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A review of the Coastal Futures 2020 conference

Coastal Futures is an annual conference that is in its 27th year. The conference was attended by over 300 delegates consisting of academics, students, pracademics, NGO’s, researchers, government officials and other key stakeholders.

Coastal futures 2020 was a call for action ‘the time to act is now’, the climate emergency is real and we can no longer continue with business as usual. A poll was conducted with delegates and 96% said they have become more worried about climate change within the last year, given the expertise in the room, this was worrying.

There was lots of praise for Greta Thunberg and the psychology behind a child leading the cause. There was also a call for us all to share the changes we have made in our own lives and at work, after all if everyone has a disposable cup they won’t feel guilty right? But change promotes change.

Rising sea level is an underestimated threat, we have seen an annual doubling trend in sea level rise, doubling is bad right? However we should not look at the trends, history tells us we can have sudden and dramatic increases, science tells us we could see sea level increase by 1m by 2100, the government is planning for a 17cm rise. There was a call for engineers to plan a measure of safety in coastal defenses, after all you don’t design a bridge for the expected load, you design it for at least triple the load to be safe. We don’t do this for coastal defenses, Holland’s ‘once in a 10 000 year event’ sea defenses are already being breached. Ocean temperature is also a massive concern, the ocean is absorbing the heat of 500 atom bombs each day, this shocked and scared me.

It was concluded that Governments only want to ‘kill the crocodile closest to them’, movements like Extinction Rebellion aim to make climate change the closest crocodile. Academics, researchers, institutions and individuals need to do the same.

Rebecca Pow MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of the State for the Environment), gave a passionate speech and declared 2020 a ‘marine super year’. She also used the conferences to announce key extensions to some marine protected areas, a new government initiative to reduce by-catch and a seabird improvement plan. Seabird improvement is key given the UK is a stronghold, conservation targets have been missed and populations have been in decline since their last assessment in 2012 (other presentations highlighted this). The MP also praised the Environment Bill and the new Fisheries Bill. Unfortunately, no questions were allowed so perhaps any opportunity to scrutinize these announcements was missed. I have yet to hear a MP talk about the environment without quoting Sir David Attenborough, no mention of Greta though. Perhaps Prevent prevented her from doing so?

Rebecca Pow MP also stated that its ‘policies that drive change’, perhaps this is true but I guess its passionate people who drive policies, so if you care about the environment you know what to do. It was also revealed that 33% of people who voted for this government think that the threat of climate change has been exaggerated, this further highlights the challenge.

A talk later in the day by a legal expert was able to scrutinize new Government policy. They concluded that the new Fisheries Bill was an ‘old fashioned economic bill’, rather than an environment bill, it was also concluded that clause 6 within the bill is a massive ‘get out clause’, it states ‘unless relevant services indicate otherwise’.

The Environment Bill has real potential but neglects the marine environment. The bill allows legal binding targets for nature, but (and it’s a big but), you can achieve this by setting individual targets, so if a target for a newt was met , the Government would achieve their ‘water’ targets, because the sea is also water they would not have to set any other legal targets. The inclusion of ‘rich’ legal talk and ‘up-front’ target setting to include ‘at sea and land’ would improve the bill. The second reading is next week so hopefully amendments will be made.

Richard Benyon (former DEFRA minister), is now part of a working group looking into ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’. Perhaps for thousands of ‘black and white’ reasons I warmed to him more than when he was a minister, he seemed sincere and passionate (perhaps the shackles of government are off). There is one key flaw to HPMAs, and that’s, all stakeholders must agree, so if there is a destructive stakeholder there will probably be no enhanced protection. However it is thought that 30% of UK seas will be protected by 2030 (or 70% unprotected depending on your viewpoint).

There was the usual discussions about offshore energy, fisheries management and marine planning, all key issues but perhaps dwarfed by the climate message.

Charles Clover (best known for ‘the end of the line’), reflected on the conference outcomes and reinforced the call for action. We as individuals need to do more and institutions need to adapt and move away from ‘business as usual’. After all it is often said ‘the only institution to resist change is the cemetery’.

The messages from the conference hit home last night, yet again Torquay seafront was closed, yet again there was disruption on the railways at Dawlish, and there was also a local landslide. We really cannot carry on with ‘business as usual’.


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