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How to make the ‘30×30’ target work for nature

This post is by Dr Daniela Russi, senior policy manager at the British Ecological Society.

The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. We need urgent action to reverse biodiversity loss, and protected areas can play a pivotal role in protecting and restoring nature. For this reason, the government has pledged to protect 30 per cent of the country’s land and sea for nature recovery by 2030 (known as the ‘30×30’ target). This is in line with many other national and international pledges, and the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland governments have also endorsed the target.

For this target to be the timely and valuable window of opportunity it needs to be, the effectiveness of protected areas will have to increase significantly through improved management, enforcement and monitoring.

The British Ecological Society has just published a new report which analyses the state of UK protected areas, how their effectiveness should be improved to support nature’s recovery, and the criteria that protected areas should meet to count towards the 30×30 target.

The target has almost been reached, but many protected areas are not effective
Protected areas include statutory protected sites, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ), and protected landscapes, such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). Protected sites cover about 11 per cent of UK land and 38 per cent of UK seas, whereas protected landscapes cover about 17 per cent of UK land. In other words, we have almost reached the target for terrestrial protected areas and exceeded it for marine protected areas.

However, many protected areas are not effective at protecting nature, due to both internal and external pressures, and insufficient funding. A recent study calculated that only between 43 and 51 per cent of UK statutory protected sites are in a favourable condition. In other words, effectively protected sites actually cover only around five per cent of UK land. At sea, another report found that bottom trawling (an extremely destructive fishing practice) is taking place in 98 per cent of the UK’s offshore marine protected areas. The UK government has announced bylaws to ban bottom trawling in four out of the 76 UK offshore marine protected areas, which is a step in the right direction, but more initiatives like this are urgently needed.

Right now protected landscapes can’t count towards 30×30
An article published in 2018 found that SSSIs outside England’s National Parks and AONBs were more likely to be in favourable condition than those inside them. Protected landscapes are often not adequately funded and, in general, they do not have biodiversity protection as their primary objective. In fact, they were originally established to safeguard landscapes, natural heritage and public access to nature, not biodiversity.

For this reason, protected landscapes should not be counted towards the 30×30 target, but they do have great potential to contribute to nature recovery, as they cover nearly a fifth of UK land, have existing governance structures and good relationships with local communities and land managers. If they were more adequately funded and repurposed to ensure nature recovery, they could count towards meeting the target in future years.

Other effective area-based conservation measures could help meet the target
Besides protected areas, ‘other effective area-based conservation measures’, known as OECMs, could help meet the 30×30 target. OECMs do not have biodiversity protection as their primary objective, but they are managed in ways that result in long term benefits to biodiversity. OECMs are still an emerging concept, but they could play an important role in nature conservation and recovery, as they often result from bottom-up initiatives and are supported by local communities. Examples of OECMs are military grounds, traditional agricultural systems, protected water catchments, hunting reserves and locally managed marine areas where damaging activities are restricted.

A good example of an OECM is Scapa Flow (324.5 km2), in Northern Scotland, protected because of German and British battleship wrecks that were scuttled during First and Second World Wars. The strict protection provided to the historical wrecks in the area also protects the benthic ecosystems in the area, resulting in thriving maerl beds, flame shell beds, horse mussel reefs and fan shells.

We need qualifying criteria for the 30×30 target
The British Ecological Society’s new report has outlined the following four criteria that protected areas (both protected sites and landscapes) and OECMs should meet before they can count towards meeting the 30×30 target:

  1. Long term biodiversity protection against internal and external pressures
  2. Improved ecological resilience
  3. Effective management and monitoring
  4. Effective governance and engagement of local communities

The UK’s current network of terrestrial and marine protected areas already plays an important role in protecting UK biodiversity, as nature would be considerably more depleted without them. For example, banning dredging and trawling in Lyme Bay Marine Protected Area has resulted in positive changes in species richness and abundance, besides increasing fishing yields of scallops and brown crabs both inside and outside the area.

However, to achieve greater ecological and societal benefits, protected areas need more long term financing, better management and increased monitoring. The government’s pledge to protect 30 per cent of UK land and sea is welcome, but it has to follow through and really provide protection for biodiversity, if it is to reverse the decline in UK nature.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.