The Prime Minister is due to make a major intervention this week outlining a ten-point plan to tackle climate change and create new green jobs. Some of the content was trailed at the weekend and this included £40m new money for habitat restoration, new national parks and ten new landscape plans (all in England) recognising the growing importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from land.
This new plan follows a flurry of other announcements this month which means we are in a better position to assess how the Government is doing against the excellent new pledge for nature which the Prime Minister signed up to alongside 76 other world leaders. This Leaders’ Pledge is designed to cajole a coalition of the willing to deliver tangible action for nature in the run up to two crucial global summits for nature and the climate in 2021.
Of course, the UK Government scorecard received a massive boost on Friday with the announcement of the new Marine Protection Zone around Tristan da Cunha meaning that the UK Government has now exceeded its Blue Belt target with 4.3 million sq km now protected - c1% of all the world’s ocean. This is tremendous news and exactly the sort of political leadership we need.
My assessment below is inevitably partial, is (with apologies) very Westminster-focused but my intention is to encourage everyone to use the Pledge as a reference against which to judge political performance. This will be increasingly important as the UK hosts the global climate change summit in Glasgow next year.
Clearly, this is an area where there is lots more to do. The £40m green recovery fund announced earlier in the year will, as a result of the Prime Minister’s intervention this weekend, now be doubled but is still significantly less than what is needed. Wildlife and Countryside Link estimate we would need at least £1.01 billion annual investment in priority terrestrial and marine habitat creation and restoration. As reported last week, we expect the results of the single year Spending Review on 25 November and we have outlined our priorities including:
So, we should all keep an eye on the Chancellor’s budget statement on 25 November but also be vigilant to thwart any attempts to relax environmental protections, for example as a result of the UK Government’s Project Speed.
And it is also worth keeping an eye on what others are saying. For example, the Labour Party this week launched their own plan for a Green Economic Recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes a National Nature Service employment programme which they suggest could lead to the creation of 400,000 green jobs – including 15,000 in 2021 alone.
While we await from the UN the next draft of the global plan for nature, the Prime Minister’s commitment to delivering 30% of land (as well as sea) in England to be protected by 2030 was welcome. We have not had equivalent commitments from the devolved governments, yet this is the level of ambition we need. But, as I have written previously, this must not be a paper exercise of slightly redrawing existing lines on a map – an impression reinforced again by this weekend’s announcement about new national parks. We need to care about the fate of wildlife within those protected areas and that requires a six-fold increase in delivery given that just 5% of UK land is currently is in favourable condition. And that’s why the Blue Belt announcement last week was so important as it provides the resources required the make the protection meaningful.
As the next UN draft of the global plan emerges, we will not only be keeping an eye on the targets, but also the mechanisms established to hold nations to account and ensure financial commitments are adequate.
In parallel, of course, we want to ensure any global targets are enshrined in domestic legislation which is we are delighted that the Environment Bill (see below) has, at last, returned to Westminster as this will provide the obligations to set and report against nature targets.
This is one of the most welcome commitments in the pledge as we need consistent and coherent from governments tackling the climate and nature emergency in an integrated fashion. It’s why we are so supportive of the renewed focus on restoring peatland, woodlands and coastal habitats to help reduce emissions from land use and help wildlife recover. Yet, it is maddening that some of our most important wildlife sites are still threatened with development for example the risk to RSPB Minsmere from Sizewell C. And, the UK Government has still not grasped the scale of the challenge of meeting the offshore renewable energy targets while protecting our internationally important seabird populations which are at risk from construction of wind turbines in ecologically sensitive locations. Ecological impacts have to be assessed, for example, when the UK considers awarding new contracts for energy developments.
The two most significant and relevant developments this week were the enactment of the Agriculture Bill and announcement of amendments to the Environment Bill on measures to reduce deforestation from the supply chains of UK companies.
Two years since it was first introduced to Westminster, the Agriculture Bill finally received Royal Assent this week and became the Agriculture Act. This represents the most important piece of farming related legislation in decades, and enshrines the principle of ‘Public Money for Public Goods’ into law - which will be hugely beneficial for nature by putting sustainability at the heart of all future decisions on the direction of agricultural subsidies.
We have been particularly pleased to see the Bill’s list of ‘public goods’ remain intact and focused on genuine environmental goods, such as wildlife, air and water quality. We are also glad that the Government has agreed to make major concessions on the legal standing of the Trade Standards Commissions which will hopefully help prevent an influx of low-welfare, unsustainable goods entering the UK via post-Brexit trade deals.
However, we will need to continue to hold the UK Government to account as it now looks towards implementing these reforms – in particular the amount of funding that will be directed to each tier of Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes, and what these tiers will entail. And, we need to ensure that the subsidy systems for all four nations of the UK are joined up and are similarly ambitious.
While this should reform land use at home, this week the UK Government also made commitments to reduce our ecological footprint abroad. It published an amendment on due diligence in the Environment Bill to address deforestation in UK commodity supply chains. This is very significant and hugely welcome. With WWF, we have reported that it now takes an area equivalent to 88% of the UK’s total land area to fill demand for the seven commodities which also include pulp and paper, beef and leather, and rubber – potentially threatening over 2,800 globally threatened species. To operationalise this, the UK Government will also need to urgently introduce secondary legislation in 2021. More work is needed to get the detail right but this is a great step forward.
We may be in a better position to assess the Prime Minister’s ambition in this area after Wednesday's announcement, but the thing to look out for over the coming months will be the target that the UK Government sets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from land use as part of its Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC Paris Agreement. Two key tests will be whether the UK Government takes action to end the burning of vegetation on peatlands and bans the sale of peat for horticulture use.
I am twinning these together because the significant spotlight on the negative impacts of gamebird shooting over recent months. While the UK Government has made commendable efforts to combat the international illegal wildlife trade, there has been insufficient attention given to the ongoing and systemic illegal killing of birds of prey especially linked to driven grouse moor management. It is one of the reasons why we are redoubling our efforts to secure a system of licensing for driven grouse shooting which would mandate minimum environmental standards which if breached could result in losing the right to shoot.
Yet, the UK Government has in recent days made two important interventions to influence the future of shooting in this country in response to legal challenges from Wild Justice.
First, Defra has made the welcome decision to introduce a licensing system for releases of non-native pheasants and red-legged partridges within European protected sites and within a 500m buffer zone around these sites. While this is subject to consultation, this is significant progress and clearly acknowledges the negative direct and indirect effects on the environment from the release of c60m non-native birds.
Second, Defra has finally issued new General Licences to allow for the control of certain species of birds for the purposes of conservation, health and safety and to prevent serious damage. These new licences contain some key differences from the previous one. For example, rooks and jackdaws have been completely removed from the conservation licence. This is to be welcomed as there has never been any evidence that predation by these species has a conservation level impact on any other species. Unfortunately, not all inappropriate species have been removed from the new licences so there is still work to do on that front. Crucially, two key sections of the new licences are missing, Defra is yet to publish the details about the use of these licences on protected sites and the conditions around the use of traps. These are important details and we shall wait to see what else emerges before lending our full support.
Of course, Shooting is just one industry that needs to reform. We believe that all commercial land uses will need to change if we are to have a chance to combat the climate and nature emergency.
The prospect of an effective vaccine to tackle Covid-19 suggests there may be light at the end of the very dark tunnel that we have been stuck in for many months. Yet, as we emerge we have to remember that nature provided solace during lockdown – relieving anxiety, boredom and stress – and that the virus almost certainly emerged because of the way we treat nature. The recent Inter-governmental Panel of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report estimated “the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100x LESS than the cost of responding to such pandemics”. These are important reminders of why we must invest in nature.
In many ways, this is the Holy Grail. Get it right and theoretically that would end environmentally destructive decisions. The Environment Bill, which continued its passage through Parliament this week following an absence of more than 200 days, has the potential to be transformative. But there is a lot of work to do before it fulfils its billing as a world-leading piece of legislation. The Commons Bill Committee has so far blocked improvements to the Environmental Improvement plans, environmental principles, and supply of clean and plentiful water clauses. Improvements to the independence and strength of the Office for Environment Protection (OEP) have also been rejected. In fact, the Government has inserted new clauses that give them greater powers to influence the work of the OEP by issuing enforcement guidance that it has to have regard to. This all matters. We need strong environmental principles such as “the polluter pays” and the “precautionary principle” as well as robust governance to hold government to account. The Environment is THE opportunity to change the way we do business. We won’t give up though and will continue to work with our colleagues in Greener UK and parliamentarians to make the improvements needed.
It is to the Prime Minister’s credit that he seems more prepared to talk about action to tackle the nature crisis than any of his predecessors. Yet, actions need to match the fine words. This is why we shall continue to assess the tangible progress his Government is making. We want and need all political leaders to be successful. While we shall offer our support and do what we can to play our part through our practical conservation work, we shall also hold them to account when they fall short. It is what our members expect and why I urge you, if you haven’t already done so, to support our campaign to Revive our World.
*Katie Nethercoat's image (rspb-images.com) of a starling murmuration off Brighton Pier, while beautiful, reminds us of the scale of the challenge. Starlings have declined by 89% in my life time.
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