across the world that we will begin to meet the great challenges of our age.