Bearded tit at RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve, a SSSI which is in good condition. Ben Andrews (

In today’s blog, Senior Policy Officer Meriel Harrison, explains what is meant by '30 by30' , what progress has been made towards this target and what remains to be done to ensure our nature can thrive.

It’s now over three years since the UK government promised to protect 30% of land and sea for nature. So why is progress proving so painfully slow?

What does ‘30 by 30’ actually mean?

Our protected areas are home to diverse habitats and species, and provide one of the most proven and effective means to safeguard and recover nature. ’30 by 30’ refers to a target to protect 30% of land and 30% of sea for nature by 2030. The Westminster government first promised to do this in September 2020; and similar commitments from the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland followed.

In December 2022, 30 by 30 went global at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 summit as a new biodiversity framework was agreed by countries from around the world, with a mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Crucial to delivery of this mission is a suite of specific targets, including a target to ensure that by 2030, at least 30% of land, freshwater, marine and coastal areas are effectively conserved and managed.

 View across pines towards mountains, Abernethy RSPB reserve, Scotland

Abernethy RSPB reserve, a SSSI in favourable condition which we would expect to count towards the 30% target on land. David Tomlinson (

The wording of the global 30 by 30 target requires that in their efforts to reach the 30% goal, countries should focus on protecting and effectively managing the places that are most important for nature. This is especially important in the UK, where we are already among the most nature depleted nations on the planet and our ecosystems are often fragmented and damaged. For a protected site to be considered effectively conserved, the needs of nature must be the dominant priority; and for other areas to count towards the target they must also meet high standards including for demonstrable delivery of biodiversity outcomes. Any activities that could damage nature must be prevented in 30 by 30 areas, and the way that the area is managed must support the important nature that is there.

What progress has been made so far?

It’s vital that the target actually delivers for nature, rather than resulting in meaningless lines on maps that won’t make a difference. But despite having several years to consider how best to deliver the target, progress remains slow and unclear.

We know that the UK’s network of protected sites for nature – Sites or Areas of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs/ASSIs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Ramsar sites – will need to be absolutely at the heart of 30 by 30 delivery. The sites we already have need to be brought into good condition through appropriate management, and the network was already in urgent need of expansion even before the 30 by 30 target was set. For example, a 2016 review found that the UK suite of SPAs was insufficient to meet the needs of 87 of the bird species it is intended to protect. Yet designating or expanding protected sites remains a drawn-out process, with the Government agencies under-resourced to deliver the step change that is desperately needed.

There has been welcome recognition from the Westminster Government that National Parks and AONBs in their current form cannot count in their entirety as their purposes do not put sufficient emphasis on nature conservation, and the powers of the bodies that run them are too weak to guarantee effective conservation and management. NatureScot has also acknowledged this point in the proposed principles for 30 by 30 and  the Scottish Government has launched a consultation on reforms that would give National Parks a stronger focus on tackling nature loss and climate change; while in England, the UK Government failed to fully seize the opportunity offered by the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act, failing to provide a strengthened nature recovery purpose despite previous commitments to do so. The real world effects of the limited changes they did include in the Act will depend in large part on the detail of promised – but yet to be delivered – additional regulations.

Overall, it was estimated in 2021 that as little as 5% of the UK is both protected and (critically) effectively managed for nature, and little has changed since then. In response to recent report on progress in England by Wildlife and Countryside Link, Defra claimed that the UK was on track to meet the 30 by 30 target; yet a freedom of information request yielded no evidence to back up this claim, pointing to a worrying gap in tracking progress on this international commitment.

A pipeline of potential

There is a pressing need for all four governments in the UK to shift gear on 30 by 30 , so that it is the focus of a coordinated, prioritised and properly resourced delivery programme. The bar set by the target (as championed by the Westminster Government on the international stage) is high, and there will be places that have potential to be counted but don’t yet quite meet the standard. This is why RSPB is advocating a pipeline approach, whereby Governments should look at the best places for nature and work to put in place the protections and management needed to ensure they will meet the standard to be counted by 2030. We are pleased to see that NatureScot has proposed to adopt a pipeline approach to 30 by 30 in Scotland.

 Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, male displaying, Abernethy, December

Capercaillie  - a species that will benefit from more land being protected and managed well for nature. Dave Braddock (

There is already an established blueprint for this provided by the landmark ‘Making Space for Nature’ report led by Prof Sir John Lawton in 2011. Lawton’s approach can be summed up simply: we need better, bigger, more and joined-up spaces for nature in the UK. Translated to the 30 by 30 target, this means Governments’ priorities should be:

  •  Better: improving the condition of the protected sites network, so that all sites are in good or demonstrably recovering condition and can count towards the 30%.
  •  Bigger: expanding small and isolated protected sites to give space for ecosystems to function and nature to thrive.
  •  More: resourcing an accelerated programme of site designations to fill gaps in the current network, prioritising those places where there is already evidence of need.
  •  Joined up: providing nature friendly connections between protected sites to allow species to move and spread easily.

 In addition to protected sites, Governments are also looking at Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs) to help deliver the 30 by 30 target. OECMs are areas where mechanisms other than formal protected site designation are delivering long-term biodiversity outcomes equivalent to those provided by well-managed protected sites. For example, this could be an area that is being managed primarily for carbon or water quality objectives, where biodiversity is being delivered as a co-benefit and arrangements provide long-term assurance for this. We know there is significant interest in how OECMs could help Governments to reach the target and there could be distinct advantages to OECMs providing a more bottom-up approach that collaborates more closely with individual site managers and communities and complements statutory protected areas. What’s vital to recognise is that they are not a lighter-touch option, and will need to be assessed and monitored in similar ways to protected sites.

December of this year will mark the first anniversary of the new Global Biodiversity Framework, an important opportunity for the governments across the UK to reflect on their progress and marshal plans for the years ahead. We must see clarity and commitment across the piece to delivering the 30 by 30 target - including an assessment of the scale of resource needed, and where this will come from. The nature we have left deserves no less.