There’s a reality gap in the government’s promise to protect 30 per cent of land for nature

This post is by Kate Jennings, head of sites and species policy at the RSPB.

A new peer reviewed paper, published today, looking at the state of protected areas across the UK concludes that, instead of the 28 per cent claimed by the UK government, as little as 11.9 per cent of the UK’s land area is protected for nature, and that less than half of that may be effectively protected for nature. In 2022, governments from around the world will come together to commit to a new set of global targets for nature under the Convention on Biological Diversity. True to its stated appetite to be a “world leader for nature” the UK has already committed to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and to protect 30 per cent of land and sea for nature’s recovery by 2030 (‘30 by 30’), a target that is set to feature in the new global agreement.

This is to be celebrated, but in one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth there is a real concern about the gap between rhetoric and reality. The past performance of successive UK governments serves only to reinforce these concerns.

A year ago, the RSPB published A lost decade for nature, which showed that the UK failed to meet seventeen of the twenty global biodiversity targets that were meant to be achieved by 2020. This includes the target to protect and effectively manage 17 per cent of the UK’s land for nature by 2020. We found that the UK had over inflated the area of land protected for nature, and that few of these areas are being effectively managed, with many in poor condition.

Even protected areas are in a poor condition
The most concerning aspect of the new paper, published today in Global ecology and conservation, is that around half of the areas currently ‘protected’ primarily for nature are in poor condition (these are Sites and Areas of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation and Ramsar sites). Whilst shocking, this is not surprising given that there have been significant declines in monitoring, resourcing, staffing and enforcement for protected areas across all four countries of the UK over the past decade. 

The paper finds that only 11.9 per cent of the UK is protected primarily for nature. Given the poor condition of many of these areas, its authors conclude that, despite the government reporting that 28 per cent of land is already protected for nature, as little as 4.9 per cent may, in fact, be effectively protected. This shows how far the UK has to go in meeting its ‘30 by 30’ target and that transformative action by all the governments of the UK will be needed.

The authors recommend that “future targets and indicators need to focus on the quality as well as quantity of protected areas.” Robust standards, monitoring, and reporting will be needed at both the global and country levels to ensure that, under the new global and domestic targets, only protected areas that are effectively managed for nature can be counted towards government targets. These sites are our reservoirs of nature – the refuges from which many of our most vulnerable species must be recovered – so managing and protecting them as effectively as possible is vital.

Other areas need protecting too
With so little of the UK’s land protected primarily for nature, there is an urgent need to protect the best of the rest.  But, to reach the target, the UK will also need to protect and secure the effective management and recovery of additional areas with high restoration potential for nature.

Our protected landscapes, such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) could, with appropriate reforms, have a major role to play here.  The paper highlights that protected landscapes are not currently designated primarily for nature and it questions whether they should count towards the ‘30 by 30’ target.

These landscapes cannot contribute to the target in their entirety because they include, for example, towns, villages and areas of intensively managed land. However, they do hold a significant proportion of land that is important for recovering nature and storing carbon. Many of those who run these landscapes have a proven track record of habitat restoration, despite their current lack of powers and resources. The AONBs’ Colchester Declaration and National Parks England’s Nature Recovery Delivery Plan demonstrate their ambitions for nature. 

More powers and resources are vital to reach ‘30 by 30’
To enable protected landscapes to contribute significant areas of land towards the ‘30 by 30’ target, governments across the UK need to equip them with the powers and resources they need to secure effective protection and management of land for nature. In England, long promised action by the government to implement the recommendations of the 2019 Glover Landscapes review, which included giving these places a “renewed mission to recover and enhance nature”, provides the obvious opportunity to do this.

And, likewise, not rolling back existing protections for sites is essential for them to provide a meaningful contribution to the target. The UK government has confirmed that it will publish a Green Paper in the autumn aimed at looking at how to achieve ‘30 by 30’ alongside a range of other issues. Worryingly, this includes looking at and potentially changing the Habitats Regulations.

Given we are in a nature and climate emergency, we must look for ways to strengthen and build on our existing protections, to preserve the remnants of our biodiversity, and guard against any attempt to weaken them.

Indeed, if the UK is to meet its global and national commitment to ‘30 by 30’ and ensure that protected areas and landscapes play a pivotal role in halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity, significant immediate action and investment is needed. Delivering this is the responsibility of all four governments of the UK and a step change in the policies of all of them will be needed to achieve it and, in so doing, to take a major step towards halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity in the UK.

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