Conservation nation: new Bright Blue essay collection out today

Almost a year has now passed since the striking and sobering images of mountains of plastic, choking the world’s seas and oceans, were first broadcast onto our television screens in Sir David Attenborough’s peerless Blue Planet II. In the intervening months, public awareness of, and anger towards, humankind’s disproportionately heavy footprint on the planet has rightly skyrocketed.

Whether it is the rampant felling of tropical rainforests to make way for cattle ranching, the unrelenting poaching of charismatic megafauna to be turned into trinkets or ‘medicine’, or the emptying of the world’s oceans of fish (only to replace them with plastic bottles and netting), ecosystems around the world are under threat – in many instances like never before.

It is with this sombre reality in mind that Bright Blue publishes Conservation nation: protecting and restoring the natural world - an extensive, though by no means exhaustive, collection of essays, each written by experts in their fields on some of the most pressing issues facing both domestic and global nature.

Yet, rather than getting bogged down purely on the depressing realities of the oft degraded state of habitats the world over, Conservation nation seeks to present credible and actionable policy solutions which could be adopted by the current UK Government to better protect and restore the natural world, for which we are all custodians of.

The ambition of some of the proposals put forward by individual essay authors is admirable. Domestically, we see demands for a more environmentally harmonious agricultural policy, and calls for a transition towards an ecologically sustainable quota-based system of fisheries management, once Britain leaves the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy respectively.

Further afield, numerous contributors emphasise the role which the UK Government could play on the international scene – for example, driving up environmental standards in the new free trade agreements which Britain can hope to be signing after Brexit, and using its privileged position and soft power to influence the World Trade Organisation to ban fishing subsidies which contribute to the degradation of marine habitats.

Another crucial objective of the essay collection is to exemplify the need and scope for the Government to radically rethink how it approaches the natural conservation agenda. Whilst the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP’s own Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will quite obviously be a critical actor in the fight for a more environmentally resilient world, so too will the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP’s Department for International Development, amongst others. Indeed, one of the most striking things which the collection demonstrates is just how many different government departments and agencies come into contact with the natural world in some way or another. For the conservation of nature to be genuinely successful, collaboration across the entirety of government will be of paramount importance – no single minister or department can be expected to shoulder the task alone.

As previously mentioned, this essay collection does not claim to be a comprehensive account of every environmental challenge with which the world is currently faced. Rather, it is to be viewed as another call to arms for nature conservation (particularly within conservative circles), a foundation for further policy formulation which Bright Blue will be conducting over the coming months, and a bid to move nature conservation away from being a relatively niche issue addressed by one or two departments of state, to one that is embraced and advanced systematically across the whole of government.

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue and co-editor of Conservation nation, which can be found here.

In hot water: how climate change is affecting the oceans

Perhaps as a result of the nation being gripped recently by the stunning images of Blue Planet II, more and more attention is rightly being afforded to the world’s oceans – and the environmental problems which afflict them. Given the vastness of the oceans, the challenges they face are numerous. Yet one threat, climate change, appears to be particularly acute.

Our species’ centuries-long reliance on fossil fuels to produce energy, as well as trends in animal agriculture and other polluting industries, had emitted greenhouses gases into the atmosphere and changed the planet’s climate. These greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat close to the Earth’s surface, which have been behind the steady rise in global temperatures.

The impact on marine ecosystems

A changing climate has exhibited itself in several forms across various habitats. One serious manifestation for oceans, however, has been the problem of acidification. This refers to the steady alteration of the chemical composition of seawater, triggered largely by more and more carbon dissolving into the oceans. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the pH balance of surface ocean waters has fallen by 0.1. Whilst this may seem insignificant, because the pH scale is logarithmic it actually represents a 30% increase in acidity.

One of the most widely understood impacts of ever more acidic oceans is the effect it can have on organisms known as ‘calcifiers’. These are animals such as crustaceans, molluscs, and corals which use calcium and carbonate ions to build shells and exoskeletons around themselves. But acidic oceans dissolve calcium carbonate, so when the pH level drops, the ability for calcifiers to maintain themselves – let alone grow and prosper – becomes all the more difficult. In addition to this, research has found that successful fertilisation rates for some calcifiers decrease in acidic waters.

Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Yet warmer waters present an existential threat to them – with experts claiming that the Paris Agreement’s commitment to 1.5℃ being the only way to save coral reefs. When the waters in which corals are found get too warm, they expel the algae which give them their renowned vibrancy, and turn white. This ‘bleaching’ does not mean the coral is dead, but without the algae corals find it more challenging to survive, and consequently often do die off as a result. Moreover, scientists have observed numbers of certain organisms which predate on corals – such as crown-of-thorns starfish – unsustainably flourishing in warmer waters, which further adds to the struggle to survive for corals.

As the climate warms, and the ice caps melt, sea levels inevitably rise. Indeed, over the past century, it is thought that the global mean sea level has risen by between four and eight inches. Even more worryingly, the rate at which it is has been rising over the past 20 years is double that of the preceding 80.

The consequences of rising sea levels for marine wildlife are multifarious, and will almost certainly result in the destruction of habitats vital for semiaquatic animals. Sea turtles, for instance, which depend on beaches to lay their eggs are one particularly vulnerable species. But one report claims that as many as 233 already endangered species will become further threatened by rising sea levels.

A lesser appreciated consequence of increased ocean temperatures is the effect it has on ocean currents. These currents influence aquatic animals’ migratory patterns, which can disturb ecosystems, as well as dispersing the nutrients vital for life below the waves. Changes in them, therefore, may starve areas of biodiversity of the nourishment necessary to sustain life.

The human cost

Whilst the impact of climate change on the globe’s seas and oceans is tragic enough in its own right, it also poses significant costs which will be borne more directly by humankind, too.

Coral reefs, for instance, are valuable sources of medicinal learning – with drugs to treat cancer, arthritis, and asthma having already been developed from resources found in corals and surrounding ecosystems. Evidence has shown that coral reefs also act as barriers to ocean waves and storms, which provides protection to millions of people the world over. Of course, pristine coral reefs also attract tourists – and are estimated to be worth over £25 billion a year globally, with that money often going into some of the most economically challenged parts of the world. Climate change, and ocean acidification, therefore, imperils all of that. Indeed, it is thought that the Great Barrier Reef is now beyond repair because of this combination of threats.

Changing ocean temperatures which alter currents can also have negative ramifications for people. Ocean currents have two significant roles in the global ecosystem. It has already been considered how they serve as a nutrient dispersal mechanism, shifting food for aquatic species up from the depths and then around the oceans. Warming waters which can decelerate these currents, therefore, could spell bad news for fishing communities who find themselves with fewer fish to catch.

Ocean currents also have an influencing role in local climates. Whilst they do not effect global temperatures per se, currents do facilitate the movement of heat – such as from the warm equator to temperate Britain, East America, and Europe. This partly explains why certain regions on the same latitude experience different temperatures. Were this process to slow down or cease, such aforementioned locations could see their localised temperatures change. 

For many good reasons, some of the most populous cities can be found next to the sea – Shanghai, Miami, and Rio de Janeiro to name but a few. Yet, faced with rising sea levels, their coastal locations could be their very downfall. One estimate places the figure at risk from rising sea levels, and the increased flooding and intensified storms associated with global warming, just shy of two billion individuals.


Seas and oceans cover almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface. Though often thought to be harsh and uncompromising environments, they contain fragile ecosystems, and have intimately felt the effect of anthropogenic climate change. The future consequences of this are hard to predict, however signs are already beginning to show the costs – for humans and wildlife – of climate change for our oceans.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

The challenges of using evidence-based approaches to make effective transport policy

We know that walking and cycling are great ways to keep fit and prevent harmful pollution. Yet we also know that, for a variety of reasons, people aren’t always keen on them as a means of getting around. Sustrans is the charity that’s making it easier for people to walk and cycle. We're working with families, communities, policy-makers and partner organisations across the UK to encourage active travel.

We pride ourselves on basing our activities in support of active travel on a solid evidence base. We were very proud to have our work featured in a recent UN report as an example of good practice at the science-policy interface. But the connection between evidence, policy, and investment decisions in transport is sometimes hard to fathom.

Despite the strength of evidence on the benefits associated with walking and cycling (primarily relating to public health benefits of increased physical activity, but also in other areas such as reduced emissions, and improved air quality), it remains challenging to secure significant investment in active travel. The balance of policy and investment is heavily skewed towards ‘big infrastructure’ and technological innovation.

Some of the constraints that seem to dictate this poor translation of evidence into practice include: i) the limitations of cost–benefit analysis mechanisms; ii) too much faith in technological quick-fixes; and iii) the adherence to predict and provide policies. These constraints result in funding decisions such as a £15 billion Road Investment Strategy in England, whilst local streets receive very little funding for infrastructure that makes them better spaces for people to use.

In theory, UK transport investment decisions are made on the basis of economic appraisal and cost-benefit analysis. Newly published research on cost benefit analysis is clear about the gaps. Weaknesses in forecasting, disregard for benefit distribution and equity, and the application of dubious techniques (for example, valuing small time savings, and discounting) all bring into question the veracity of an approach that works within the realms of similar projects (for example, comparing one road scheme with another road scheme). But how does one treat a local walking and cycling network in relation to a road building scheme in this context?

The misplaced optimism in the technological quick-fixes of the future is also an area where huge evidence disconnects can be observed. A big part of the emphasis on investment in transport research and development is focussed on, for example:

  • Electric vehicles – without recognition that on the one hand carbon emissions from energy generation are displaced (from the tailpipe to the power station chimney) rather than eliminated, and on the other hand 45% of particulate matter from traffic comes from brake and tyre wear (as distinct from fuel combustion), so poor air quality remains an issue.
  • Autonomous vehicles – despite the lack of any evidence about either consumer demand or the impact on traffic patterns.
  • 'Mobility-as-a-service’ provision – with scant regard for the fact that for many companies entering the market are doing so with the object of consumer data harvesting, rather than through any concern about mobility and accessibility.

The major risk is that we lose sight of what might already be possible. A new paper from a network of European cities and regions cooperating for innovative transport solutions on the future for autonomous vehicles expresses concern about the social distribution of impacts, and also concludes that  “if a transport authority wishes to pave the way for fewer private vehicles, bold planning decisions could already be made today to accelerate the uptake and dependence on public transport, cycling, walking.”

The adherence to predict and provide policies is a further misguided constraint in transport planning. In crudest terms, we look at past travel demand patterns, and we assume that the future will need ‘more of that’. This disregards any possibility of change, whether it be travel demand management, changing lifestyle patterns (for example, fewer younger people than ever own cars or even driving licenses), or even technological shift. The current Roads Investment Strategy does not reflect Government policies on environment and public health, does not align with changing societal patterns, and largely ignores the possible future automation of the fleet. A recently published research paper goes so far as to question whether continued adherence to predict and provide reveals an underlying, if unstated “real policy of car provision … and is the result of the influence of a powerful roads industry lobby”, whilst also noting that road building has little impact on economic activity, and cannot be relied on to kick-start the UK economy.

The net effect of these constraints is an evidence-policy-investment disconnect.

This disconnect in transport policy plays out very emphatically in air quality, where contradictions across policy areas introduce the risk of overall policy failure: pollution policies are not effectively integrated; transport policies either disregard air quality implications or are too heavily focussed on distant-future technology-led solutions; and health policies are too heavily focussed on remedial ‘cure’ work, rather than prevention. The continued investment in road ‘improvement’ does not seem to align well with other aspects of policy on air quality.

These contradictions need to be resolved if we are to have a coherent transport strategy. The effective application of evidence is crucial in enabling this to happen. Sustrans believes that active travel should lie at the heart of that transport strategy.

Dr Andy Cope is the Director of Insight at Sustrans





Grounds for taxation?

The British have long had a love affair with coffee. In our homes, at work, and on our highstreets, we collectively drink approximately 55 million cups of it a day. Yet, the nation’s caffeine compulsion is manifesting itself as a mounting environmental problem, largely through the way in which most coffee cups are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.

In light of this fact, the Environmental Audit Committee has recently recommended that the Government should introduce a minimum charge of 25 pence on disposable cups, to be paid for by the consumer on top of the price of their beverage. The ‘latte levy’ has been touted as a good way of tackling the problem of disposable coffee cup waste – much in the same way as England has seen a dramatic fall in the use of plastic carrier bags since the introduction of a five pence charge in most shops in 2015. The question is, will it work?

Any rational economist will say that, for most goods at least, as the price of something goes up, the demand for it goes down. A consequence of this is that people will probably look for substitutes – as was observed with the rise in ‘Bags for Life’ after the first plastic bag charges were introduced in the UK. The logic goes, therefore, that by explicitly taxing people for the cup into which their coffee is eventually poured, they will invest in reusable cups to avoid the new charge.

All froth?

There could be two reasons which prevent the latte levy from being as successful as the plastic bag charge in terms of cutting down on waste. First, at the essence of an on the go coffee is convenience. One buys a coffee, drinks it, and disposes of the cup accordingly. Indeed, the majority of disposable coffee cups are consumed whilst people are ‘on the move’. The alternative of carrying around a reusable cup, both before and after one wants a coffee, seems somewhat conflicting with that notion of convenience. 

Admittedly, sales of reusable coffee cups have increased since the Government first hinted at the introduction of a charge on disposable cups – and not least because the Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, has given one to each of his colleagues in cabinet. Whether or not they get used, however, is another question.  

Interestingly, one scheme in Germany recognises the fact that not everyone remembers, or perhaps wants, to carry reusable cup around at all times. Instead, a network of over 100 businesses have agreed to a system whereby scheme members receive their beverage in a reusable cup, which can then be returned to a participating shop once empty. The shops then wash the cups, ready for their next use. The cost of the scheme is a negligible €1 per member, and is regarded as being very successful.

Second, where the plastic bag charge works, and the proposed latte levy may not, is that using a cup – disposable or otherwise – is an intrinsic part of grabbing a quick coffee. In other words, the need for the cup is unavoidable. The same is not necessarily true of plastic bags when out shopping; one can buy multiple items and get away without needing a bag. Indeed, ‘beating the system’ and dodging the small levy is something much more readily available to the would-be plastic bag buyer than the coffee cup consumer.

Extra measures

Therefore, one could conclude that whilst the latte levy may bring down some of the current levels of waste seen around disposable coffee cups, more thought might be needed to get a handle on the problem. On this point, two areas of concern need to be looked at.

First, there is the issue of recycling. Due to manufacturing methods, the vast majority of coffee cups are not recycled. In the whole of Britain, only three specialist recycling centres exist which can process coffee cups – which explains why less than 1% of the 2.5 billion coffee cups used per year in the UK get recycled. However, there are companies which have developed cups which are more easy to recycle, and major coffee chains are apparently in talks with them to adopt the more environmentally friendly packaging. It is overwhelmingly likely that making disposable cups more easily recyclable will be crucial in cracking down on the remaining instances of non-reusable coffee cup use. 

Second, recyclable or not, disposable coffee cups contribute greatly to total littering in the UK. This is a point which the Environmental Audit Committee raised itself in its report. The Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey MP, made clear that the UK needs to improve its on-street ‘binfrastructure’, simply to give people the opportunity to dispose of their coffee cups more appropriately. At the moment, less than half of all councils provide on-the-go recycling bins, which doubtlessly explains why half a million coffee cups end up as litter on the ground every day in the UK.


The Government has an ambition to crack down on waste, and as part of that has disposable coffee cups firmly within its crosshairs. If it does adopt the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee to introduce a latte levy – a measure which Gove has described, incidentally, as “exciting” – it is imaginable that coffee cup waste will fall: due to reduced effective demand, and consumers switching to reusable cups.

Yet, to think that success seen with the plastic bag charge will similarly be realised as the result of a latte levy may be premature. More work on developing recyclable cups, and providing more bins for people to dispose of their cups in, may also be required if the Government is to confront Britain’s coffee cup conundrum.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

Compact living for a greener Britain?

Last week, the Rt Hon Phillip Hammond MP set out his Autumn Budget. As eye-catching promises such as scrapping Stamp Duty Land Tax for nearly all first-time homebuyers – something Bright Blue had been calling for – caught the headlines, other measures have seemingly slipped under the radar. One such ambition is to increase housing density in urban areas – which the Chancellor believes can be achieved through policies such as making it easier to convert retail land into housing, greater support for the use of compulsory purchase powers, and introducing minimum density requirements on new projects in city centres and around transport hubs.

In London, where the need for housing is perhaps most acute, Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently released a draft of ‘The London Plan’ – a strategy document for spatial development in the capital – in which numerous ideas for achieving higher-density housing, such as developing on brownfield sites and on surplus public sector land, were mooted.

A White Paper issued earlier this year by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, set out measures intended to rectify the problem of Britain’s low-density housing. It proposed policies such as making it easier for existing buildings to be extended upwards and allowing more flexibility in the planning application process. Density, it would appear, is something very much on the political agenda – and for good reason.

Land space is finite in a way many other resources are not, thus making it particularly important to utilise effectively. Almost 11% of Britain has already been built on, but within the nation’s towns and cities, such development has all too often been done inefficiently with regards to space. In London, for example, there are only 150 dwellings per hectare, and the average for England sees that number fall to just 42. In this respect, Britain ranks woefully against its international counterparts: New York manages to fit 480 homes into an equivalent area, and Hong Kong a staggering 775 dwellings. Whilst some of this discrepancy can be explained by consumer preference, it is doubtless that government regulations are a significant causal factor in Britain’s tendency for low-density development.

Denser living, better environment

Increasing the density of development in Britain would have obvious benefits for the natural world, most evidently in the way that simply less of it will have to be sacrificed to buildings. Consequently, more habitats and ecosystems can go undisturbed – allowing wildlife a precious chance to flourish. Limiting the extent to which development impinges upon habitats will be a welcome reprieve for Britain’s animal species, 56% of which have seen their numbers decline over recent decades.

But there are other environmental advantages associated with increasing population density. When towns and cities sprawl outwards, people living in them have to make invariably longer journeys, because whilst their jobs and livelihoods will remain centrally located, their homes will not. Longer journeys equal more time for vehicle exhausts to emit the dangerous pollutants which contribute to poor air quality and climate change. Moreover, when people are housed further away from where they need to be on a daily basis, more environmentally friendly forms of transportation – be that walking, cycling, or using public transport – may become less attractive. This would likely increase the amount of people using private vehicles, thereby exacerbating the problems of air pollution and climate change.

The benefits of more compact living are not solely environmental. Utilities and public services which have relatively high fixed costs, but relatively low marginal costs, are more economically viable to provide in areas of greater population density, because of the ability to exploit economies of scale (that is, when diminishing average costs are realised with the supply of one extra unit of good or service). One example of this could be a public transportation network, which, incidentally, would in turn have benefits for the environment if it acts as a disincentive to private vehicle travel, and frees up land space for nature by reducing the need for certain infrastructure such as purpose-built car parks.

It should be noted, however, that some environmental disadvantages exist with regards to density achieved primarily through high-rise developments. Studies suggest that taller buildings can be more energy intensive on a day to day basis, and often have greater amounts of ‘embodied energy’ within them because of the materials they must be made from – for instance, reinforced concrete and steel. Any impetus towards increasing density, therefore, should be done sensitively, with such concerns in mind.


This is not a hymn to transform Britain’s conurbations into canyons of concrete, devoid of individual character and any sense of harmony with the natural environment – indeed, there are plenty of examples of developments which have increased the nation’s housing stock without being obvious eye-sores. The changes which could be implemented to prevent urban encroachment need not be radical, either. Introducing ‘permitted development rights’, allowing for an extra story or two on a housing development, encouraging terracing by updating certain planning requirements, making it easier to build on brownfield land, and relaxing Green Belt restrictions would all be practicable options which conserve perhaps the most vital and precious resource of all – space.

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue