A surefire way to solve the environmental problems the planet faces is to remove humanity from the planet immediately. If like me however, you are rather fond of staying put, a no less dramatic but possibly less traumatic approach would be to think before we act. Some say thinking can be dangerous, although I find not thinking at all can be near fatal. If any further proof of this were required, we need look no further than the current Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic’s heart-breaking cost to life has been dear, the cost to the economy far from cheap. And yet the warning signs have been there for some considerable time.
Two years ago, scientists, like many others before, predicted a new coronavirus would emerge from bats in Asia, partly because this was the area most affected by deforestation and other environmental pressures. The yet to be released horror was even termed Virus X. Joe Exotic the self-styled “Tiger King”, stunned many during lockdown with a newly discovered level of idiocy. With the idiocy dial cranked to the max and the hubris rockets on full burn, Exotic’s dismissal of Shere Khan’s fascination with his jugular as mere playful curiosity, made for compulsive viewing. Only Khan looks like a pussy cat compared to Covid.
Showing a degree of overconfidence and delusions of control that Joe would recognise as level-headed, humanity has chosen to ignore the obvious signs with devastating consequences. Through the destruction of natural habitats and inhumane trading of exotic animals we have forced species that wouldn’t ordinarily interact closer to both each other and ourselves; accelerating the evolution of deadly pathogens. The human race has brought this pandemic upon itself.
Infuriatingly no one of significance has heeded the warning and our ravenous destruction of the world’s habitats shows no sign of abating. The world’s rainforests are being consumed with alarming voracity. In the last 50 years 801,000 Km2 (309267 sq miles) of Amazonian greenery were lost; put another way this is an area 39 times larger than Wales.
Not to be outdone China has proceeded with Zen like focus in clearing its forests causing the Gobi over the past 30 years to increase in size faster than Piers Morgan’s ego.
According to Forbes, the Chinese desert is consuming 2,250 miles of grass land every year, making it the fastest expanding desert on Earth. As if providing future inspiration for Mr D Trump’s idiots’ guide to bad governance - “Building a Wall will solve all your problems”- in 1978 the Chinese began planting a “Great Green Wall” of trees. The idea was to build a 2,800 mile barrier of trees to halt the march of the rapidly advancing sands. To date almost 66 billion trees have been planted. Not bad but someone forgot to ask Monty Don about this. If they had I am sure he would have said that planting “thirsty” non-native species was a bad idea. These trees consume what little water is left in the arid soil and then die; so rather than slowing the desert’s progress it has instead accelerated it. Some estimates state that only 15% of the original trees planted have survived.
This lack of thought is concerning. Building certain walls should be carefully considered if not avoided, but then any German could tell you that.
Disturbingly the hungry Sino machine shows no sign of switching off. It’s groping tendrils have reached across all four corners of the Earth to slate its unquenchable thirst for nature’s precious resources. In a cruel twist of irony, China has turned to Brazil to grow more soya to feed their burgeoning population resulting in the fell of yet more trees and further eroding the Green Lung of the world. Much like a chain smoker that can’t kick the habit, emphysema will likely take hold necessitating the need for increased oxygen supplies.
The Amazon is close to a similar tipping point, on the verge of emphysema, but with no prospect of an oxygen tank since there will be too few trees to fill it. Despite China being the Ace of Spades on Nature’s most wanted list there are plenty of other players in the deck; not least the afore mentioned fringe coiffed leader of the free. According to the World Bank between 1990 and 2016 1.3 million Km2 (502,000 sq miles) of the world’s forests have been lost, an area the size of Russia. 200,000 acres of rainforest are burnt every day! Adding fuel to the fire at this rate leaves Dante sitting in the shade. It seems our world leaders are out to lunch taking selfies with Greta Thunberg having left the Chuckle Brothers in charge.
Conventional wisdom has long told us that deforestation will, amongst many other dirty human habits, have foreseen consequences. Desertification, Loss of natural habitat, severe droughts and greater floods, hotter summers and colder winters. The amplification of extremes. Like some hideous babushka doll, the consequences have deeper layers. Desertification leads to loss of arable land which causes more trees to be felled to make way for more arable land which eventually succumbs to desert. Loss of trees means, loss of carbon sinks, which means the planet heats up forcing polar bears onto Zoopla to find a new place to rent. Unfortunately polar bears like air conditioning which burns more of the black stuff – this makes J. R . Ewing happy, whose happiness is inversely related to Greta Thunberg’s. Hell hath no fury like a Thunberg scorned; the clarion cry goes out to every eco warrior to gum up Westminster in protest.
London’s oligarchs now have to employ more accountants to avoid the increase in council tax for cleaning the streets of all the non-recyclable rubbish left behind by Swampy and his chums. Worse still, those watching their carbon footprint and keen to avoid the congestion charge, save the juice and alight at Cambridge to vandalise the college lawns which means the Dons call in the diesel trucks carrying turf to repair the damage.
If all this was predictable we can now add pandemics to the list of foreseen consequences.
Falling down the rabbit hole like this can be a very depressing thing. More depressing still is the fact that numerous organisations and individuals no less diverse than Attenborough and my dear old Grandad Bob, have been banging on about the results of this wanton destruction for as long as any of us can remember. A great number of people have been doing the thinking, but as Grandad would say, greater numbers have cocked a deaf ‘un!
Since the Year 2000 the number of global pandemics has increased rapidly and the science behind predicting them has also increased at a similar rate. Why therefore have we developed such powerful scientific tools to make predictions of this kind if we are then going to ignore what they tell us? The accuracy of these predictions would impress even Mr Spock for their futuristic foresight and yet our response to them has been medieval at best.
Tremendous national and international effort has been put into finding a vaccine to halt the scourge of this pandemic. A “Putin” free vaccine seems likely to be with us by the end of the year. No mean feat when you consider most vaccines can take a decade to develop and then suffer a fate Devon Loch’s jockey would consider back luck. The FT reports that the global cost of delivering an effective vaccine is estimated at $25bn.
However all this effort, heartache and cost will be for nought If we don’t change our ways because we will be fighting a new Covid style pandemic in the not too distant future. Surely the same international effort put into finding a vaccine could have been put into addressing the underlying environmental causes leading to this pandemic. If this had been done sooner, as those Cassandra’s in the know were telling us, could an outbreak have been averted? Isn’t prevention much more preferable to the cure?
Perhaps an answer as to why we have not acted sooner can be found in the most unlikely of places – James Bond. Q – The power house behind 007’s technical derring do once said of a particular villains computer programme “ it’s like a Rubik’s cube that’s fighting back”. And so it can seem with our impact on the environment.
The problems appear too numerous and too great to grasp. When we do grasp them the solutions are often as complex as the problems themselves. Solving all the worlds environmental issues is much akin to threading an overly excited greased weasel through the eye of a needle. Faced with such overwhelming complexity many ordinary folk submit to being slapped by the weasel, covered in grease and feel like stabbing themselves in the eye with the needle.
Any change in our approach to the environment must start with large scale systematic reform. No more lecturing and hectoring from the liberal elite. If plastics are bad don’t tell the consumer to use less –find a manufacturing alternative and legislate the change. Look around your own home and you will see how impossible it is to rid yourself of plastic. I’m not talking about frivolous items like the latest MacDonalds Happy Meal toy, I’m talking about the plastic cap on your toothpaste or the innumerable plastic clips that come with your M&S shirt. It’s not the consumer that generates plastic, it’s industry. I mean, do you have a plastics factory in the garden shed? I don’t.
If any clearer example of this problem were needed we need only turn to celebrity eco-foodie Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who this week taught us that when you buy your pre-packaged sandwich at lunch, the carton which proudly bears the icon “Widely Recycled” is about as genuine as Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to tackle anti-Semitism.
A more likely answer is that Climate change has been seen as the only gig in town worth watching. On no other environmental issue have our global leaders racked up so many kerosene fuelled air miles and gained so many waist inches at summit banquets. The pre-occupation to reduce global temperatures more than any other single issue has drowned out the voices calling for a more restrained use of our natural resources. It’s not that climate change isn’t important – the evidence is plain to even the meanest intelligence, it’s just that it’s used up all the political oxygen and no international consensus has been sought on any other issue.
Then there are those who release chaff around the issues trying to establish a false dichotomy. It’s either the economy or the environment with the former suffering if serious efforts are made to protect the latter. Only when you have a strong economy can we aim to tackle the issues surrounding the environment. They say we can not allow our progress and standard of living to drop because some computer models says the Maldives will go the way of the Dodo by the time of the next DFS sofa sale. But then how much has the furlough system and lost economic output cost? And then there are the financial costs associated with other climatic problems caused by flooding, drought and famine? And what of the dent to our standard of living these episodes have caused.
Surely any such view point must now go the same way as the ill-fated bird. The choice need not be between a modern comfortable lifestyle or a return to the bone strewn caves of our ancestors. We can have a strong economy built on protecting the environment – it just requires a little thought.
That’s not to say some thinking hasn’t been taking place. Our current government has done more than any other government in history to tackle this most thorny of issues.
We have seen a ban on micro-plastics, and the abolition of single use plastics. In 2019 we saw an expansion of the nation’s “Blue Belt” with 41 new Marine Conservation Zones bringing the total number of British marine protected areas to 355. Since April, Britain has produced coal free energy, the longest period since big men in bigger top hats first saw gold in fossilised dino remains almost 140 years ago. Better still the boffins at Drax are now capturing 1 ton of Carbon from the atmosphere every day in attempt to go Carbon negative. By 2050 Drax aims to be capturing half of all the nation's Carbon, that’s 50 million tonnes.
The creation of the Blue Planet fund to protect and restore our ocean’s and plans to establish a Climate fund to restore peatlands and plant 30,000 hectares of trees equivalent to 46,000 football pitches are to be hugely commended.
However the environmental problems we face are global in scale. The good people of the World Wildlife Fund tell us that the world is losing rainforest cover at a rate of 30 football pitches every minute, equivalent to 87,600 pitches over the lifetime of a parliament. That is double the intended number of new saplings to be planted in the UK over the next 5 years. Viewed this way the most protean national effort can appear diminutive. It’s not that we shouldn’t do these things, after all every little thing helps, it’s just that as has so often been said this is not a problem that can be solved exclusively at the national level. More must be done internationally – here is where Britain can take the lead and seize the economic opportunities that could flow.
A more comprehensive international agreement addressing Mankind’s impact on the environment must be sought, not purely focused on climate change but on all aspects of environmental impact from land use, to materials productions, waste management – the full gambit. I must be clear, I am not saying the Paris Treaty and the subsequent agreement where either easy to achieve or a waste of time far from it, merely that the agreement should not be considered the final destination in terms of international efforts to save the planet.
We shouldn’t wait for 2050 to take the next step. The Conservative manifesto commitment to use the new Marine fund to strengthen governance, institutional capability and regulations in developing countries to monitor and protect marine environments is just one of many initiatives that could form part of a wider international agreement and not just an national initiative. So too could the commitment to financially support poorer countries deal with the causes of climate change like preventing deforestation. The new agreement could even go further with targets for more developed nations to increase the planting of native tree species to sustain primary forests and not just those aimed at supporting sustainable logging. Any such agreement could be termed the London Treaty, The Attenborough Convention or even the Bob Protocol.
Mankind’s licenscious treatment of the natural world has led us to this point. Scientists warn that pandemics are more likely to become a feature of our civilization if we do not change our ways soon. By failing to get to grips with our impact on the world humanity has inadvertently set up a circular firing squad with our species tragically self-nominated as both alpha and omega in the circle of doom.
We must act immediately to break this circle and prevent another episode. If we can act quickly Britain can benefit from the being at the forefront of a new explosion in Green Innovation and prevent the future consequences of environmental change. Economic prosperity and a considered approach to the environment need not be mutually exclusive but can move hand in glove. We don’t need a Green Revolution, we need more. In the 80’s, Thatcher let rip an Economic Big Bang – let the history books say that in the 2020’s Boris let rip a Big Green Bang. Such a Big Bang could see British ingenuity and innovation spread around the globe to the mutual benefit of all.
Just like Dicken’s scrooge we can change our ways if we heed the warnings of the ghost of Christmas Future. Prevention is better than the cure. And if nothing else, we can all give Greta and her mates the week off.
By Russell Perrin, Conservative Councillor for Sumners & Kingsmoor Ward, Harlow Council, Chairman of Harlow Conservatives and Candidate for Cambridge City in the 2019 General Election