It was striking that during the Secretary of State’s sweeping speech accompanying the publication of the Environment Bill this week she placed a lot of emphasis on the international leadership role that the UK Government seeks.
The UK Government is rightly proud of the impact of its Blue Belt programme leading to designation of marine protected areas around its Overseas Territories, it is rightly proud of its Darwin Initiative which supports conservation projects in developing countries and it is rightly proud of the work that it is doing to tackle the international wildlife crime. Equally, as it seeks to host the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow next, I am delighted that the UK plans to put a spotlight on natural solutions to climate change. That means its actions to protect peatlands at home and tropical forests abroad will be in the spotlight.
And here are two uncomfortable home truths which I hope and expect the UK to address in the coming months.
First, the continued burning of our peatlands as part of grouse moor management must end. Not only do we believe that it is unlawful (which is why we mounted a legal challenge) as it prevents the restoration of this international important habitat, it is also responsible for 75% of emissions from degraded blanket bog resulting in 262,500 tonnes CO2 being released into the atmosphere.
Second, research that the RSPB and WWF carried out has shown that between 2011-2016, the UK had an annual estimated overseas land footprint of 13.6 million hectares – an area more than half the size of the UK/six times the size of Wales/ three times the size of Liberia – to supply imports of just seven commodities: beef and leather, cocoa, palm oil, pulp and paper, rubber, soy and timber. What’s more, 44% of this footprint from UK imports is in high or very high risk areas for deforestation so clearly our own consumption patterns have major impact on global nature. That’s why, as the UK considers to set legally binding targets for nature’s recovery, it must also consider targets to reduce the UK’s ecological footprint abroad.
There are solutions. The UK is the fourth largest consumer of chocolate and we have shown that it is possible to source cocoa in ways that help keep rainforests intact and support local communities. So, to mark World Chocolate Week, I am delighted to say that we have now sold more than 5,000 bars of our own Gola chocolate through our nature reserves. We have achieved this by working with our local partners in Sierra Leone and supporting Gola farmers to grow the cocoa in harmony with the rainforest and wildlife. More than 2,000 farmers have now been trained in agroforestry techniques, farming sustainably in an ethically and environmentally conscious way. You can find out more about this work through this video.
As the UK Government develops its future environmental programme (both in parliament through the new Environment Bill and in all probability in a new manifesto in advance of an expected Westminster General election), I believe it is essential that it embraces its full environmental responsibilities by setting new ambition for tackling the ecological and climate emergency at home and reducing our own global footprint.
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