This government is not short of environmental aspiration. It wants to have the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth and has cast its sights beyond immediate horizons, promising to leave the environment in a better state for future generations. However noble, long term goals need legal anchors and decisive delivery to keep them on course.
The dismal decline of our nature is well documented in what the RSPB has called a lost decade for nature, with the UK at the bottom of the G7 league table for how much biodiversity it has left. Nature protection is not just for the good of the planet, it’s also essential to our own wellbeing and survival as a species, nurturing our minds and bodies and sustaining our economies.
The announcement of a legally binding target to halt species decline is therefore hugely welcome and a tremendous response to an inspiring campaign to put nature’s recovery into law. The government wants this to be “the Net Zero equivalent for nature”, spurring action of the scale required to address the biodiversity crisis. The net zero target has driven government policy, changed behaviour and propelled economic investment and transformation in a spectacular manner. Without equivalent legal drivers, the fight to save nature is destined to play second fiddle, despite the interlinked nature of the two crises and the solutions required to tackle them. A 2030 species target in law would help provide greater parity in how they are addressed.
But the Environment Bill must also be amended to make plans for environmental improvement more like plans to achieve carbon budgets. That means they must include time bound, specific measures, explicitly linked to the delivery of long term targets and interim milestones. Without this, there is a risk that the plans will be largely abstract narratives, with meaningful action backloaded towards the end of each 15 year plan period, risking action coming too late.
Why the detail matters
The timing of the government’s announcement is significant. If it gets this right, it could inspire legal targets for wildlife around the world in the upcoming talks on the Convention on Biological Diversity in October. The UK was a driving force of the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature which commits to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030. Signalling the intention to set a 2030 binding target in domestic legislation will strengthen the UK’s hand in the negotiations and help to drive up global ambitions.
The detailed work begins now. The design of the target matters: its drafting must not shirk in its purpose. It should cover as many species as possible, with measures that lead to greater abundance and diversity of wildlife. An action plan for delivery, clear reporting to parliament and active oversight from the Office for Environmental Protection will all be needed to make sure it is successful and that encounters with once familiar species become the norm again.
Protecting peat must be a top priority
Peat is described at the UK’s Amazon for good reason. It is a rare species rich habitat and efficient carbon sink. But we have lost most (94 per cent) of our lowland peatlands. They have been damaged or destroyed by extraction or drained for farmland. Few peatlands remain in a natural state. So it is not before time that the government has published its long awaited peat action plan. This includes a commitment to end the use of peat in the amateur horticulture sector, with consultation on phasing out the use of horticultural peat promised for 2021. The government recognises that the voluntary approach has not delivered, with the volume of peat sold in the UK actually rising by nine per cent in 2020 and pledges by retailers leading to no progress.
This new plan must be converted into real protection and the consultation should be fast tracked. In the year in which we host the critical international summit on climate change in Glasgow, we have a duty to inspire others to act by acting decisively on our own domestic ambition: protecting our vital peat stores of carbon must be top of the list.
It also means we must return to the thorny question of peat burning. In January, the government announced the introduction of a partial ban of burning heather and grass on peatland. As Wildlife and Countryside Link explains, this partial ban, which only applies on designated sites, is just a start, not the solution.
Peat restoration and protection are mission critical objectives to deliver net zero by 2050 or before. We must put the brakes on the massive carbon emissions arising from damaged peat which result in between 3.5 and five per cent of the UK’s annual emissions. This means stopping burning, blocking drains and planting sphagnum moss for upland bogs, and raising the water table on farmed lowland fens.
A holistic approach to trees will be good for climate and nature
The government has also published an action plan for trees, which includes trebling tree planting rates in England.
Trees play a vital role in absorbing carbon but are also vital in tackling the nature crisis. In the charge to plant trees for net zero, however, there is a real risk of unintended consequences and we must be sure to learn from previous mistakes.
For instance, tree planting on peatland has proceeded, despite its impact on reducing carbon storage. And, in Ireland, planting targets have led to monocultural spruce plantations and an ecological dead zone. The Environment Bill provides a framework for setting legal improvement targets for biodiversity in a holistic way. Including targets for trees within the wider approach to improving habitats would help to guard against such perverse outcomes. The need to plant the right tree in the right place should be explicitly spelled out to those leading planting programmes, such as domestic forestry organisations.
Tree planting must be integrated with other land uses to ensure that new woodlands can have the biggest impact on climate change and reducing carbon, whilst also being in harmony with nature. Increasing woodland habitat through regeneration, and by protecting ancient and nature rich woodland from development, should lead policy.