This post is by Alistair Taylor, senior policy officer at the RSPB.
The news that substantial areas of the Amazon rainforest have been set on fire crystallised opinion on the need for urgent and effective action to protect our environment and climate. Prime Minister Boris Johnson went as far as stating:
“In a week where we have all watched, horrified, as the Amazon rainforest burns before our eyes, we cannot escape the reality of the damage we are inflicting on the natural world.
The planet faces two immense threats: climate change and biodiversity loss. These are two sides of the same coin – it is impossible to solve one challenge without fixing the other. We cannot stop climate change without protecting the natural environment and we can’t restore global nature without tackling climate change.”
And yet, even as he declared, “We can’t just sit back as animals and plants are wiped off the face of the planet”, evidence emerged that this is indeed happening, and that successive UK governments and their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not taken sufficient action to stop it.
The evidence that all is not well with the UK’s natural environment emerged from the European Environment Agency, responsible for gathering information on progress across the EU28 with the protection, restoration and recovery of habitats and species protected under the EU’s Habitats Directive. This information is collated every six years and a report is published on the status of these habitats and species across the EU28. The latest information will be published in 2020, which marks the end of the international decade for biodiversity.
Concern has already been raised on this blog that the environmental standards the UK jointly adopted with the EU could be weakened or abandoned as a result of Brexit. The latest information from the European Environment Agency highlights the lack of progress on conserving protected habitats and species across the UK and clearly underlines the need not only for these standards to be maintained but also for a significant stepping up of conservation action by the UK and devolved governments.
Peatlands store twice as much carbon as forests
Globally, peatlands such as blanket bog store approximately double the amount of carbon that is stored in all the world’s forests. The UK has about 10-15 per cent of the total global area of blanket bog, and England’s peatlands are thought to store some 580 million tonnes of carbon. The recently published reports confirm that the UK’s blanket bog habitats are in ‘Unfavourable-Bad’ condition and previous reports confirm that they have been in this condition for some time.
In Scotland, while the picture is no better in terms of the status of blanket bog habitats, there are at least some encouraging signs of progress in tackling it. The adoption of the National Peatland Plan by the Scottish Government in 2015 has been followed up with the provision of funding to restore degraded peatlands and ensure that the carbon they store stays locked up, and that the species that inhabit these habitats prosper.
However, in England the picture is much less rosy. As a result of degradation, not least through repeated burning on driven grouse moors, England’s blanket bogs are emitting the equivalent of around three million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Although the 25 year environment plan for England, published in January 2018, included a commitment to publish an England Peat Strategy in late 2018, there is still no sign of this document. The chair of Natural England, the agency responsible for protecting biodiversity in England, has publicly stated that, even now, the agency is “unable to fulfil adequately our statutory duties” because of cuts “beyond the bone” to its funding. Just as the Amazon’s rainforests are going up in smoke before our eyes, so are Britain’s blanket bogs.
Species in trouble
It’s not just our habitats that are faring poorly, the data shows that many of the UK’s most iconic species are in severe decline. The common dormouse, one of our best loved mammals, remains in ‘Unfavourable-Bad’ condition with no sign of improvement. This is a woodland species and its decline is not surprising given that the report also shows that all of the ten types of internationally important woodland in the UK are in unfavourable condition.
Scotland and Northern Ireland are home to the freshwater pearl mussel, which is one of the most critically endangered molluscs in the world. Half the world’s remaining population is found in Angus, the Cairngorms and North West Scotland. The recent report confirms that this species is in ‘Unfavourable-Bad’ condition and that things are getting worse, suggesting that, rather than acting as world leaders, UK governments are not taking care of those species for which they have a global responsibility.
Crucial funding having a positive impact is being lost
In Wales, the status of the protected allis shad fish species, found in the River Usk, has improved from ‘Unfavourable-Bad’ in 2013 to ‘Unfavourable-Inadequate’. While this progress is certainly cause for celebration, there is clearly a long way to go. This species has been the subject of intense conservation efforts since 2016 as part of the Unlocking the Severn project which has received over €7 million of funding from the EU, through the LIFE Programme. Access to this funding is likely to be lost as a result of Brexit, and no replacement funding has so far been announced by the UK government.
The prime minister’s bold words on biodiversity at the G7 meeting and vocal commitments to tackle biodiversity loss globally are welcome, but the UK is far from being the ‘world leader on environmental protection’ that former Environment Secretary Michael Gove claimed in July this year, in a policy statement ahead of the recent reshuffle. Indeed, further evidence emerged this week that government expenditure on biodiversity in the UK, in the midst of an ecological and climate crisis, is in freefall.
Global commitments and aspirations need to be matched with urgent and effective local action by the UK and devolved governments. As well as putting the fires out in the Amazon, we need to be investing in action at home.