Ep26: Minister Zac Goldsmith 'Environmental leadership in a post-Brexit world'

“The greatest losers when you annihilate ecosystems are people who depend those ecosystems”: Zac Goldsmith on the UK’s climate policies on the international stage.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talked to Zac Goldsmith, Minister of State for Pacific and the Environment.

Zac’s roles in the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs means that his work to tackle climate change often has an international outlook. In his conversation with Michael, Zac explained the importance of subsidizing businesses that preserve natural habitats, how the UK is leading the way with innovative climate policy, and his ambitions for the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow.

Below is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.


Michael Liebreich: Zac, welcome to Cleaning Up. What have you been working on recently?


Zac Goldsmith: My job is mostly an international one, it covers DEFRA – the Environment Department, and it covers the Foreign Office of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I also have a domestic role with forests, trees, and animal welfare here in the UK. But the rest of my responsibilities are international. So, I'm trying to generate as much energy around the natural environment as we've seen around climate change and carbon.

You can't tackle climate change without supporting nature, restoration, and protection on an unprecedented scale; without these there is no pathway to net-zero. Technology will get us a big chunk of the way but not all the way. Despite that, nature-based solutions have been a distant second when it comes to international political focus. Of all global finance that goes into tackling climate change, only about 2.5% goes to nature-based solutions like forests, mangroves, seagrass, and so on. So, If I had one aim, it's about shifting that ratio, getting countries to commit to doing much more around the natural environment.


ML: How do you deal with the pushback that says there is almost a kind of nature-based colonialism where we're going to tell other people they mustn't fish, and they mustn't chop down this, and they mustn't do that, because we've all become concerned about the environment. How do you deal with that?


ZG:  In Europe, when marine protected areas first became a thing, there were lots of campaigns springing up. One of the first to be established was off the west coast of Spain. There was huge resistance from the fishing communities because they thought this was an attack on them and their livelihoods. If you go there now, the greatest defenders of those marine protected areas of that piece of coastline is the fishing communities because their yields have gone up. You protect certain areas of the ocean and you can then yield more from other areas. The same is true off Costa Rica, one of the principal champions of marine protected areas. Same is true in New Zealand. In fact, the same is true, as far as I'm aware, across the board.

I think the oceans are probably the best example of a win-win. It's such a no brainer. It's measurable, you can look at any example over the last 50 years. Think back to the Second World War, where military activity prevented fishing in certain areas and yields went through the roof very quickly. And it allows one to be very optimistic. Nature, given half a chance comes back very quickly, particularly the oceans.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a good example which is still a very heavily forested nation, but it's facing huge risks. Those risks overall are not coming from small subsistence farmers encroaching into the forest cutting and growing. Of course, that happens, just as it happens all over the world. But that's not the principal risk.

The principal risk is concessions handed out often in a dodgy manner as part of a sort of corruption package. Outside companies are often invited in to cut and sell and move on. In those circumstances, there's no benefit, really, to local people. In many cases, people lose their homes. In other cases, they may not lose their homes, but they lose resources that they've been using. In a broader way, the governments tend not to get much revenue at all. If you look at the total amount of money that ends up with government to be reinvested in services in countries that are where deforestation is happening at a big rate is really tiny sums. It'd be very easy for countries like ours to step in. If only it was so simple and replace the revenue loss to government.

In terms of jobs, you're talking miniscule number of people involved in these sectors. So, there's a legitimate and valid argument that says you've got to let these countries catch up, you've got to let them make some of the mistakes that we made in order to get a foot on the ladder. To at least open themselves up to the opportunities that we have had available to us for so long. In practice, however, that's not how it pans out. The greatest losers when you annihilate ecosystems are those people who depend most directly on those ecosystems.


ML: That brings us to the idea around institution building. The Democratic Republic of Congo needs enormous help to upgrade things like the artisanal mining so they can provide proper livelihoods for those cobalt miners, for instance, that are serving the electric vehicle industry and other industries. But there are also initiatives like Publish What You Pay and Transparency International. I can't help thinking that a substantial push in the direction of those initiatives would also help, because it does go hand in hand, does it not?


ZG: Look at Brazil, for example. In some places, up to 90% of deforestation is illegal under Brazilian law. Around the world, it's around 55%, i.e. 55% of all the world's deforestation is illegal. So, we can go into Brazil and wag our fingers and be angry, but we'll just be thrown out. What we can do, however, is to pass laws in this country requiring the biggest businesses in this country, the main importers of commodities, and forest-risk commodities, to prove that when they import those commodities they're not also importing illegal deforestation. We've got those private sector players on board, about 140 companies or so that will be principally affected by this. Introducing that law that sent a very powerful signal. If they want to continue to have markets to sell their commodities to, they're going to have to clean up their act.


ML: That brings us on to the reforms that the UK is currently engaged in domestically. Around agriculture there is the notion of payment for environmental services. How radical is that?


ZG: If you had beautiful wetlands, woodlands, or habitat in the UK, you weren't paid anything. But if you turned it into low level farmland, you were suddenly paid a lot of money. It is an appalling system. Therefore, we are replacing it with a system where all the money that's paid out to landowners, big or small, is conditional upon delivery of public goods like environmental stewardship. It's a simple principle but is more complicated in practice. The reason this is so huge is we are, I believe, the only country to have embarked on this.

The top 50 food producing countries in the world spend $700 billion every year subsidising land use, often destructive land use. If we, on the back of what we're doing, can build up a global coalition of countries committed to doing something to our policy, that’s your solution right there. If you ask, scientific bodies what’s going to cost to turn the tide on environmental destruction, the figure they always come up with a £700 billion. By coincidence, that is how much government spend subsidising environmental destruction.


ML: As we go towards COP26 and the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15), it's not quite clear how trade is going to be discussed. What are your main ideas? And, how separated is COP 26 and what’s often known as ‘Biodiversity COP’, which is occurring in May?


ZG: The main difference between Glasgow COP and the Paris COP is that we don't need another global agreement in the same way. All the energy in Paris went into getting that agreement. We want to use the leverage we have to create coalitions of ambition around different themes. For example, Powering Past Coal, coalitions on zero emissions vehicles. Also, a big focus on nature as part of the solution to climate change. My specific role for COP is to press forward with this international nature strategy. That involves the obvious things, such as targets and finance. But principally, it's about identifying the main levers. What I'm trying to do, although it's difficult, is to try to break down the barrier between the climate COP and the biodiversity COP, because a good biodiversity COP is going to be good for climate and vice versa. A lot of what you need to do for one is stuff that you'd want to happen for the other.