This post is by Ali Plummer, wildlife law campaigner at The Wildlife Trusts.
Over the coming months and years, as the UK government begins the task of negotiating exit from the European Union, we have a rare and historical moment to ask ourselves – what kind of country do we want to live in? As the negotiations continue, there is the risk that these questions become lost in the seemingly abstract and inaccessible language of trade and commerce, and the moment is lost. But there is a way to recapture the moment: through considering our natural environment, whose fate – and by extension ours – is very much entwined with the future of our relationship with the EU.
We have a choice
The ways in which we manage our land, our seas and how we protect wildlife and wild places around us are closely linked to our EU membership – some 80 per cent of our environmental legislation is shaped by the EU. There are many reasons for this – the fact that water pollution doesn’t respect borders; nor do birds, dolphins or other migratory species. We now have a choice. Will we choose to clean up our air, keep our rivers and beaches clear of sewage and pollutants, and create a countryside, seas and cities rich in wildlife that everyone can enjoy? Or will we play fast and loose with the regulations and standards that make all of this happen in the rush to secure new trade deals, ultimately to the detriment of us all?
Nature matters in its own right, but it’s more than that. Our prosperity, health and well-being are linked to the health of our planet. Exposure to poor air quality causes 40,000 premature deaths a year. People with good access to green space are more likely to take part in physical activity and are less likely to be overweight or obese. Restored landscapes, if managed sustainably, could bring huge economic benefits. For example, restoration of the 80 per cent of peatlands in poor condition would help to manage flooding, improve our water quality, store tonnes of carbon and create thriving habitats for wildlife.
We can do better to protect our environment
Without the foundation of EU laws on pollution and wildlife, our current situation would be far worse. But our environmental protections are not working as effectively as they could. The State of Nature report gives us a good indication of how we are doing, and the results are frankly alarming. 56 per cent of the UK species studied for this report are in decline, with one in ten species assessed as being under threat from disappearing altogether. It also includes a measure that assesses how intact our country’s biodiversity is which suggests that the UK has lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average. Put simply, we are amongst one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.
We can do better. The current UK government recognises this, committing to become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. The reiteration of this commitment within the Brexit white paper was welcome – an assurance that our environment may not be forgotten as we exit the EU. The ambition in this commitment is hopeful but we must be clear. We cannot deliver it if we do not fundamentally change how we value our environment, wildlife and wild places; and the impacts that we are having on them. Whilst we have made improvements in cleaning up our beaches and rivers and protecting important areas of both land and sea, the State of Nature report shows that this is not nearly enough. We can, and should choose to do more. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations.
The government must act
The UK government should soon be releasing its 25 year plan for the environment, which should set the framework to deliver this commitment in England. It is essential that this plan is underpinned with legislation, if it is to ensure truly long term environmental protection and nature’s recovery. This would be a popular move; polling just after the EU referendum showed that some 80 per cent of adults in the UK wanted at least as strong protections as we currently enjoy as part of the EU.
As part of the Greener UK coalition, we’re working on environmental and wildlife legislation to ensure that environmental protections, principles and accountability are not eroded as the UK exits the EU or its environmental standards dropped as we negotiate new trade agreements. We are also using this opportunity to ensure that the government’s ambition and commitments are backed up with a clear pathway which halts the decline and restores our degraded environment and biodiversity. To do this, it is vital that the government secures our current environmental protections through the Repeal Bill, and, in England, charts a clear path forward with a strong 25 year plan for the environment, reinforced with an ambitious Environment Act.
Our environment knows no borders, so it is also vital that the UK government works closely and collaboratively with the devolved administrations, to achieve effective environmental protection and nature’s recovery across the UK. Likewise, we will need to continue to work cooperatively with the EU and further afield as we chart a new path outside of the EU.
We must take this opportunity to do something better: to leave a legacy of clean air, water and beaches and for future generations to be able to take delight in landscapes and seas teeming with wildlife. And after all, who wouldn’t want that?
Under a Greener UK pillar of work on environment and wildlife laws, Buglife, Client Earth, Friends of the Earth, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, WWF and WWT are working together to ensure a healthier environment for everyone.