The end of 2019 was marked by the deeply disappointing Madrid climate change talks.  The holiday season was then dominated by news of the appalling fires in Australia, floods in Jakarta and record temperatures (see for example here and here). 

It would, therefore, be entirely understandable if you are in search of reasons to be cheerful as we enter a new decade. 

My simple tip would be to look out for the Earth Optimism events planned for 23-25 April this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Earth DayCambridge will, once again, provide a platform to showcase incredible stories from around the world about how we have improved the natural environment.  These stories will give you confidence that we have what it takes to make things better.

At the 2017 event, I was introduced to the idea of conditional optimism - a term originally used by Professor Paul Romer (who has since been awarded the Nobel Prize in economics) to describe how we should approach the global challenge on decarbonisation.  He used this metaphor to explain his idea “complacent optimism is the feeling of a child waiting for presents. Conditional optimism is the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse. ‘If I get some wood and nails and persuade some other kids to help do the work, we can end up with something really cool.’”

As I was thinking about the year and decade ahead, I remembered Professor Romer’s idea and thought about how it can guide our future strategy. 

At its heart is a belief in the power of innovation and human ingenuity to deliver lasting change.  He explains in a recent article that, if we “use policies that start modestly and grow over time to create incentives that guide innovation toward discoveries that are beneficial and away from discoveries that are harmful”, the optimistic conclusion is “we can do all the things we want to do: end extreme poverty and raise standards of living for everyone; and start reducing the harm that we are doing to the natural environment with the goal of doing no new harm, then perhaps even undoing some of the harm we have up until then.”

In short, Romer is saying, “we make progress because of what people do”. 

And this year, at the start of this new decade, we have a huge amount to do

2020 must be the year when we deliver a step change in ambition and delivery.  2020 is…

…a Super Year because of the major UN summits on nature and climate change and the need to refresh the environmental targets under the Sustainable Development Goals.  We shall continue to campaign both with our BirdLife International partners and others to ensure world leaders secure the right deals to restore nature and deliver a safe climate. 

…when the UK will Brexit and negotiate a new relationship with the EU.  We shall continue to campaign both with Greener UK and the country environment Links to ensure the right environmental legal and governance framework is established post Brexit and that high environmental standards are maintained in any future trade deal.  The Westminster Environment Bill, included in the December Queen’s Speech, will be the first big test of the new UK Government’s environmental intent.

…a big year for some of the RSPB’s major practical conservation projects at home and abroad.  For example, we will lead an operation this year to remove the invasive non-native house mice from the UK Overseas Territory, Gough Island, to prevent the Tristan albatross and Gough bunting from becoming extinct. 

I also want us to use 2020 as an opportunity to showcase some of the incredible work that we have achieved in restoring landscapes and saving species to add to the sense of optimism.  But to ensure that the right conditions are in place to deliver the step change required, I also want us to reflect on what has made some of these interventions so successful and also to be curious about what others have done to achieve even greater things for wildlife, the climate and for people. 

As I outlined in a Westminster Forum speech last month, the challenges facing nature and the climate this decade are huge and the step change in action required is considerable.  But the truth is we know what needs to be done and the lesson from 2019 is that there are millions of people passionate for change and they are prepared to do something about it.

Conditional optimism could help make 2020 a year of renewal - of ambition, laws, funding and of nature itself.

RSPB Lakenheath: from arable fields to world-class wetland in just 15 years (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

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