What does the 25 year plan to improve the environment mean for accountants?

On 11th January Theresa May unveiled the government’s 25 year plan to improve the environment. It was the first keynote speech on the environment by a prime minister since Tony Blair in 2000. 18 years after Blair’s address, the issues outlined by the current prime minister remain unchanged. Climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation still pose considerable risks to our future prosperity.

I ask the question- will this plan be able to effect real progress towards addressing these challenges and what role can accountants play?

The ten objectives put forward by the government cover important ground. The government’s plan to replace the Common Agricultural Policy with a system that pays farmers for public benefits is an ambitious proposal.

Ellie Brodie, The Wildlife Trusts’ Senior Policy Manager stated that she was ‘delighted that these public benefits will be primarily for environmental enhancements.’

Conservationists’ calls for increased emphasis on biodiversity restoration were also answered. The report outlines plans to restore 500,000 hectares outside protected areas and increase woodland cover to 12% by 2060.

There is also an encouraging level of coherence with other policy areas. For example the plan briefly outlines how it complements the government’s industrial strategy and delivers on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, natural capital thinking was employed to link the value of the environment to human wellbeing and economic resilience.

However, the report lacks both ambition and concrete commitments in other areas. Take plastic reduction, an area highlighted by Greenpeace as ‘a missed opportunity’. The only immediate policy was to close the loophole on the 5p plastic bag charge. Meanwhile Stopping ‘avoidable’ plastic waste was left until 2042.

There is little detail on governance and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the proposed vision is achieved.

Tanya Steel, chief executive officer of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) noted that any commitments would ‘only become a reality if they are backed by the force of law, money and a new environmental watchdog.’

What does the plan mean for accountants?

These potential flaws in the 25 year plan brings me to the next part of my question- what role can accountants take and can they help to plug these gaps in the strategy?

The debate has long moved past the belief that responsibility lies solely with government to legislate on these issues. Business will be an important player in achieving all ten objectives; and private sector investment will be key to scaling and improving upon the government’s ambitions. There is considerable ongoing work in this area- for instance organizations implementing natural capital assessments to understand their environmental impacts and dependencies through the Natural Capital Protocol.

Accountants can help organisations make the business case for sustainability; this might involve long-term viability reporting. In many situations it can help stakeholders look beyond short term costs to realise long-term sustainability related benefits.

Providing accurate, timely, and assured sustainability information on business activities is another area accountants can add value. Accountability is a strong driver of behavioural change, and as such the importance of accountants should not be understated.

The 25 year plan might have left itself open to criticism over its lack of urgency and immediate policy to action its vision, however, the sentiment behind it should not be dismissed. Broadly, this is an environmental plan that talks-the-talk. But make no mistake, it will take the concerted effort of all sectors to ensure that it also walks-the-walk.