Nature is in crisis: now the UK government must respond

nature in crisis smallIt’s hard to ignore the findings and recommendations of the hard-hitting global assessment of  nature led by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Its stark finding is that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and the health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.

Much of the assessment focuses on impacts around the globe, but we need look no further than our own ecological doorstep to see the impact we are having on our natural world. With Grassholm’s gannets choking on plastic, plummeting numbers of iconic species like hedgehogs and toxic air poisoning 2.6 million schoolchildren, there is much domestic evidence of the decline in our natural world.

The decline in nature is also a crisis for people as we are bound inextricably with the natural world, which impacts on our health, our wellbeing and our sense of belonging, as well as providing the services on which we all depend: clean air and water, land for growing food and places to live.

While politicians remain distracted by The Great Brexit Debate, it’s easy to feel a sense of helplessness. But, politicians can and must act as the public is demanding. Extinction Rebellion is no fluke and the thousands of people who took part in demonstrations have not meekly disappeared thinking their work is done.

We have been at the tipping point of change before. We are easily inspired and persuaded to act, especially in the face of compelling science. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring caused an about turn in our attitude to pesticides. Blue Planet awoke the nation’s consciousness to the harm that our plastic culture was causing. Overwhelming evidence about the threat of climate change has prompted our parliaments to declare nature and climate emergencies.

Here are five things the government must do to respond to the nature crisis

  1. Pass an ambitious Environment Bill as quickly as possible: this flagship legislation will not succeed through warm words alone. In their pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft bill, two select committees found it to be seriously deficient. The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee described an “overwhelming narrative” that the draft bill’s provisions are not equivalent to the current environmental protections provided by membership of the EU and concluded that, in some areas, they mark “a significant regression on current standards”. The Environmental Audit Committee identified “serious concerns with the proposals as they currently stand, which must be resolved before the bill is introduced”. The Act must lead to bold new targets for healthy air, clean water, thriving wildlife, green spaces where people live and eliminating waste and plastic pollution, create a robust, independent watchdog to make sure these are achieved and establish a nature recovery network across England.
  2. Put the environment at the heart of the negotiations: it seems incomprehensible that the week the monumental IPBES report details devastating global environmental degradation, the environment has somehow dropped off the priority list for the Brexit talks between the government and the opposition. Cabinet ministers and their shadows must collectively strive to move the environment to the heart of policy making, so it cannot be forgotten when political attention moves elsewhere. A high level of environmental protection and recovery should be an explicit objective of the relationship between the UK and the EU.
  3. Keep the faith on agricultural reform: the Agriculture Bill is an unprecedented opportunity to revitalise the countryside in a way that meets the needs of people, farming, food and the environment, for generations to come. It must be revived from its parliamentary hiatus swiftly and protect and enhance the ecosystems that underpin sustainable farming: our soils, freshwater and natural habitats.
  4. Seek trade deals that reflect the high standards the public demand: the government must establish a trade policy, anchored in primary legislation, which safeguards the environment, provides transparency, and gives parliament and civil society a voice in trade negotiations.
  5. Put sustainability at the heart of fisheries policy: the Fisheries Bill must be amended to ensure that UK domestic legislation delivers truly sustainable and accountable fisheries management that minimises impacts on the marine environment and supports dependent coastal communities.

The environment is neither a bargaining chip, nor a finite resource. When the findings of the IPBES assessment were reported to the G7 environment ministers, they apparently responded “With this scientific evidence we can no longer say that we did not know.” Our politicians have the tools and the opportunities they need to make a difference, but do they have the will?

[Photo: a common carder bee on a lavender flower]

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