The UK government is introducing conservation covenants in the upcoming Environment Bill. Minna Hartikainen from the Natural Capital Initiative delves deeper into the promise and pitfalls of voluntary conservation.

David Bower, an influential conservationist with the Sierra Club, said about the conservation movement that “our victories are temporary but our losses are permanent”. The UK Government is soon introducing a new Environment Bill to put a stop to our losses, but how can we make sure our victories are permanent?

Private land
Where’s the money?

New tools to protect our natural environment include conservation covenants, or voluntary conservation agreements between landowners and conservation charities, local authorities or government bodies, as well as “for-profit bodies”. However, there will be no direct public funding to support these covenants, so new funding mechanisms for conservation and monitoring need to be discovered. For example, are private companies ready to pay for ecosystem services their businesses depend upon? Following the principle of “public money for public goods”, funding should also be available through the new Environmental Land Management payments, or compensation for biodiversity net gain.

What are public goods?

Of course it’s not all about money. We need to be clear about what we want to achieve and what we mean by “public goods”. For example in the Nordic Countries, voluntary conservation agreements between forest owners and the authorities are linked to national forest conservation programmes, with clear targets for hectares and habitats. Landowners are compensated for the value of timber, which is easier to assess than the value of wider ecosystem services. Still, there are several tools for assessing and valuating ecosystem services too.

The challenge is to choose between the different ecosystem services and “public goods”. One man’s picnic place is another man’s housing development! In the Environment Bill, the government is promising safeguards to ensure that conservation covenants are not used to block development – but if nothing must stand in the way of development, what is the power of conservation in the first place?

More than philanthropy

Conservation gains from private land are often limited and insecure. In the current plans, conservation covenants can be agreed with landowners who have more than a seven-year lease. However, seven years is not a long time to commit to conservation efforts, not to mention to bring lasting benefits to biodiversity and ecosystems. How can we make the landowners commit to conservation and monitoring long term, even with short-term agreements? Voluntary conservation needs to be built into a national partnership for nature’s recovery with at least some long-term security. Without funding, it becomes philanthropy.

Internationally, there have been inspiring examples of environmental philanthropy, often supported by taxation. In the UK, the government is not offering tax incentives for voluntary conservation but there are still plenty of landowners who want to make a difference, as well as a living. You don’t need to be a Danish clothing billionaire either. If we can communicate the benefits of conservation and build trust between landowners and conservationists, we can create more appetite for voluntary conservation across the country.