Leading on nature: can the new Secretary of State deliver bold action on environment and poverty?

The UK's new Secretary of State for International Development has impressed with a strong public statement on the need to focus aid funding on climate and environmental challenges. IIED welcomes his commitment, and suggests an agenda for action.

Andrew Norton's picture Dilys Roe's picture
Insight by 
Andrew Norton
Dilys Roe
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022; Dilys Roe is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group
31 May 2019
A photo of a man addressing a conference, pictured through the heads of those listening

The UK's new Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, speaking at the launch event for the 2018 London Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference (Photo: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC BY 2.0)

It is hugely heartening to see the new Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DFID) firmly express his determination to dramatically increase spending levels on the twin challenges of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

Rory Stewart said: “I’d like to double the amount that we spend on climate and the environment because we are facing a climate cataclysm. Quite literally, the ice shelf is going ten times more quickly than people expected, we’re about to lose maybe a million species on Earth, and that’s even before you count the fact that 100 million more people will be in poverty unless we tackle this.”

We welcome the new minister’s passion and urgency on these issues, as well as the clear way in which he outlines the links between the climate crisis, the assault on the natural world, and how both of these threaten increased poverty. IIED's institutional strategy for 2019-2024 focuses on these themes and we look forward to working with a DFID that has been refreshed and reinvigorated on these issues.

Action on the climate crisis

IIED's head of climate change, Clare Shakya, gave evidence at the parliamentary inquiry into UK aid for combating climate change. Her recent blog describes the key steps we believe DFID could take to strengthen the UK's approach to climate finance.

Our three key messages are: all UK aid should support the goals of the Paris Agreement; we need meaningful transparency to enable everyone to see where climate finance is going and to track its use; and DFID should show a climate justice approach to climate finance – leading the international community in a push to get more effective support to people at the forefront of the impacts of the climate crisis.

Biodiversity – rediscovering leadership

DFID has in the past led the way on biodiversity and its links to development and poverty reduction. Now it needs to rediscover purpose and energy.

The recent report on global biodiversity loss by IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (PDF), clearly shows that biodiversity and climate change are interlinked.  

Climate change is a direct driver of biodiversity loss and also exacerbates the impacts of other drivers. Yet nature, underpinned by biodiversity, is critical in tackling climate change – contributing to both mitigation (through carbon storage and sequestration) and adaptation (by enhancing resilience and adaptive capacity  of productive systems such as agriculture and fisheries, helping to prevent or mitigate climate-induced natural disasters, and reducing vulnerability of the poorest).

IPBES also highlights that biodiversity loss is as big a challenge for humanity as climate change.

And, as with climate change, it’s the poorest who will be hardest hit. Regions of high biodiversity loss coincide with areas of high poverty and high vulnerability to climate change. Everyone knows that tropical forests are under threat, but less well known are the challenges facing drylands.

Drylands include 20% of all Centres of Plant Diversity, 30% of all Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (PDF), and 8 of the 25 global ‘biodiversity hotspots' (PDF). And drylands support nearly half a billion people who are chronically poor.

Poor people depend more directly than richer people on natural products and the services nature provides, and are more directly affected by their loss. They often can’t afford manufactured or engineered substitutes for previously freely-available natural resources and services such as wild food and fuel, natural fertilisers and flood defences.

Ironically, poor people can also be impacted by efforts to reduce biodiversity loss, including being subject to physical or economic displacement and/or human rights abuses in the course of action by others to either gain access to biodiversity or to conserve it.

Priorities for action on nature

How can DFID be a champion for nature? We have four key suggestions:

  1. “Nature-proof” investments: DFID used to screen projects for potential impacts on climate and environment, but this process no longer exists. A new and improved process could be reintroduced. Biodiversity safeguards and incentives need to be built in – not just within DFID’s investments, but across government, with the Secretary of State insisting on policy coherence.

    This would include removing damaging subsidies for industrialised agriculture, fisheries and fossil fuels, while introducing incentives for nature-friendly development.
  2. Invest in biodiversity for development and climate resilience: the notion of “nature-based solutions” for climate and development problems is gaining prominence. But some of these solutions actually undermine biodiversity.

    Monoculture plantations of exotic tree species that meet international forest restoration commitments are not good for nature and DFID should not be supporting these kinds of investments. Instead DFID should prioritise investments in multi-functional landscapes that combine development, conservation and climate resilience.
  3. Invest in conservation and restoration in ways that empower poor people: some approaches to nature conservation and restoration are bad for poor people. DFID’s investments in climate and nature solutions must be pursued in ways which – at a bare minimum – do not infringe or abuse human rights. But DFID could and should go beyond this and actively seek investments that are pro-poor as well as pro-nature.

    Very little climate finance reaches local levels, and the same is true for nature funding. The IPBES assessment highlights how biodiversity is faring better on lands owned or managed by indigenous and local communities. DFID could develop a challenge fund that specifically directs funding to the local level and supports the rights of local people to protect their land and resources.
  4. The good, the bad and the ugly – invest in biodiversity that is important to poor people: iconic species such as elephants grab the headlines and sustainable use of these species can generate significant revenues and jobs for poor people. DFID should seek every opportunity to maximise the returns that sustainable wildlife management can bring.

    But less charismatic biodiversity needs attention too: medicinal plants, soil biodiversity, traditional crop varieties and important food species are vital resources for the future. And we must not neglect to tackle those components of biodiversity that harm poor people – they need protection from infectious diseases, pests and parasites, and problem animals. 

If DFID is to prioritise getting effective support to countries and communities that need help the most, then combating biodiversity loss needs to be at the top of the agenda for action, along with tackling the climate crisis and its impacts. And this agenda must include action that empowers people at the frontline of change to build their resilience and be effective stewards of the local ecosystems on which their wellbeing depends.