On pages 356-360 of the much anticipated and hotly debated Withdrawal Agreement is a section called “Non-regression in the level of environmental protection”.  It is notable for two reasons…

…it provides meticulous detail on how the four countries of the UK must maintain the environmental principles, access to justice, laws, monitoring, compliance and enforcement arrangements that are currently provided by the European Union

…it sets the standard for any future trade deal with the EU and arguably any other nation

This is why my initial public statement on Wednesday night started “Today’s deal signals promising commitments to maintain environmental standards”.  Yet, my subsequent reticence (“unless these are given legal force in any agreement on the EU-UK relationship, we could still see a disastrous weakening of protections for wildlife”) reflected the urgency to pass domestic laws guaranteeing the promises made in the Agreement.  I concluded by saying “If the Government is to fulfil its promise of delivering a ‘green Brexit’ it will also need to bring forward binding targets for the recovery of nature”.

This legal impetus needs to be backed up by finance and action to radically improve the management of our land and seas.  Without this, the UK’s ambition to restore nature in a generation will surely fail.  Here are two recent, stark examples of the challenges we face to fulfil this pledge. 

First, ten days ago Defra published the latest wild bird indicators report which not only reminds everyone of the dramatic the changes that have taken place since 1970 but also highlights how farmland birds (7%), woodland birds (5%) and even seabirds (6%) have declined in the last five years.  Even with existing levels of protection and funding we have failed to halt the loss of biodiversity, let alone make a serious progress with its recovery.  That’s why we need a radical rethink in the way we manage our farmland, woodland and marine environment – existing policies and subsidies need reform. 

Second, a conference in Norwich celebrating the impact of a five year EU Life funded project to recover the UK little tern population shows what it takes to halt decline and begin the process of recovery.  By building a strong partnership of ten organisations working with over 250 volunteers at 26 colony sites and 16 Special Protection Areas, we’ve managed to slow the population decline on the sites we have worked on while also improving productivity at two-thirds of the sites.  Next year, the partnership will launch a little tern recovery plan which will showcase our recipe for success and hopefully maintain the momentum that has been created over the past five years.  While there is much to celebrate from this project, the impetus was provided by EU Life funding which will be harder to access if/when we leave the EU and it is abundantly clear that we have a huge amount still to do before these conservation-dependent species have a sustainable future.

Little tern with chicks on Norfolk beach (Kevin Simmonds, rspb-images.com)

And then there is the other important backdrop to the febrile atmosphere at Westminster and in Brussels. 

This week, governments and NGOs meet in Sharm El-Sheikh for the fourteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.  This is an important milestone before the crucial meeting in China in 2020 when we hope that an ambitions global deal will be agreed to save nature. 

Everyone knows that current efforts are inadequate to halt biodiversity loss – the stats about the state of nature bear this out.  So, the message to all – whether a Member of the EU or not – is that we must do more to drive nature’s recovery.  No-one wants regression – what we need is environmental progress.

And, for the UK, that starts by agreeing new laws that set ambitious and binding targets that politicians must meet. 

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