Government report shows the UK is set to miss biodiversity goals. How can we turn this around?

While eyes turn inwards to the focal point of Westminster this week, the Government dispatched a (metaphorical) passenger pigeon to the United Nations carrying its report on its progress against international wildlife (biodiversity) targets. Like the ill-fated passenger pigeon (which, at the hand of hunting, went from the world’s most numerous bird to globally extinct in only a few decades), wildlife in the UK is not having the rosiest period to say the least.

Echinops and bee. ©National Trust Images/Richard Bradshaw

For those who might not closely follow the ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ (CBD), here’s a season recap: the CBD is a global agreement to help wildlife (biodiversity). Many countries (although not all) are signed up to this global treaty. In 2010 targets were agreed for improving wildlife, and the habitats it relies on, by 2020. Countries have to report their progress on achieving these 20 targets.

This new report, by the Government itself, shows that the UK is, unsurprisingly, way off course. Out of the 19 targets we assessed, we are only on course to meet five of them (and 2020 is just around the corner). In a previous assessment, the UK came 189th out of 218 countries for its level of biodiversity. We’re one of the worst countries in the world for nature. Only 14% of rivers in England are in good condition, farmland birds have declined by 50% since 1970. 62% of butterflies have declined over the long-term, only a quarter of our precious peatlands are being properly cared for. We have lost 97% of our lowland meadows since 1930.

The River Lagan in spring at Minnowburn, County Down, Northern Ireland. ©National Trust Images/John Miller

On climate change you could argue a reasonable case that the UK – with our Climate Change Act and significant reductions of emissions from electricity sector (even if not from other sectors) – has led the global race on climate action (or at least been close). For wildlife and nature, we’re huffing and puffing along at the back of the pack, looking as if we might keel over.

But this can be turned around. At the National Trust we’re doing what we can to play our part on our land. By 2025 we’ll have created or restored 25,000 hectares of habitat for wildlife. But our own efforts will be for nought, and undermined, if the wider countryside is in tatters.

We’ve heard bold promises from the UK Government about wanting to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state. It has expressed these ambitions for England through the 25 Year Environment Plan. This contains bold promises such as a Nature Recovery Network that will create 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitat outside protected sites. Well, the report reveals that since 2011 only 13,000 hectares of such habitat has been created. So, we’re currently going around ten times slower than we need to in creating wildlife-rich habitat than we need to be.

In 2020 the UN biodiversity conference in China will replace these goals with new ones. There’s often lots of excitement in the build-up to UN conferences, particularly landmark ones such as this. The true challenge is not coming up with an ambitious new deal but delivering it in the years that follow, once the bold promises and cocktail receptions of the UN conference are a distant memory.

Small blue (Cupido minimus) on heather at Thurstaston Common, The Wirral. ©National Trust Images/Phil Neagle

To set ourselves up for success we need at least four key elements:

  • A strong new legal framework for the environment. For this we need an independent new environmental watchdog (one that has independent funding and staffing and the power to fine Government and public bodies if they break the law); targets for improving the environment that chart a direction; and strong environmental principles in law to guide our decisions. A re-worked and improved Environment Bill can deliver these things for England at least.
  • Proper funding for nature. The report concedes that spending on biodiversity has fallen. The bodies that look after our environment, like Natural England, have had their budgets cut year after year. Ambitious projects like the Nature Recovery Network don’t have a penny to their name (if you don’t count funding that might come in from other policy frameworks like biodiversity net gain for development).
  • Partnerships of willing leaders: farmers, conservation organisations like the National Trust, businesses, major developers, combined authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships – all of these actors can play a role in helping to deliver for nature. We think Government can play an important role in bringing them together to achieve change at pace and scale.
  • Protections for nature that work across the UK. The Government’s new Environment Bill and 25 Year Environment Plan cover England. But nature is in trouble across the UK and around our coasts. The four governments need to work together to ensure a high and consistent level of protection across national boundaries.

If the UK is about to chart a new path outside the EU then it’s a chance to show global leadership. When it comes to taking care of nature, we’re squandering that chance. Global leadership needs to begin at home.

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