Planning for a sustainable world

Planning for a sustainable world

A lot can happen in three minutes. By the time it takes to boil a kettle for your morning tea:

  • Around 200,000 tonnes of CO2 will have been emitted in this country alone;
  • Over 10,000 hectares of tropical forest could have been lost; and
  • There’s a one in seven chance that a species, somewhere in the world, will become extinct.

We are all familiar with these kinds of statistics, and yet it is still hard to get any kind of traction for initiatives to resolve these issues.  Concern about the environment is played down as the province of tree-huggers, and seen as anti-business. I am not an activist (I have never been known to weave my own yoghurt), but a scientist and a businesswoman. So what can people like us do to “get real” and make a difference?

I have a lot of sympathy for the view that planning is a kind of “soup” into which the government throws all kinds of policy objectives, some of which are tastier or easier to deliver than others.  Environmental policy isn’t like that, I’m afraid. The environment isn’t just one ingredient; it’s the soup kitchen, and it encompasses everything else that you do. This planet is, the last time I looked, the only place we have to live, and its resources are finite. And if you don’t believe that the economy is subservient to the environment, try holding your breath while you count your money…

You may be familiar with the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development – that is, development which fulfils our objectives without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. But it is sometimes difficult to put this into practice and be sure when we have achieved it. The most effective way, in my view, is through a detailed understanding of the goods and services with which the environment provides us. I’m talking about “ecosystem services”, such as food, fibre, shelter, fuel, medicine, clean water, and clean air, as well as some services  of a cultural or spiritual nature, which are harder to define. 

Perhaps controversially, I don’t necessarily advocate monetising these services. I accept that this can sometimes give a good indication of the weight to attribute to such a good or service, but it tends to suggest a market where one service can be substituted for another of the same value. (If you have no clean air to breathe, then more clean water won’t help ). Instead, I think we need to better appreciate the complex interactions of the system in which we live in order to understand how to operate our planet in equilibrium. When we change one thing, we need to model all of the ramifications and put in place appropriate checks and balances to avoid irreversible effects.

Planning and environmental assessment hasn’t really been like that up until now. We have tended to focus on numbers, on limit values, on key species and valuable sites. We need to learn to look at the bigger picture and to be able to model complex systems if we are to really understand our effects on the environment.  (I like to borrow from Douglas Adams in referring  to my job as “triangulating the vectors of interconnectedness of all things”). In making planning decisions, what we really want to know is how will that affect the goods and services provided by the environment, and how can we prevent or offset any losses.

Planning is at the heart of how we manage the natural and built environment in the UK. The issues that face us are critical in this age of mass extinction, as we begin to experience the effects of climate change. How we rise to this challenge is in the hands of our policy- and plan-makers and those who deliver them. We certainly need to get real. I am sure that anyone with “skin in the game” – usually known as parents and grandparents – in particular will agree that there is no “do nothing” option.