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Biodiversity in the UK

‘Toothless’ government policy and targets won’t stem the tide of UK biodiversity loss
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
UK water vole

In a report released today (30 June), the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has revealed existing government policy and targets don’t adequately address plummeting biodiversity loss in the UK.

The issue is exacerbated by nature policy not being joined up across government, and nature protection not consistently factored into policy making.

The EAC is urging the government to conserve and restore UK biodiversity and ecosystems amid grave concern that of the G7 countries, the UK has the lowest level of biodiversity remaining. 

Lack of expertise

The government is not on track to improve the environment within a generation, and due to a lack of clear statutory targets, its 25 Year Environment Plan does not provide sufficient direction to change this.

While welcome, the recent biodiversity net gain policy in its current form – with the potential for a lack of compliance monitoring and non-implementation of mitigation measures – does not go far enough.

The sheer variety of data systems and inadequate monitoring, coupled with a lack of ecologist expertise in the heart of government and in local authorities, presents challenges to introduce effective mechanisms to halt biodiversity decline.

Funding cuts to bodies exacerbate this, and the EAC would like the government to consider increasing Natural England’s multi-year funding to reflect the scale of its tasks to protect nature.

‘The UK is home to many millions of species, but government inaction to protect habitats is leading to a significant decline in wildlife.

‘Although there are countless government policies and targets to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’, too often they are grandiose statements lacking teeth and devoid of effective delivery mechanisms. We have no doubt that the ambition is there, but a poorly-mixed cocktail of ambitious targets, superficial strategies, funding cuts and lack of expertise is making any tangible progress incredibly challenging.

‘All government departments must consistently factor nature into policy decisions, the Bank of England should develop a nature stress-test, and the 25-year Environment Plan must have interim statutory targets to assess progress.

‘Despite central government’s responsibility for policy decisions, the responsibility for nurturing natural habitats also rests with each and every citizen. Work to embed nature into the national curriculum, and to inspire the ecologists of the future, is absolutely crucial if we are to protect biodiversity effectively for generations to come.’

Environmental Audit Committee chairman

Protecting ecosystems

The government has pledged to protect 30% of the UK’s land and seas by 2030, but UK protected areas are currently poorly managed.

For seas, a timetable should set out management plans and monitoring for all Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), with destructive bottom trawling banned or restricted and effective monitoring introduced to establish if habitats are recovering.

The government should protect existing ecosystems such as ancient woodland and peatlands given their benefits as nature-based solutions for climate change.

Much more needs to be done to lock in carbon in these areas, and the EAC is calling for the proposed ban on the sale of peat products to be brought forward to as soon as possible before 2023.

‘Whether it’s failing to properly protect our oceans, allowing deforestation in supply chains to continue, or supporting new nature-destroying developments, this government is failing to match its rhetoric with action to protect our planet. Transformative change to reverse nature’s decline, as recommended by the Environmental Audit Committee’s scathing report, requires much more than standing on a podium spouting fine words.

‘We need legally binding short-term targets, proper enforcement of environmental protections on land and at sea, with the funding to match, and a fundamental overhaul of government policy and legislation which puts nature at the heart of decision-making. The next 12 months present a once in a generation opportunity to reverse our destruction of nature, with key political summits on climate and biodiversity looming large. We need to see urgent and tangible domestic action to ensure the UK can effectively encourage other countries to step up with us in tackling the nature and climate emergencies.’

Head of politics at Greenpeace UK

Moving beyond GDP

The EAC found that all too often, governments spend more on practices that exploit the natural environment than conserving it. The government must urgently establish a natural capital baseline to measure progress against environmental goals.

It should also legislate for mandatory disclosure of nature-related financial risks.

The government should explain how it intends to move beyond GDP as the primary measure of economic activity and towards an additional measure which includes consideration of the UK’s natural capital.

A new fiscal rule should be set focused on balancing our demands on nature with nature’s supply.

Biodiversity in decision-making

Overall, the EAC found that biodiversity loss was not being treated with the same urgency and ambition as climate change.

Countering the collapse in biodiversity must be raised up the political agenda and be factored into decision-making across the public and private sector.

The EAC noted that we have seen a shift towards this with climate change: the same is possible for biodiversity.

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