A comprehensive study of the state of the UK’s natural environment shows no let up in the decline of our natural world. Experts from more than 70 wildlife organisations have joined with government agencies to present the clearest picture to date of the health of our species across land and sea. It’s pretty grim.
No part of our precious ecosystem is untouched. Many of our most loved species are threatened, including hedgehogs, wild cats, hares, bats, butterflies and birds.
The study confirms our worse fears: the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world with more than one in seven native species facing extinction and more than half in decline.
The government should start with action at home
The much lauded Environment Bill could be published soon. This is expected to contain a number of provisions on nature, including the production of new local nature recovery strategies and mandatory biodiversity net gain.
In December the government said it would explore options for including targets for environmental improvement as part of the new environmental governance framework it was creating. While the outcome of this work is not yet known, one thing is clear, any government serious about tackling nature’s decline must shoulder its legal responsibility and compel itself and successor governments to set and achieve long term targets to improve the environment.
The decline in natural systems and species will require systemic change to drive the necessary improvements. As Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith says “We need to ramp up our efforts and then ramp them up again… around the world and at home. This is a global tragedy and given its end point, it trumps all others.”
The prime minister has made some welcome statements on biodiversity but these have largely been directed at gains on the global stage. The Environment Bill is the opportunity for the government to enshrine its domestic ambition, an essential first step before any global leadership claims can truly be advanced. This ambition must include legally binding targets for environmental improvement.
New legal targets have widespread support
Far from being the sole domain of environmental campaigners, enshrining new targets in law has attracted support from across the business community and parliament.
The influential Aldersgate Group is a strong supporter of legally binding targets, as are many individual businesses because of the long term certainty they would provide for them and their investors. As Daniel Johns of Anglian Water points out there is also an intergenerational benefit as statutory long term goals would help to make sure action is not postponed and the costs and impacts are not left for future generations to resolve.
In its scrutiny of the draft bill, the Environmental Audit Committee heard from many witnesses that there was a need for legal objectives and targets to drive improvements in the environment. The committee recommended that long term legally binding, measurable targets should be set in law. The government is yet to respond to the committee on this.
Climate and nature laws must be aligned
The government has recognised that the climate and ecological crises are inextricably linked. They were described as “two sides of the same coin” by the prime minister in his G7 speech in August. The legally binding approach to reducing carbon emissions has set a high bar and an equally ambitious framework must be established for the natural environment. With nature-based solutions set to play a major role at COP26, an ambitious legal baseline for environmental improvement would undoubtedly strengthen the UK’s convening power with its global partners. Ensuring that the Office for Environmental Protection, the new watchdog, covers climate as well as environmental law would set a strong foundation for this.
Investment must follow
A strong legal framework is only the start. Chronic underfunding has plagued our national nature agency Natural England for many years, while local authority ecological capacity has dwindled to a critical level. The Spending Review offers a chance to address this through a dedicated and substantial multi-year budget for nature’s recovery and the Office for Environmental Protection, and ring fenced funding for local government to carry out environmental restoration.
The recent school strikes for climate and renewed Extinction Rebellion protests have once again propelled the environment into the media spotlight. With polling consistently revealing strong support for green action, the public expectation for strong, authentic leadership on the environment is higher than ever.
Today Sir David Attenborough has joined the Wildlife Trusts in their call for a Nature Recovery Network. In their words: “Nature is capable of extraordinary recovery. But we must act now.”