HomeNatural environmentThe government thinks it has nearly hit its nature protection target but the truth is very different

The government thinks it has nearly hit its nature protection target but the truth is very different

This post is by Baroness Parminter, chair of the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee.

At the UN Convention on Biodiversity (COP15) in 2022 our government signed up to the international ‘30×30’ commitment, to protect 30 per cent of land and sea for nature by 2030. But, with nature in serious decline in the UK and under seven years left until 2030, there is a mountain to climb to meet this target.

Our committee’s report, published yesterday, has found that protected areas on land in England are inadequate on multiple fronts: they are insufficient in both quantity and extent; they are infrequently monitored; and they are often of poor quality.

There are only seven years left to meet the target
The extent of protected areas on land that could meet the criteria for ‘30×30’ is woefully short of where it will need to be in just seven years. Currently, a maximum of just 6.5 per cent of land in England is eligible to meet the criteria, leaving at least 23.5 per cent of England to be protected to hit the target. This equates to an area one and a half times the size of Wales.

Our figure of 6.5 per cent of land in England being eligible for inclusion seems at odds with the figure given by the Secretary of State Therese Coffey in a speech last week (19 July) on 25 year environment plan progress.  She said “… 28 per cent of the UK [is] now designated as protected areas”.  Our figure is for England only, but it seems likely she is using a Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) figure which refers to land including Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and National Parks (27.8 per cent for UK and 26.4 per cent for England).

Our committee has concluded that any land included in the ‘30×30’ target must meet international criteria, including having a clear purpose for nature recovery.  National Parks and AONBs do not have a statutory purpose to protect nature. Indeed, the government last week refused to accept a cross party amendment to the Levelling Up Bill to do just that.  They can’t therefore be counted en bloc in the 30×30 target. We are also clear that, for sites to be included, they should have protection for more than 30 years.

Monitoring of sites is very poor
We were extremely concerned that no progress has been made in improving the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) over the past 13 years and by the lack of sufficient monitoring of sites on land, resulting in a lack of data to develop effective site management plans. Evidence shows only 22 per cent of SSSIs have been monitored in the past six years, which is the recommended time interval for monitoring.

We conclude that these failings must be corrected by sufficient government funding and harnessing alternative funding streams as an incentive for better management of protected areas in England. We also call for a statutory monitoring duty to be placed on Natural England, to ensure that SSSI monitoring is a priority in future.

The issues are even more acute at sea.  Evidence shows that Marine Protected Areas are very infrequently monitored. We are calling on the government to fund the expansion of marine monitoring programmes to ensure more rigorous data collection at sea. We also call for the better regulation of bottom trawling within Marine Protected Areas.

Several opportunities exist to do more
There are several untapped opportunities that could support the achievement of the ‘30×30’ target. The government should launch a consultation to identify and classify OECMs (Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures).  These are a relatively new type of protected area, agreed at the COP14 biodiversity summit, which are yet to be designated in England.

The government should also make clear which Environment Land Management schemes are best placed to offer up new protected area sites. This could make a significant contribution to ‘30×30’ if they protect nature long term.

Our report highlights the potential of Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRSs) to bring people together to agree and better manage protected areas.  But we received evidence of a lack of clarity as to how LNRSs will have due weight in the planning  system.  The government has the chance to resolve this when the Levelling Up Bill returns to parliament in September.

The committee calls on the government to rise to the challenge laid out by the target, to create more protected areas and retain and monitor existing designations to ensure that their condition improves, enough to be classified as ‘favourable’.   The promised map of sites must be accompanied by a clear plan as to how this will be achieved.  Otherwise, ‘30×30’ will be no more than a galvanising slogan for international political agreements.

You can read the committee’s report, An extraordinary challenge: restoring 30 per cent of our land and sea by 2030 and follow @HLEnviroClimate on Twitter.

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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.