CLIMATE CHANGE : Why do we play down the horror?

2012 Republican Presidential Candidates - Upda...
2012 Republican Presidential Candidates – Update March 28, 2011 (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

Jonathon Porritt wonders why we moderate the ‘scary’ impacts of global warming to avoid alienating people

So here I am, writing this on a flight out to join Forum for the Future colleagues in New York (I know, I know…), pondering, as always, how to manage the advocacy challenge that lies ahead. The Guardian reports

I’m leaving on the day the British media went into overdrive on the latest data from the Arctic on the extent of melting in the summer sea ice. Superlatives abound: ‘worst ever’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘no known comparison in at least three million years’ etc. But the thing that really grabbed me in all the coverage was the personal testimony of some of the scientists involved: shocked, horrified and astonished as they clearly are at the prospect of an ice-free summer Arctic by 2030 – decades earlier than the same scientists were predicting just a few years ago.

A comment from a Cambridge University sea ice researcher says it all: “this is staggering. It’s disturbing, scary that we have physically changed the face of the planet.”

Scary. A word that’s hopelessly understated, and yet seriously difficult to use effectively – especially in the US.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney mentioned climate change only once, and used speech marks around it to demonstrate his contempt for Barack Obama’s marginally more committed position.

It’s election time, and both parties still get a lot of money from the oil, coal and gas lobbies. Money talks louder than science or even basic reason. Just check out the official platform of the Republican Party in Texas: “We strongly oppose all efforts of the extreme environmental groups to disrupt and stop the oil and gas industries. We believe the Environmental Protection Agency should be abolished. We support the freedom to continue to use and manufacture incandescent light bulbs. We strongly support the immediate repeal of the Endangered Species Act. We strongly oppose the listing of the dune sage brush lizard either as a threatened or an endangered species.”

Now that is scary. Especially if you’re a dune sage brush lizard.

Fortunately, I suspect I won’t have to deal with any Texas Republicans on this visit, though I have in the past. But I will be engaging with many people who may still describe themselves as ‘climate sceptics’, if not full-on ‘denialists’.

No doubt I’ll end up moderating the message to avoid alienating them. To ensure that ‘scary’ doesn’t lead to denial rather than enlightenment. Keeping people on side is a precondition of making any progress on sustainability issues.

I feel bad about that. All the more so having just read the latest broadside from the redoubtable Kevin Anderson at Manchester University, taking to task the vast majority of climate scientists for their mealy-mouthed inability to tell it as it really is: “Contrary to the claims of many climate sceptics, scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, ‘impossible’ is translated into ‘difficult but doable’, whereas ‘urgent and radical’ emerge as ‘challenging’ – all to appease the god of economics. Put bluntly, climate change commitments are incompatible with short to medium-term economic growth.”

He’s right about this. In one way or another, many of us are now involved in playing down the full horror of accelerating climate change. I even do it with my own children, both of whom have started to ask me how, after 40 years trying to narrow the gap between what needs to be done and what is being done, I haven’t collapsed into utter despair!

“Never too late”, I tell them. Not as in “never too late” to avoid some pretty horrendous shocks to the system, but “never too late” to avoid total apocalyptic meltdown.

I spent much of my summer holiday reading books by people wrestling with that very demarcation line, including the latest reworking of the original (1972) Limits to Growth analysis by Jorgen Randers. This time round, he’s casting his somewhat gloomy Norwegian perspective out to 2052, and here’s his conclusion.

“Don’t let the prospect of impending disaster crush your spirits. Don’t let the prospect of a suboptimal long-term future kill your hope. Hope for the unlikely! Work for the unlikely! Remember, too, that even if we do not succeed in our fight for a better world, there will still be a future world. And there will still be a world with a future – just less beautiful and less harmonious than it could have been.”

I suspect I’ll avoid even those uplifting exhortations in the US. Just too scary!

• Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future


Wildlife Update : How EU farming policies led to a collapse in Europe’s bird population

English: Rachel Carson, author of Silent Sprin...
English: Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. Official photo as FWS employee. c. 1940. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Douglas's review contributed to the success of...
Douglas’s review contributed to the success of Silent Spring, an important turning point for the environmental movement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New survey shows devastation to farmland birds caused by policies – and experts can see no sign of improvement. The Guardian reports 

They have entranced generations with the beauty of their songs and glimpses of their plumage. But today the sound of the linnet and the vision of a turtle dove are becoming increasingly rare experiences for visitors to the European countryside.

Indeed, according to a new survey, the chances of encountering any one of the 36 species of farmland birds in Europe – species that also include the lapwing, the skylark and the meadow pipit – are now stunningly low. Devastating declines in their numbers have seen overall populations drop from 600 million to 300 million between 1980 and 2009, the study has discovered.

This dramatic decline represents a 50% reduction and is blamed on major changes in farming policies enforced by the EU over the last 30 years.

In order to boost food production across Europe, the wholesale ripping up of hedgerows, draining of wetlands and ploughing over of meadows has robbed farmland birds of their homes and food. Numbers of linnets, turtle doves and lapwings have crashed as a result.

The survey, carried out by the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, also found that Britain has been one of the nations worst affected by losses to its farmland bird populations. For example, in Europe the population of grey partridges has dropped from 13.4  million to 2.4 million, a loss of 82%. In the UK, that loss was 91%.

Bird graphicCredit: Giulio Frigieri

These losses were described as shocking by the scheme’s chairman, Richard Gregory. “We had got used to noting a loss of a few per cent in numbers of various species over one or two years. It was only when we added up numbers of all the different farmland bird species for each year since 1980, when we started keeping records, that we found their overall population has dropped from 600 million to 300 million, which is a calamitous loss. We have been sleepwalking into a disaster.”

According to Gregory, who also serves as the head of species monitoring for the UK’s Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB), a range of factors are involved. In the case of the grey partridge, he blamed the intensification of farming which had killed off the plentiful numbers of insects that they ate.

With starlings, whose populations have fallen from 84.9 million to 39.9 million, a drop of 53%, it has been the destruction of woodlands and the corresponding loss of nesting places that has done the most serious damage, he said.

“By contrast, lapwings – whose numbers have declined from 3.8 million to 1.8 million, a drop of 52% – are more associated with marshes and riverbanks. It has been the draining of these lands that has destroyed their habitats and reduced their numbers so drastically.”

However, the RSPB was emphatic that individual farmers should not take the blame for the devastating drop in farmland bird numbers that has occurred over the past 30 years.

“The decline of farmland birds across Europe has been one of our greatest wildlife tragedies but it is important to remember they have been driven by farming policy rather than farmers themselves,” said Jenna Hegarty, the society’s senior agricultural policy officer. “We work with thousands of farmers across the UK who are striving to put wildlife back on the land, but farmers cannot do this without significantly increased funding for more environmentally friendly measures.”

The fact that the high losses of linnets, turtle doves and other farmland birds had not been expected was blamed by Gregory on a phenomenon known as the shifting baseline syndrome.

“We take for granted things that two generations ago would have seemed inconceivable – in this case the reduction by 300 million of Europe’s farmland bird population,” he said. “Apart from the removal of creatures that are beautiful to behold and beautiful to listen to, we should take note of what this means. These losses are telling us that something is seriously amiss in the world around us and the way that we are interacting with nature.”

However, it is unlikely that the problem will get better in the near future, he added. In Bulgaria, Poland and the EU’s other, newer member nations in eastern Europe, the farming policies that have been responsible for wiping out vast numbers of farmland birds in older member countries are only being introduced today. Once they take effect, overall numbers of farmland birds will drop even further, it is expected. “We need to introduce measures that consider the environmental impact of theagriculture policies we are implementing,” said Gregory.

The discovery of the dramatic losses suffered by farmland birds since 1980 comes as the green movement prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book, published in summer 1962, outlined the devastating impact that the uncontrolled use of synthetic insecticides was having on populations of birds in the US and played a critical role in kick-starting the green movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

Humanity was beginning to have a dreadful impact on wildlife and in particular on birds, Carson argued. “A grim spectre has crept upon us almost unnoticed,” she wrote. Her words had a major influence.

Silent Spring, which outlined dozens of examples of the widespread slaughter of birds, led directly to the banning of the manufacture of DDT and other pesticides. However, the bird losses she outlined 50 years ago have been dwarfed by the losses that have occurred in the last 30 years and which are revealed in the RSPB survey. As the environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt put it: “I think Carson would be horrified about the state of the planet today.”

Farmland species under threat


Numbers across Europe have fallen by 82%, from 13.4 million to 2.4 million, but the decline is markedly higher in Britain at 91%.


A summer visitor whose breeding grounds are in upland parts of northern and western Britain. Its population has fallen by67%.


Breeds in a variety of habitats in the UK, including arable farmland, wet pastures and upland hay meadows. Numbers down by 53%.


Also known as the peewit in imitation of its display calls, its proper name describes its wavering flight. Numbers are down by 52%.

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Peter Marren: Our wildlife needs a voice

Scottish Wildlife Trusts Balgavies Loch.
Image via Wikipedia

Radical groups such as Greenpeace have a lot to say about carbon cuts but little on the problems of butterflies or bees. Peter Marren in The Independent puts his opinion…

Nature in Britain needs a voice. We are in the midst of a public debate over the relaxation of the planning laws, with the National Trust up in arms and every Nimby in the land preparing for a fight over the prospect of the countryside being concreted over in a new development free-for-all. But we have heard hardly anything about how that might affect the 40,000-odd species of wild creatures, plants and insects that must find ways of sharing our living space. How will they cope when the “sustainable” developments proposed by the Planning minister, Greg Clark, get the nod in the National Parks, the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Green Belts?

If birds and butterflies could speak, they would tell you they have had a lousy year. Government biodiversity targets have done little to help farmland birds such as yellowhammers and corn buntings, whose numbers are steadily plummeting. And if life is hard for birds, it will be harder still for spiders, bugs, snails and hundreds of other creepy-crawlies rarely mentioned in government statistics.

The body that is supposed to stick up for English wildlife is the aptly named Natural England (NE). Unfortunately this Government has ruled that NE is no longer allowed to hold independent views or policies. Besides, its budget has been cut to the bone. So Natural England is most unlikely to say anything that might annoy its paymasters. With next to no public debate, our wildlife watchdog has morphed into a pathetic delivery boy, charged with attending to “customer focus”. This leaves England without a wildlife watchdog worthy of the name for the first time since 1949. You might say – and this Government certainly would – that the Big Society can perform the job just as well. There are dozens of wildlife groups, big and small, ranging from the RSPB and the county wildlife trusts, to small, specialist bodies such as Plantlife and Butterfly Conservation. Surely they will bark, even if Natural England cannot?

They can, but so far they have rarely done so. Take the great forest sell-off last winter. Not one of them leapt to the defence of the public forest estate, and the impression you got was that they were looking forward to getting their hands on some of the loot. Jonathan Porritt characterised their tongue-tied stance as a “massive failure of collective leadership”. They were made to look irrelevant.

You might at least have thought that the Wildlife Trusts or the RSPB would have had something to say about the emasculation of Natural England. Yet their objections, conveyed via Wildlife & Countryside Link, a UN-like umbrella body, focused mainly on budget cuts, and the fact that our official wildlife advisory body is no longer allowed to advise seemed be much less of an issue.

Why don’t they bark? There are a number of reasons. The climate change agenda has captured the more radical groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who have a lot to say about carbon cuts, energy efficiency, and the management of waste, but increasingly little on the problems faced by birds or butterflies or bumblebees, or on damaging developments in the English countryside. Meanwhile, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and, to a lesser extent, the prosperous and powerful RSPB have become more international in outlook. There have been more Google hits for the exotic and endangered spoon-billed sandpiper from Asia than for any threatened British creature. The Wildlife Trusts have the opposite preoccupation: as the bodies that represent county or regional wildlife interests, their outlook tends to be parochial and member-focused. They succeed in being rather less than the sum of their parts.

Moreover, many wildlife bodies have grown used to working with Government as partners. But partnership has a catch. Partners do not like to rat on one another, and especially not when one partner happens to fund the other. Perhaps it is this thought that makes them hesitate, and, in PG Wodehouse’s phrase, “cough once or twice, before deciding not to say it after all”.

The result is that, at a time when green issues are at the forefront of everyone’s lives, we have somehow managed to overlook the greenest issue of all – wildlife. The truth behind the Government’s rhetoric about “enhancing biodiversity” is that our biodiversity is doing very badly. In its State of the Environment Report in 2008, little read and soon forgotten, Natural England drew attention to wholesale losses right across the environmental board from peat bogs and limestone grassland to legions of neglected insects, mosses, fungi and pond life, all slowly slipping away.

The problem with placing human enjoyment at the heart of wildlife policymaking is that 90 per cent of wild species could die out tomorrow and no one would notice. We like to see bumblebees in our gardens, but how much does it matter that there are now three kinds where once there would have been 12? We need to separate biodiversity from “quality of life” issues and reassert the moral right of all species to live on the same soil as ourselves.

We need a new focus on wildlife. We need an independent voice, led by a powerful and knowledgable personality who can speak up for wildlife. And not just for ourselves and our own survival, but for the thousands of wild species which might not survive for much longer.

Peter Marren is the author of ‘Nature Conservation’, published by Collins

England’s forests : How we got lost in the woods

Tree creeper. Ivy growing up Forestry Commissi...
Image via Wikipedia

After plans to sell off England‘s forests were dramatically shelved, The Independent launched a prize for the best writing on their future. Here, Michael McCarthy introduces the winning article

It provoked a sudden swell of public outrage and the biggest climbdown in the Coalition Government‘s first year – the proposal to sell off the 18 per cent of the woodlands of England that are state-owned and maintained by the Forestry Commission.

Did anyone realise that as a nation we were quite so attached to our public woodlands? The hostility to the sell-off idea was so intense that in February it led to the unprecedented sight of David Cameron openly disowning one of his own Government’s initiatives in the House of Commons; to the complete abandonment of the public consultation on the forests sale; and to an extraordinary public apology for the whole business from the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman. The Government dropped its plans and appointed a panel of the environmental great and good to consider the future of our state-owned forests, which will report in the autumn.

But before the U-turn, we had posed the question ourselves. In cooperation with the Cambridge-based wildlife charity, Fauna and Flora International (FFI), we launched an essay competition on “The Future of England’s Forests” with a £5,000 prize put forward by an anonymous (and very generous) FFI supporter.

The response was substantial and we received more than 150 essays of nearly 2,000 words each. Assessing them has been a mammoth exercise and the winner was picked from a final shortlist of 13 on Wednesday 3 May by the judges: the environmentalist and former head of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper; the academic and expert on the history of the countryside in general, and woodlands in particular, Dr Oliver Rackham, of the University of Cambridge; and the present writer.

Clearly, we wanted people to think about policy. What is the purpose of publicly owned forests: wood production? Recreation? Wildlife protection? New environmental purposes, such as carbon storage, or the production of wood chip fuel? What are the problems they face now? What problems are on the horizon? How should they be run? And of course, who should run them?

But we were also looking for other things: a sense that the collapse of the Government’s sale plans actually presents an enormous opportunity for a new future, if ministers are wise enough to take it; a sense of what forests mean to us on a deeper level; and importantly, an essay which might have a sound grasp of policy, but was also a pleasure to read.

The shortlist entry which best met these requirements, we felt unanimously, was essay 15601 (all were judged anonymously). The author turned out to be botanist and conservationist, Andy Byfield, landscape conservation manager of the wildflower conservation charity Plantlife. To him goes the £5,000 prize; and to everyone who took part go the thanks of Fauna and Flora International, and The Independent.

The future of England’s forests by Andy Byfield

I am sorry, we got this one wrong.” In a rare display of political contrition, Caroline Spelman apologised on behalf of the Coalition Government for proposing the sale of England’s public forests, and brought a deeply unpopular consultation to an abrupt end. To the dispassionate observer, the announcement ended a fascinating three-week period, in which more questions were raised than answered. Did the Conservatives wish to sell the land to “big forestry” and their shooting cronies for ideological reasons, as much as they wished to fill Treasury coffers? Did the environmental pressure groups remain so surprisingly mute – a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the godfather of environmentalism, Jonathan Porritt – because they struggled to find a common voice? Or like some magpie collecting baubles, did the prospects of decorating their own nests with the very best fragments of the forest estate keep them silent? In the end, it was half a million signatures from the general public and an outcry from the Tory broadsheets and tabloids that forced the Environment Secretary to make her U-turn. As Ms Spelman acknowledged: “If there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits they bring.” As a conservationist and botanist, I can remember few proposals that have caused me more concern.

At stake was the Public Forest Estate, managed by the Forestry Commission for England, covering some 257,000 hectares, roughly equivalent to the size of Oxfordshire. The consultation document acknowledged the importance of this land both to conservation and recreation. Over a quarter of this area receives formal recognition of its outstanding biological importance through designation as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Roughly 50,000 hectares of the estate is ancient woodland, 15 per cent of the national total. And this land abounds in rare and beautiful wildlife, from red squirrels to lady orchids. Additionally, the public are free to roam over much of this land: 40 per cent of all woodlands open to the public are managed by the Forestry Commission, even though they oversee just 18 per cent of our forested lands, hence the public’s deep attachment to this land.

At the heart of the consultation was the proposal to break up the estate into four categories: heritage and community; multi-purpose and both small commercial and large commercial forests. The Government suggested that the heritage sites might be transferred at no cost to conservation organisations to manage, via a trust arrangement or lease, whilst environmental pressure groups and local community groups would additionally have first refusal to buy or take a long lease over additional small parts of the estate. This might total up to 106,000 hectares, although quite why these groups should have to buy land already in public ownership was never explained. The bulk of the remainder – up to 130,000 hectares – could be leased to commercial and other private interests for up to 150 years.

As commentators identified, ancient woodlands are close to most people’s hearts: these are mystical areas that have supported natural tree cover since at least 1600. At their best, they are enormously rich in wildlife. We are still fortunate enough to witness the coming of spring as bluebell woods metamorphose into sheets of blue. However, other displays of stunning woodland flowers are largely a thing of the past: the muted, colour-coordinated whites and greens of sword-leaved helleborine, lily-of-the valley and Solomon’s seal have gone from our limestone ashwoods, while the multi-coloured blend of anemone, primrose and violet of our lowland hazel copses remains but a distant memory. And, of course, as the diversity of plant life has declined, so richness of insects, birds and mammals has followed suit.

In short, Britain’s ancient woodlands are in a dire state, for three outstanding reasons. The first problem is our burgeoning deer population: the population of muntjac deer is increasing at 8.2 per cent per annum and will double its population to over 300,000 in just nine years. Increasing numbers of deer are nibbling the ground vegetation and low shrubs to the bone, leaving only a skeleton of woody trunks: rare plants disappear, the food plants of butterflies are reduced to critically low levels, and all important shelter for breeding birds is removed.

Increasing nutrients within woodlands represents another key problem. Valued woodland plants favour soils with low nutrients, but today our woodland soils become ever enriched as industrial – and agricultural-derived nutrients fall from the skies, and further increase with the annual fall of leaf litter and other woodland detritus.

But the biggest problem is lack of management. Plants need light to grow, and management allows this all-important ingredient to reach the woodland floor. In the pas ttrees were coppiced, pollarded and shredded; timber was hauled away; and, in many instances, the woodland floor grazed by domestic stock. Such activities allow in light, remove nutrients, keep coarse vegetation at bay, and create open bare ground for seedling establishment.

And yet, for the past 60 years our woodlands have remained largely unmanaged. In 1947, roughly half our woodland cover comprised coppice or scrub – low, light woodland vegetation – yet today, all but three per cent is high forest with a closed canopy, and a dark, stygian woodland floor. They are devoid of colour, and are ever-increasingly uniform in terms of florisitic and zoological diversity. Our ancient woodlands need a guiding hand if they are to regain some of their former glory.

Ancient woodlands are only half the story. Of equal importance are the tracts of open, unwooded, habitat that came into the hands of the Forestry Commission decades ago. As the First World War drew to a close, the government vowed to make Britain self-sufficient in timber, and in 1919 the Commission came into being. One of its first acts was to aggressively purchase land from cash-starved landowners, acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres at rock-bottom prices within a few years. Across these open landscapes, the Commission planted millions of non-native trees. As they matured and open land became wooded, so we as a society lost, what the writer WG Clarke called: “the memories of its spaciousness, of its peaceful solitudes, of its heath and bracken and lichens and wood sage, of the calls of its birds, and the scent of its air”.

It would be fair to assume that most of the rarer plants and doubtless animals on the forest estate are woodlanders, but in reality, some three-quarters of the flowering plants are characteristic of open habitats. These include beautiful species such as marsh gentian, Dorset heath and purple milk-vetch. Such plants are the last survivors of these former commonlands, persisting along ride sides and where mature trees have been felled. To the botanist, they are a reminder of what we have lost. However, there is a faint ray of hope. Once the excesses of tree planting have been completed, forestry soils lie largely undisturbed under the growing trees until the timber is felled. With profile and hydrology intact, they can easily be restored to high-quality heath, bog or downland. Plant seeds can lie dormant for decades, ready to spring into growth when conditions permit: I well remember estimating 36,000 seedlings true of common heather germinating within just one metre square of burnt conifer plantation in the New Forest. New mixed open and wooded landscapes abounding in wildlife could easily be reinstated.

I was surprised by one thing during Ms Spelman’s consultation, and that was my increasing support for the Forestry Commission. After all, here is an organisation that conservation bodies have loved to hate for 90 years, and with good reason. It was the Commission that gutted the oaks and ash from its own ancient woodland and replanted dark, dense crops of conifers. It championed the wholesale afforestation of 1.77 million acres of breezy heaths and downs across Britain, changing the iconic landscapes such as the New Forest, the Dorset Heaths, and Breckland, possibly for ever.

But change is taking place within the Commission. Three key strategies have been launched over the past six years that could undo the wrongs perpetrated over the past 90. In 2005, the Commission published its ancient woodland strategy, Keepers of Time, which recognises the values of ancient woodland, and calls for the removal of introduced conifers. A few years later, the Government adopted the Commission’s Woodfuel Strategy for England that seeks to encourage sustainable management of woodland to produce woodfuel as a source of low-carbon energy, whilst introducing economic management back into our broadleaved woodlands, thus adding the magic ingredient, light, to bring woodland biodiversity back to life. Finally, in early 2010, came the adoption of the Commission’s policy on when to convert woods and forests to open habitats in England, that could reinstate key areas of heath and down from plantation forests.

I believe the public forest estate should remain publicly owned. Yes, a small degree of rationalisation may make sense, but the bulk should remain in public hands, managed by a greatly evolved Forestry Commission, with old wood pruned out and a new remit to listen to the public. At first sight, ideas from Mark Avery, of the RSPB, for a new Forestry and Wildlife Service, don’t seem wide of the mark. Through this, we could realise long-held dreams of restoring ancient woodland, and recreating new open landscapes, with free access for all. The evolved organisation could be an exemplar of proactive management, demonstrating a diversity of landscape management techniques to the commercial and private sectors that have been even slower to change their ways.

The newly shaped Commission could promote applied research to investigate everything from control of diseases, to the role of woodland in carbon sequestration and ways of managing woodland both sustainably and economically. And our new Commission would be directly accountable to its paymaster, the taxpayer. Above all, if the public forests are sold to the highest bidder, we lose our last opportunity to achieve landscape conservation on a landscape scale.

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Environmental sustainability is out the window…(!!?)… if Commission is cut

The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts. If the Sustainable Development Commission is to be cut, it is a blow on a nunber of fronts -logic, the environment, sustainable government, indeed the concept of sustainability – are all losers!

Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband: “They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”

Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.

Jonathon Porritt: As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission.

The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts.

An announcement that the Sustainable Development Commission is to be abolished is expected tomorrow, just as the environmental and sustainability watchdog publishes its latest report outlining the savings departments could make from being greener.

The report will detail how the Government could make hundreds of millions of pounds of savings over the next Parliament by reducing transport, water use, energy waste and rubbish – savings worth many times the £3 million expenditure on the SDC.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was unable to confirm today if the arms-length body, which is jointly operated by the UK Government and devolved administrations, is to be disbanded, saying no final decision has been made.

But reports of its imminent demise have raised concerns in the Welsh Assembly, where it was last week described as playing an important role in Wales’s efforts to become greener.

The SDC has helped central government departments save the equivalent of £16 million in carbon emissions reductions and £13 million in reducing water waste.

The commission has also worked with the NHS and schools to reduce their emissions and energy use and recommended the “whole-house” green makeovers to make them more energy efficient, a policy that was adopted by all three parties before the General Election.

Its advice on whether a Severn barrage could be built sustainably also paved the way for consideration of tidal schemes in the Severn Estuary.

Greenpeace campaigner Louise Edge condemned the decision to axe the SDC as “incredibly short-sighted”.

“The commission has always given great value for money, cutting wasteful energy use across Whitehall and providing vital advice on how departments can slash their carbon emissions.

“You have to wonder about the thinking behind scrapping a £3 million body with a record of success while pushing ahead with the multibillion-pound Trident replacement, which the military doesn’t even want. This is muddled thinking,” she said.

Margaret Ounsley, head of public affairs at WWF-UK, said: “Everybody knows that we are facing a heavy deficit, and we should not be too prescriptive about how the Government deals with it.

“However, it would be the worst sort of mindless hacking from Government if we were to lose the capacity to measure and report on its moves towards meeting its own commitments to become leaner and greener.

“Shooting the watchdog does not make always make for savings.”

And Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.

“The coalition must be held to account on its promise to be the greenest Government ever – and explain how it will continue to green Britain, saving money and creating jobs at the same time – without the Sustainable Development Commission’s expert guidance and overview.”

Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband said: “The coalition has made some terrible decisions on the environment – scrapping the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, shelving Labour’s plan for the Green Investment Bank.

“They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”

As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission. So I’ve been working really hard to put myself in Ministers’ shoes in terms of the ‘rationale’ they’ve advanced for this reprehensible decision. They’ve put forward four justifications:1. It will save moneyThe SDC costs the taxpayer around £4 million a year, around 50% of which come from Defra. The rest comes from the Devolved Administrations and other Whitehall Departments – all of which wanted to carry on working with the SDC. As George Monbiot has pointed out, the SDC’s advice on reducing costs through increased efficiency has already saved the Government many, many times that negligible amount, and would have gone on doing so year after year.2. Sustainable development is now mainstreamed across government.Defra Ministers are now claiming that sustainable development has been embedded in every department. In other words, no specialist capability at the centre is any longer required, simply because the Government ‘gets it’.Like hell it does. To hear Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State in Defra make such a totally fatuous claim after a few weeks in power is irritating beyond belief. She clearly knows nothing of the constant slog required (of the SDC and many other organisations) to achieve the limited traction that is all that can be laid claim to today.There’s a rich irony here. The SDC is a UK-wide body. Neither Wales nor Scotland was in favour of getting rid of the Commission, no doubt because both Countries have done an infinitely better job than Whitehall on ‘mainstreaming’ sustainable development.3. It will avoid duplicationThis is a bit trickier, simply because the SDC does a number of different things. It advises Ministers – and there are indeed lots of other people who do that. But rarely if ever from an integrated sustainable development perspective. It helps countless public sector bodies (from the Audit Commission to the Department of Education, from Local Authorities to Primary Care Trusts in the NHS) to make sense of sustainable development, and no other government body does any of that. And it scrutinises government performance on a completely independent basis across the whole sustainable development agenda – not just on climate change. And no other body does that.4. Sustainable development is too important to delegate to an external bodyIt’s worth recording Caroline Spelman’s actual words here: “Together with Chris Huhne, I am determined to take the lead role in driving the sustainable agenda across the whole of government, and I’m not willing to delegate this responsibility to an external body.”Even after nine years working with dozens of Government Ministers, I’m astonished at such utterly brazen cynicism. The only thing Mrs Spelman has done so far as Secretary of State at Defra is publish a new strategy for the Department. This has not one serious reference to sustainable development in it. Such is the depth of her concern.If Defra’s next step is to get rid of what’s left of it’s own internal Sustainable Development Unit, then it will have literally no capacity to ‘drive the sustainable agenda’ even within Defra, let alone ‘across the whole of government’. And how can you drive anything if you haven’t the first clue what it actually means? And it just got rid of the only part of the system capable of providing you with a basic primer for beginners?So let’s not beat around the bush: their justification for getting rid of the SDC is transparently vacuous, if not downright dishonest. This is an ideological decision – in other words, a decision driven by dogma not by evidence-based, rational analysis.And the only conceivable reason for allowing dogma to dominate in this way is that the Government doesn’t want anyone independently auditing its performance on sustainable development – let alone properly-resourced, indisputably expert body operating as ‘a critical friend’ on an inside track within government.I don’t suppose the Prime Minister was even consulted about such a footling little matter. But it’s clear that his advisors hadn’t the first idea about the kind of signal this dogma-driven decision sends out, ensuring that his claim that this will be the ‘greenest government ever’ is in deepest jeopardy. It’s too early to make any definitive judgement about how the Green agenda will fare under the Coalition. But it’s not encouraging. ‘Greenest ever’ has to mean something substantive. Simply smearing a sickly ideological slime over everything just won’t cut it.