Will a climate pledge from England’s big landowners make any difference?

On the face of it, a pledge from the England’s largest and most important nature conservation organisations to work together to ensure that natural resources such as woodlands and peatlands are used most effectively to tackle the climate crisis seems unremarkable.

Photograph: Steve Fleming/Getty Images

Of course, the RSPB, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, national park authorities and others are going to protect nature. That’s what they do. 

Some signatories, such as the Duchy of Cornwall, the Church Commissioners of England and Yorkshire Water, are not of course conservation groups. But when you add up the amount of land owned or directly managed by those involved, it comes to less than 7,000km2.

That sounds like a lot of land, but it actually only represents about 5% of the area of England, so it would be hard to argue this is a game-changer for nature in England. And besides, much of this land is already specifically managed for wildlife. There’s only so much enhancement you can do to reserves where fauna and flora already come first. 

True, National Parks England and the National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (NAAONB) have also taken the pledge, and taken together, these protected area designations cover an estimated 28% of England. But neither of these organisations are mainly landowners or managers. They can offer advice and guidance and help farmers or estate owners access funding for nature recovery work, but that’s about it.

So, what has the pledge achieved? Certainly Britain’s fragmented environmental NGO sector has been criticised in the past for not cooperating, and this pledge seeks to remedy that, according to Andy Allen of the Woodland Trust.

“In the public’s mind, you have all these large conservation organisations, and it may not be entirely clear that we are all working to a common agenda,” he said. “The idea of the pledge is to say that we’ve looked at the threats that the natural environmental in this country faces and here is our common approach to dealing with it, and it’s giving a political push behind that as well.”

It’s very important, Allen explained, that the public sector has the right policy levers in place to bring about nature’s recovery – levers such as the new farming subsidy system, for example.

So, there’s working together for a common cause and trying to make sure the public sector is doing its bit – but arguably much bigger than either of these for nature conservation groups is working with the corporate sector to leverage private finance into nature restoration. 

National park authorities, for example, have initiated seven trial projects that will attempt to use private money to fund natural capital and biodiversity enhancements. 

About two years ago, Naomi Conway, development director for National Parks Partnerships, sat down with the chief executives of all 15 of Britain’s national park authorities (including three in Wales and two in Scotland) and asked them what they would do if unlimited money was available.

“They came up with a portfolio of projects of £240 million worth of work,” she said. “That gave a useful sense of scale, though it was still the tip of the iceberg of what was needed. But it did show that even this was well beyond current funding models.”

As a result of those conversations, Conway has established a relationship with an organisation called Palladium which has a track record in green finance, especially in tropical countries such as Indonesia. The idea is for the national parks to get funding for woodland creation, peat restoration and other biodiversity projects from private capital. 

“We know from talking to investors that accessing the funding isn’t the problem,” Conway said. “There are people ready and willing to invest, but the challenge is making sure you have enough high quality projects so you can accept the funding and start doing the work.”

Landowners need to be comfortable that this new funding model, which could change the way they manage their land forever, is viable – and not all are. If the trial projects go well, she said, “you can then scale it and replicate it.”

There are concerns about this new model. Perhaps the biggest is that using private finance to fund nature conservation could be – arguably is being – exploited by the government to absolve itself of its own responsibilities. John Stoneman, director of landscape recovery for The Wildlife Trusts, believes the private sector has a role to play but that shouldn’t be at the expense of public money.

“Nobody says we shouldn’t fund education, and it should be exactly the same for nature conservation,” he said. “Nature and biodiversity provide common benefits across society, and the most efficient way to invest in that is through taxation.” As it is, he points out, the government is failing to properly regulate activities such as farming, leading to inefficient use of the subsidies – public money – that farmers do receive.

With other public-private initiatives such as biodiversity net gain also on the horizon, there’s no doubt that the way nature conservation is funded and managed will change dramatically over the course of the next decade. Many conservationists are excited by the possibilities, but exactly where it will lead is still anybody’s guess.