Trees, peat and net-zero: UK to enshrine new nature goals in law

A string of strategy updates has been published by the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) today (18 May) ahead of the Environment Bill’s long-awaited return to Parliament later this month.

Chief among them is more detail on amendments to the Bill which will add legally binding targets on biodiversity, air quality, water stewardship and waste – in a similar fashion to the UK’s net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions. These amendments were first confirmed last August and green groups have been pushing for further details.

In a speech later today, Environment Secretary George Eustice will announce that such targets will come into force next year and bear a 2030 deadline. The headline commitment will be a commitment to “halt the decline of wildlife and nature”. In practice, this means net-zero habitat loss or species decline.

Supporting the delivery of this target will be a new Species Reintroduction Taskforce, covering England. Landowners, NGOs and nature experts will sit on the Taskforce. It will be tasked with introducing declining species to both past habitats and new areas, including beavers and wildcats.

Eustice will call the amendments to the Environment Bill “a world-leading measure in the year of COP15 and COP26 as we build back greener from the pandemic”.

The move comes at a time when the UK is off-track to deliver against its pledge to improve nature for the next generation. edie has seen reports that the Environment Bill will return to Parliament next Wednesday (26 May).

Trees, please

In tandem with the Environment Bill update, Defra has announced a pledge to treble tree planting over the course of this Parliament, to at least 7,000 hectares of woodlands per year by 2024.

The target has been set in law through the England Trees Action Plan, developed after a consultation that took place last summer, receiving more than 20,400 responses.

Funding for the Plan will come from the UK’s £500m Nature for Climate Fund. Other than boosting tree planting rates, the function of the Plan is to ensure that native species are prioritised and allocated in a way that mimics natural processes of falling and germinating. Defra said in a statement that its priorities are to maintain high levels of biosecurity, ensuring that trees are resilient to increasing threats such as pests, diseases and temperature increase.

A strategy for peat 

Also published today is the England Peat Action Plan. Like the England Trees Action Plan, it will be financed through the Nature for Climate Fund, to the tune of £50m between now and 2024.

A key commitment of the Plan is to ban the sale of peat products, including compost, by May 2024. A consultation will launch later this year to determine the specifics of the phase-out. Several retailers have already banned peat products on a voluntary basis, including Dobbies Garden Centres (which has a 2022 target) and the Co-op. A legally mandated ban would affect two million cubic metres of peat-based compost per year, according to the ECIU.

The Plan also provides an updated map of peatland habitats in England and their current levels of degradation. This will be used to inform where funding should be allocated and what shape key projects should take.

UK peatlands store more than three billion tonnes of carbon, which is around three times more than UK woodlands. However, research suggests that just 20% of UK peatlands are still in a natural state, with farming and forestry contributing to the deterioration. The Government has been accused by green groups of failing to lay the foundations for plans to restore at least 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025.

Green economy reaction

Responding to today’s announcements, Friends of the Earth trees campaigner Danny Gross called the England Trees Action Plan a “rehash” of the government’s existing “unambitious” target to increase woodland cover to 12% by 2025.

“The government needs to set a much more ambitious long-term tree cover target that matches the scale of the climate and nature crisis,” Gross said. “This means at least doubling tree cover, but not at the cost of other natural habitats like peatland or wildflower meadows, and supporting farmers to grow more trees.”

The Group’s nature campaigner Paul de Zylva was more optimistic about the England Peat Action Plan. He said: “This plan looks encouraging and could be worth the wait, with an end to the selling of peat for gardening use in sight. A decade ago Ministers pledged to end peat sales by 2020, but they must now hit their new 2024 target date and not let things drift again.

“We may also be closer to an end to the reckless burning of peat moorlands. But plans to restore damaged peatlands are still too vague. Restoration is needed at scale now to stop carbon leaking back into the atmosphere – which just undermines the government’s efforts against climate breakdown.”

On peat, Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) chief executive Richard Benwell added: “The Government’s intention to phase out the use of horticultural peat is excellent. Previous efforts have failed, so we hope the Government will expedite consultation to ensure that new regulations are agreed this year.

“35,000 hectares of peatland restoration is a really welcome start, but this is only around 5% of England’s peat.  Further regulation to stop wildlife destruction, incentives to reward regeneration, and public investment in restoration will all be needed in the years ahead. Not only is peatland restoration great for wildlife and climate, it’s also a fantastic opportunity for Government to create green jobs in areas with higher unemployment as part of levelling up plans.”

WCL was more optimistic about the Environment Bill update, with Benwell calling the new targets “a tremendously important milestone toward world-leading environmental law”.

The ECIU’s programme lead for the climate and land programme, Matt Williams, said the Tree and Peat strategies could only be described as “a start”, with targets below those recommended by the Climate Change Committee.

Sarah George

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