Today I am speaking at a conference on “Securing Our Natural Environment for Future Generations” organised by the British Ecological Society and the UK Conservation Agencies. I was asked to give a perspective on future directions for nature conservation and I shall be basing my remarks on this extended essay shown below. Have a read and let me know what you think.


In 30 months’ time, we hope and expect that world leaders will gather in China for the crucial meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). As well as reflecting on the current state of the world’s wildlife they will agree fresh goals to protect and restore biodiversity.

In this presentation, I want to propose what it will look like if we are winning the battle to save nature, comment on how well we are currently doing, remind us what we already have that underpins nature conservation and finally make some recommendations about what we need to do to take us toward our goal.

What does winning look like?

I start with some assumptions and beliefs. My assumptions are that…

…there is consensus that our goal is to keep common species common, recover threatened species and maintain the essential services that nature gives us for free (such as the storage or sequestration of carbon). People will have different motivations (from moral through to utilitarian) for protecting our natural world, but this goal reflects what I believe it means to live in harmony with nature.

…you agree with Professor Sir John Lawton that the best way to make space for nature is by delivering more, bigger, better and connected land/seascapes with protected areas at their heart, but that targeted action for some species is essential

…those of us in the room are more interested in biogeography rather than geopolitics – for example we are motivated to protect swifts whether they fly in Stirling, Swindon or Sierra Leone.

My beliefs are that first, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the CBD targets provide the best framework for addressing these challenges and second that the UK must be prepared to contribute its fair share to the global endeavour by…

…meeting these targets at home and in the UK Overseas Territories

…working with others to tackle the threats wherever our nature goes

…reducing our ecological footprint abroad

…playing a leadership role in driving global ambition for saving nature ahead of the CBD CoP, helping to save the world’s biodiversity hotspots, tackling climate change and ending poverty/hunger.

Given these assumptions and beliefs, we need to at least acknowledge the current debate about how much of the planet needs protecting and restoring.

EO Wilson cites growing evidence that to prevent a major extinction event, half of the Earth needs to be set aside for nature. Others have adapted this to reflect the needs of people and say that "nature needs half". Whichever end of the telescope you choose to look through, I would contest that we need to prevent the conversion and destruction of any more of our intact, high biodiversity value ecosystems (and also their carbon stores) and this must be based on the people who live and work in these places. We need a bold target for restoration both for nature and the climate.

The current head of the CBD, Cristiana Pasca Palmer has sought to reconcile these competing theories and suggested half the Earth should be restored or protected, the other half sustainably managed – the idea of HE + SHE = WE (Half Earth protected + Sustainably Managed Half Earth = Whole Earth).

People will be central to achieving this ambition. Yet, we need to change the way we produce and consume, to reduce pressure on habitats and species. If demand (both from developed countries like the UK but also from a growing global population) continues to spiral for products that drive land conversion and unsustainable exploitation, it’s not going to be possible to achieve Cristiana’s bold vision because we will always be swimming against the tide. This is what makes the transformation of the agriculture and food and fisheries sectors, along with changes in attitudes and behaviours, central to any meaningful effort to save nature.

For the sake of argument, I propose that we will be winning the global battle to save nature if

…the total area protected or restored for nature is 50% of the planet by 2050. Given that the current target (Aichi target 11) is for 17% of land and 10% of sea to be protected and well managed by 2020, good milestones might be 30% by 2030 and 40% by 2040.

…no species goes extinct by 2050

…we have prevented catastrophic climate change reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that global temperature rises are no more than 1.5 degrees C above pre industrial levels

…people’s prosperity and well being improves

Where are we now?

In terms of UK protected area coverage, the UK Government reports that c28% of land is currently within designated land. These include protected landscapes such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (so called IUCN category V protected areas) which is entirely consistent with the scope of the CBD ambition. Yet, if you focus on our most important sites - the Natura 2000 network – then coverage is 8.6% of UK land area and 14.4% of the UK’s marine area. However, if favourable condition assessments are taken into account (which sadly are not up to date across the UK), the percentage of land actually well managed for nature might be nearer 5%.

In terms of species, in 2016, the State of Nature report indicated that 56% of species for which we have trend data have declined in the past 40-50 years. What’s more, the abundance of common species has declined: an index of species’ status, based on abundance and occupancy data, has fallen by 16% since 1970. This is based on data for 2,501 terrestrial and freshwater species in the UK. The farmland bird index – a good proxy indicator of status of species in the wider countryside - was less than half its 1970 value. What’s more there has been a decline of c8% this decade.

Government’s own data suggest that the relative abundance of threatened species had declined to 32% since 1970 with an 18% decline this decade. Some species such as willow tit and turtle dove (our fastest declining resident and migratory bird respectively) are in freefall with over 90% declines in the past 15 years.

UK also has responsibility for 14 overseas territories which provide homes for 94% of our endemic species, a third of the world’s breeding albatross, a quarter of the world’s penguins and the world’s largest coral atoll. While we do not have a comprehensive assessment of the state of nature in the UKOTs, we do know that 85% of the critically endangered species for which the UK is responsible are in the OTs. While only 4.8% of the total land area of the OTs is currently protected the UKOTs now boast the fifth largest marine zone in the world with Blue Belt commitments underway to protect 4 million km2 of ocean by 2020.

The global biodiversity context is also deeply challenging. Last month BirdLife International published the State of the World’s Birds with the headline that 1 in 8 birds are at risk of extinction with 74% of threatened birds found in forests. This is not surprising given that seven million hectares of forest are destroyed each year, driven by global demand for timber, paper and land for commodity crops and biofuels.

Yet, some of this global demand is created by us - UK citizens. 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.

What do we currently have in place to underpin nature conservation?

Even though these stats remain alarming and pressures on the natural world are growing, many of the building blocks for nature’s recovery are already in place. We have…

…governments across Britain (and I do mean Britain given that the Northern Ireland Assembly is in a period of non-existence) with strong political commitments to protect and restore nature backed up by a strong environmental, legal and governance framework which has evolved during our membership of the European Union and which we must fight to retain intact

…financial incentives – such as agri-environment schemes which encourage nature friendly farming -and financial commitments to address global environmental challenges. For example, the UK has pledged £5.8 billion through its International Climate Fund (ICF) for the period April 2016 to April 2021. This all comes out of the 0.7% of GDP ODA commitment and it is designed to support both climate mitigation and adaptation activities and the aim was to spend about 20% on forests.

…a passionate and diverse nature conservation sector with knowledge and experience of transforming landscapes (eg Wallasea, Lakenheath, Cairngorms), restoring threatened species (such as white-tailed eagle, red kite, cirl bunting or stone curlew), eradicating non-native species to restore seabird populations (eg on Lundy, St Agnes and Gugh, the Shiants and South Georgia) and meeting the needs of both nature and people (whether it is reversing the decline of farmland birds while mantaining profitable farming as at Hope Farm or developing a wildlife friendly brand of chocolate by supporting cocoa farmers living within the Greater Gola Landscape of West Africa).

…four nations that love wildlife with an army of amateur naturalists that provide us with essential data about the natural world

What we have is good, indeed vital for future efforts, but as they stand at the moment, they are insufficient.

What’s more there is a danger that everything stops because of Brexit and this sucks the life out of our shared ambition. The UK vote to leave the EU has forced us to fundamentally rethink the existing policy, legal and governance framework bringing with it a mix of jeopardy and opportunity.

What are our top five priorities for action?

First, if we are to leave the EU, we have to make Brexit work for nature. That means…

…maintaining and bolstering existing levels of legal protection plus securing the right enforcement and compliance regime. Current proposals for a new environment watchdog fall woefully short.

…turning positive rhetoric about reform of farming and fisheries policies into action and funding that improves the natural environment

…doing for nature’s recovery what Climate Change legislation has done for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by enshrining targets for nature in law .   The first opportunity to do this will be the Environmental Governance and Principles Bill. Action at home will allow us to be better advocates for action globally.

Second, we need a step change in delivery. Just look at the Dutch and their £750m plans to create 800 hectares of new islands in the Markemeer Lake north of Amsterdam to deal with siltation problems and compensate for lost habitat through sea level rise. That’s ambition matched by funding and good planning.

As I said, the ambition is also here in the UK.  The Welsh Government wants "to reverse the decline of biodiversity in Wales", the Scottish Government wants to "protect and restore Scotland's biodiversity",  the NI Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs have recently announced an intention to produce a 25 Year Environment Strategy over the next 9 months while Defra's 25 Year Environment Plan has stated that it wants “restore losses suffered over past 50 years”.

All of this means we need to continue to protect what we have and to redouble our efforts to restore lost habitat. For example, at the coast we have become pretty good at restoring coastal habitat to replace that which is lost through coastal squeeze: over the past 25 years we have completed over 70 projects which have restored 2,500 hectares of habitat. To replace what we have lost in terms of shingle, saltmarsh and sand dunes, we need schemes to deliver c20,000 hectares. Work that we have done, shows that c32,000 hectares of opportunity exists - we now need the political will and resources to make it happen.

Third, to meet the conservation ambition we need to transform financing by...

…redirecting all investment away from unsustainable activities by incentivising sustainable alternatives. This is precisely what we did with renewable energy, where technologies like solar and wind generation are rapidly achieving commercial parity with carbon based alternatives. Sustainable food, timber and resource production will exhibit the same efficiency gains especially as the environmental costs of unsustainable methods escalate.

…ensuring governments continue to play their part. Currently, UK public spending on nature conservation both nationally and internationally is in decline. There is a danger that the funding environment will also be negatively affected by Brexit. We recently published a report which estimates that the total cost of achieving our environmental ambitions (for example to meet targets for species and habitats) on land are £2.3 billion per year. Compared to existing CAP funded agri-environment scheme spending, this would represent a 450% increase, but compared to overall CAP spending (£3 billion), it’s doable.  Yet, as well as boosting the amount of money available for wildlife friendly farming, as signalled in the Defra Future of Farming consultation, we need the governments of the UK to work together to ensure they replace the lost EU environmental funding (estimated as £428m) which will arise once we leave the EU.

…creating new investment for the protection and restoration of nature. Two decades of brilliant science has shown us the scale of the human benefits conservation delivers, but economics shows us that many of these benefits - carbon, water quality and so forth - are complex, hard to measure and virtually impossible to market.  We need to make the case to private sector that it pays to invest in nature.

Fourth, let’s remember that saving ‘our’ nature means collaborating with others. This starts at home and is particularly important in the context of the Brexit debate. We need a level of cooperation between the UK Government and devolved administrations (including the Northern Ireland Assembly when it is back up and running) that is currently lacking. So, as a start, we need to refresh the Joint Ministerial Committee so that they agree principles for future environmental protection across the UK – this should be done on the basis of mutual consent but should also be subject to periodic review to reflect changes in the political reality of the UK.

But ‘our’ nature is shared nature. We shall only reverse the declines of migratory birds if we collaborate with others across the flyway addressing whatever threats they face whether it is lack of food on their breeding grounds, unsustainable levels of hunting in the Mediterranean or landuse change in West Africa. This is why I am delighted that we are in Brussels today launching the EU Turtle Dove Action Plan which includes a moratorium on the hunting of turtle doves (NB I shall say more about this tomorrow).

Fifth and finally, let’s build an unstoppable movement for change. People provide the space for politicians to act locally, nationally and globally so we need to harness the public passion for nature and turn it into political pressure. It is our job, anywhere in the world, to make it desirable for politicians to act for nature and to raise the cost of political failure.

And that means we must engage people where they are, which is often a connection to local places, to beauty, to plastic use, common species, illegal killing of wildlife – issues that can seem a long way away from targets and red lists and protected area percentages.

We need to make the case that our lives are made poorer in every sense by the loss of nature and the bounty it provides – and that our children deserve better from us.  

I remain optimistic. We can find mays to ignite the people’s latent passion for nature.

Sir David Attenborough has inspired the current generation of politicians to take action on plastic pollution. It has been both surprising and heartening to see how attitudes can change so quickly. It is not fanciful to suggest that in a few years’ time it will be socially unacceptable to use pointless plastics.

We need to find ways to encourage an equivalent response on nature conservation.

We have done this before – civil society has successfully campaigned for wildlife law reform, for marine protection legislation and climate action.

We have incredible assets on our side: weird and wonderful species which fascinate and inspire us.

We also have a burning deck – the Earth’s life support system is in crisis.

Yet, we also have a massive opportunity.

World leaders must go to the CBD CoP in China in 2020 both aware of their responsibilities and the conviction to deliver a step change in action.

Our job is to convince them that not only is it possible, but it’s in their interest to do the right thing.

You will all have your own ideas, but here is my call for action…

…every one of us must today pledge to write a letter every month between now and the 2020 COP to their elected politician, calling for government to make ambitious commitments for nature, then encourage a friend or family member to do the same.

Together we can achieve anything.

  • Sounds very good. Why has the entire RSPB membership produced no likes and no comments?

    As well as reducing consumption (here, here) we also need to reduce our population - especially the UK's, if we're all to avoid 'living in a hole in the ground and eating grass'. Your point about our 'overseas land footprint' being c.50% of the UK's land area if very important. And that's highly productive land too, which so much of the UK's area isn't - in terms of physical products for people's use. And yet you don't mention the size of the human population? As it takes generations to change much, you need to start talking about it now.