2020 was branded a Super Year with major global agreements due to be struck on climate and nature but the Covid-19 pandemic arrived and changed our world. 

While the political stakes have increased as a result of the economic crisis, there are some things that have not changed: the parlous state of nature and the urgent need for action.

If anything, the pandemic has heightened the sense of challenge, opportunity and jeopardy for us and for nature.  This was put into stark focus this week by the Prime Minister’s “Build, Build, Build” speech and the disappointment and anger it generated (see for example here and here).  I’ll return to this at the end of this blog, but I want to first look at the bigger picture.

The global context

Covid-19 has resulted in the postponement of the two key international summits planned for 2020, the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in China, and 26th COP for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow.  Understandably, governments all over the world are distracted as they struggle to deal with the crisis whilst international relationships between China and the US have soured further in a Covid-19 blame game. 

International finance, critical to drive ambition in multilateral processes, will for some considerable time be focussed on tackling the health crisis and its aftermath.  On the other hand, there is now a growing awareness of the huge risks posed by ignoring environmental risks, and an increased understanding of the links between human health and well-being and nature, as a result of analysis of the links between zoonotic disease origin, habitat degradation and loss, and the trade in wild animals. 

As demonstrated by the latest excellent webinar convened by BirdLife International yesterday, there is an appetite for investing in a green recovery from governments in many different parts of the world (ranging from New Zealand, Costa Rica, France and potentially even the USA) and a visible and urgent need for deeper international co-operation to tackle shared challenges.   But will this fizzle out or snowball into transformational change?

The global challenge

We need all nations to think and act differently and multi-lateral agreements can create momentum for change.  We have seen that in climate change talks.  For the UN global deal for nature to have impact, it needs high ambition goals and targets, clear accountability processes, and to be properly resourced.  The latest draft of the framework emerged on Monday and there are some good, bad and ugly elements.

In terms of ambition, there must be SMART-er targets to ensure we bend the curve and put nature on a path to recovery  by 2030.  These targets must not only reflect our desire to prevent extinction, restore population abundance, and maintain/restore habitat extent and integrity but be matched/supported by sufficiently ambitious action and  targets to address the drivers of loss especially relating to land/sea use and consumption.

In terms of accountability, there is still no standardised way for governments to interpret global targets, translate into domestic law, and report progress against the targets.  Unless or until we are able to compare and contrast progress made by different nations, it will be hard to hold them to account and the system will remain wholly opaque.

In terms of financing, despite the need to agree resources at the same time as targets in 2021, the CBD remains worryingly silent on this.  While this is partly understandable because of global economic crisis caused by the pandemic, unless or until there are serious conversations about mobilising resources to back the ambition in the global targets, it will (once again) over-promise and under-deliver.

The opportunity at home

While the negotiations around the global framework  have a long way to go, I am confident that the UK Government will support the final plan to be adopted at COP15 (probably to May 2021) and we hope it will be fit for purpose.  Governments across the UK will then be obliged to transpose this ambition domestically.  Fortunately, the UK Government already has a vehicle to do this and has pledged to establish targets to drive nature’s recovery in law through the Environment Bill (which primarily applies to England). This is a crucial opportunity to think global while taking action locally and would demonstrate the UK Government’s commitment to global leadership for nature.  As I wrote last month, we need this legislation to return as quickly as possible so that it can complete its passage through Parliament and then ensure that the global ambition is reflected in the national targets for species, habitats and protected areas.

The jeopardy

Achieving the above will be great news for wildlife, but count for nought if the decisions taken to reboot the economy trample over our environmental laws and ambition.  The announcement of £40m for shovel-ready conservation projects in the Prime Minister’s "build, build, build" speech was welcome but clearly short of what is needed.  Yet, it was a fundamental mistake to view species and environmental protections as a drag on our economy as the Prime Minister did when he said in his and that “The newt counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country”.  This was not a jest that can be easily discounted.  It was a loaded comment with (as I wrote on Sunday) a decade of history.

Countless reviews have shown that implemented well these nature and environmental laws and the planning system can guide good development.  Far from being the barrier to economic recovery that some frame them as, these regulations maintain the economic value of the sites and species they protect. 

We need an enlightened approach to rebooting our economy - one that puts action to restore nature and tackle climate change at the heart of the recovery. 

Without that, global ambitions for nature will be seriously undermined before they are even set.