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by
26 September 2014
Pioneering spirit

Pioneering spirit

At first sight, the environment sector can seem a crowded place. Interest groups new and old exist to protect every aspect of the natural world, from the land and oceans, to the life teeming within.
In reality, though, the large number of organisations which make up the environment movement form a complex network all taking different approaches to achieve the same goal – halting the destruction of the planet.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust is a prime example. Marking its 50th anniversary this year and with nearly 38,000 members, it is involved both in projects on the ground and trying to find innovative ways to effect change at a higher level.
SWT owns 120 reserves across Scotland covering 20,000 hectares, serving not only as a means of protecting wildlife, but as a demonstration to others of how it can be done. High on the list of priorities though is an aim to be a ‘pioneer’.
Jonny Hughes, who became the trust’s chief executive in February this year, says: “This is not just a nice thing to have. We live by these values, coming up with new solutions to thorny old problems which haven’t been solved by current approaches.”
He stresses this does not mean SWT is turning its back on the more traditional approaches of nature conservation and in fact wants to see more nature reserves set up, but adds: “We have to be pretty honest with ourselves that we’re going to be on a planet with probably 10 billion people by 2060 and that is going to put fantastic pressure on the Earth’s ecosystem.”
Originally from Wrexham, Hughes joined SWT in 2006 as head of policy, although he had previously worked for them as a seasonal warden at Loch Fleet in Sutherland.
His passion for ecology started at a young age when his father – an amateur naturalist – would take him out in the field. He was introduced as a boy to world-renowned ant expert Cedric Collingwood, who Hughes says he met earlier this month and is still writing academic papers on the subject at the age of 95.
He was also taken for his first trip to Scotland at eight years old.
“I was shown a wood ants nest in a Caledonian pinewood in Glen Lyon and it was explained to me how the Caledonian pinewood was dying on its feet. 
“That was a key moment for me to understand that these ancient forests in Scotland were dying off because of neglect.”
SWT wants to set up a National Ecological Network in Scotland, linking up protected places such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest through features in the landscape such as hedgerows, riverbanks, or even man-made features like highways. The idea can even be translated to cities as Hughes says, “on everything from a window box to a small-scale green network.”
“Urban areas are not a secondary issue by any means. Purely from a biodiversity perspective, many cities around the world are actually hotspots for certain rare species. The endangered stag beetle, for example, has its stronghold in the parks and gardens of south London.”
But he adds: “The most important reason for nature conservation city-side is that’s where people live and that’s where most people have their daily contact with nature.”
He says there is evidence, including a report from think-tank Demos, which has highlighted access to green spaces and the quality of the environment as a key factor in attracting entrepreneurial talent from around the world. Hughes says it demonstrates a direct link between the quality of the environment and the economy.
This link has been an important part of SWT’s work in finding innovative ways of putting environment at the top of the agenda.
Last year, the first ever World Forum on Natural Capital was held in Edinburgh, set up by SWT. With just shy of 500 delegates including senior business leaders and decision makers from more than 30 countries, it looked at the concept of putting an economic value on the environment, not so businesses can exploit it, but so they have a truer image of just how their activity affects it.
“In the past,” says Hughes, “there has been an assumption that doing good things for the environment is a moral mission – and it is – we do have a moral obligation to be good stewards of a planet where we almost have complete control.”
But he adds: “The idea that the environment is somehow separate from the economy really needs to be challenged.”
He gives the example of the Newfoundland cod fishery, where in 1992, overfishing led to a complete collapse and put 40,000 people out of work.
“That’s not an environmental issue,” he says. “That is a humanitarian and catastrophic economic issue – driven by irresponsible environmental stewardship.
“Eventually the chickens will come home to roost for taking short-term decisions.”
The first event included support from the Scottish Government, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the UN Environment Programme, but also had RBS as its headline sponsor. A final decision on a possible event next year is being made by the SWT council in December, but with IUCN and the World Business Council signed up as partners it is hoped the forum could run for years.
Hughes says he hopes in “a few world forums’ time” a shift could be made by companies to an agreed natural accounting system, allowing direct comparisons to be made and SWT has already started working on a standardised global system which should be launched in 2016.
The idea of Natural Capital has not proved universally popular with environmental groups, with some voicing fears it could allow businesses to exploit the environment more.
But Hughes says: “[The concept] is going to happen anyway, isn’t it better for the nature organisations and the environmental NGO movement to be at the vanguard, leading it and making sure it is a force for good?
“If we leave it in the hands of certain aspects of big business then it could go in the wrong direction and there could be negative consequences.”
Sportswear company Puma has been one of the first companies to do its own full natural capital accounting exercise – estimating in 2010 that its environmental impact caused by carbon emissions, land use, air pollution, water use and waste came to £121m.
There are other aspects, Hughes adds, saying it can lead to higher share prices for companies with stronger corporate social responsibility as well as inspiring more brand loyalty and better levels of staff satisfaction.
Putting the environment alongside the economy is especially important as countries across the world pull themselves out of financial crisis and one of Hughes’ frustrations is what he says was a knee-jerk response from some politicians after the banking crisis of 2008, linking increased environmental regulation with slowing economic growth.
He says evidence from the United States shows the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency has helped create jobs, and all the graduates from SWT’s own Experts for Nature programme which is now in its second year, have gone on to get jobs with environmental consultancies.
“Quite apart from the fact infinite growth is an impossibility in an economy unless you can make it 100 per cent circular, it is ill-informed thinking.
“This idea that regulation legislation is a block on growth and economic vibrancy is nonsense and needs to be challenged.” 

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