UK’s ‘poorly mixed cocktail’ of policy driving biodiversity decline, MPs warn

The UK is not treating biodiversity loss with the same urgency as the climate crisis, according to a group of MPs that have warned that current Government policies are inadequate to address a sharp decline in nature-based losses.

UK’s ‘poorly mixed cocktail’ of policy driving biodiversity decline, MPs warn

The EAC report also criticises funding cuts to public bodies and calls for the Government to increase Natural England’s multi-year funding

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has published a report on the state of UK biodiversity in relation to existing policies. The report found that of the G7 countries, the UK has the lowest level of biodiversity remaining. 

The report points the finger towards policymakers, claiming that existing frameworks to improve biodiversity were “inadequate” and that the Government lacked a joined-up approach to enshrining nature protection into legislative frameworks.

It warns that the 25 Year Environment Plan lacks ambition to meet Government commitments to improve the environment in a generation, citing a lack of clear targets. A lack of consistent data systems and poor monitoring for biodiversity metrics is also hindering progress, the EAC notes.

The EAC’s chairman, Philip Dunne MP, said: “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.”

Net-gain approach

Earlier this month, the Government agreed on a new commitment for all large infrastructure projects to be ‘nature positive’. The commitment was announced by the Treasury in its formal written response to the Dasgupta Review on valuing biodiversity.

In a bid to scale up and accelerate conservation and restoration work, the new commitment aims to support the overarching vision of ‘nature positivity’. There will be, the Treasury has promised, a new set of recommendations for departments across Whitehall to consider when developing policies. For certain sectors, including housebuilding and major infrastructure projects, there will be advice on delivering net gain for nature. The recommendations may become formally required of the new National Investment Bank (NIB), originally intended to launch in the first quarter of 2021.

While this new commitment has been welcomed by the EAC, ministers warn that the target in its current form could suffer from a lack of compliance, monitoring and non-implementation.

Other examples of poorly drawn-up plans include the Environment Bill, which recently returned to Parliament following delays. Some of the UK’s biggest nature charities have argued that amendments made to the Bill since its last reading could leave loopholes permitting further decline for the rest of this decade.

The UK’s Natural Capital Committee has also warned that the quality of the UK’s soil, freshwater and marine habitats has declined in recent years, meaning that the Government is likely to fail to meet its long-term environmental promises without a step-change in action.

Indeed, the UK has backed a global commitment to protecting 30% of its land-based, freshwater and marine habitats. Currently, some 26% of land in England is already covered by National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected statuses, meaning it is closer to the target than many other nations.

But green groups have pointed out that areas with protected status have also experienced degradation in recent years, and that restoration is now needed alongside conservation to match the urgency of the problem.

Again, the EAC welcomes this commitment; however, it concludes that protected areas in the UK are still “poorly managed”. The report notes that a timetable should be introduced to set out management plans and monitoring for all Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), with bans and restrictions introduced for bottom trawling.

The report also states that the Government should introduce measures to protect existing ecosystems such as ancient woodland and peatland, regardless of whether they are classed as protected areas or not. Due to the carbon-sequestering potential of peatland, the EAC calls for the proposed ban on the sale of peat products to be brought forward to before 2023.  

The EAC report also criticises funding cuts to public bodies and calls for the Government to increase Natural England’s multi-year funding.  

One of the key recommendations from the EAC is the creation of a natural capital baseline to accurately measure progress against nature-based goals. Ministers are also calling for mandatory disclosure of nature-related financial risks and for the UK to incorporate nature into the measurement of economic activity as a move away from GDP.

Industry reaction

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit’s climate and land programme lead Matt Williams said: “This report is a stark reminder that we are allowing ecosystems to wither and carbon to escape into the atmosphere. The UK’s landscapes are the envy of many other countries but on the ground many are in poor health. Restoring nature requires decades of work that will need to begin now if Britain is to be a global leader on nature, nurture thriving rural communities and create jobs fit for the future.

“The fate of biodiversity and the climate are inextricably linked and the Government’s commitment to put aside and restore 30% of land for nature can deliver benefits to the climate as well. It can also translate into income and opportunities for those who care for the countryside including the farmers who look after more than 70% of it. Properly rewarding them for restoring nature and helping to achieve net-zero will enable farmers to transform areas put aside for nature from lines on a map to places that flourish with wildlife and absorb dangerous carbon emissions.”

The Wildlife and Countryside Link’s chief executive Dr Richard Benwell said: “Our Government has ambitions to be top of the pack in delivering for nature, but we’re starting from the bottom of the G7 league table. There’s a long ladder to climb from being one of the most nature-depleted countries to being a wildlife world leader.

“Today’s report is right to represent this year as a critical turning point. Decisions in the Environment Bill and the Spending Review will determine whether nature continues to decline, or whether the UK can lead the world along a new path toward environment recovery. The Environment Bill must set an unambiguous target to halt nature’s decline by 2030 – a genuine “net-zero for nature” – backed by serious and sustained investment in delivery in the Spending Review.”

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Matt Mace

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