The UN today publishes its Global Biodiversity Outlook 5. The news is not good. Nature is declining and many consider we are now in the sixth mass extinction. According to State of Nature (2019) here in the UK 41% of species are in decline and 133 species have been lost from our shores completely since 1950. In this most comprehensive assessment of nature in the UK, scientists looked at almost 8,500 species, finding that over one in ten (15%) is threatened with extinction.
Today's UN report gives little confidence that world governments are taking this issue seriously enough, reporting on how the ‘Aichi Targets’ have not been met. Defined a decade ago, these targets for the recovery of nature were hailed as the blueprint for saving life on Earth and reversing the terrible losses in wildlife and the natural environment seen over previous decades. Simply put, the report is clear that nowhere near enough has been done, and targets have been badly missed.
But how is our own government doing? The UN report contains no country-level breakdowns of how the UK has fared, but an RSPB report this week, ‘A Lost Decade for Nature’, reveals our national performance. And I’m afraid the news here is not good either.
While the UK government believes it has met a third of its targets, RSPB analysis shows the UK may have met as few as just three of the 20 international targets it agreed to a decade ago, and in six areas the UK has actually gone backward.
The government’s key failings can, broadly, be attributed to not enough land being protected for nature, and not enough funding. On the latter, during the past decade, public funding for the environment and nature has declined in the UK from £641 million (2012/13) to just £456 million (2017/18), a drop of almost 30%.
On land, however, the stark fact is that simply not enough land is being protected or managed for nature. Although the UK claims to be protecting large areas of land (28%) and sea (24%), closer inspection reveals that this includes National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty that are often not well managed for nature and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) that are in poor health and not adequately monitored. In essence, just because land is in a National Park, or is a SSSI does not automatically mean it is supporting the nature it should. Many are not. Nowhere is this clearer than in the English uplands.
Vast tracts of our uplands are covered in peatland habitats, which have been depositing carbon-rich peat for thousands of years. In places, particularly on flatter areas, the peat is metres deep. Though our upland peatlands are of international importance and home to special wildlife, and many of them are within National Parks, AONBs and are SSSIs, they are in poor health.
Over the years, peatlands have been damaged by pollution (associated with the industrial revolution), drainage, livestock grazing, and burning. Each of these, sometimes in combination, has had a negative impact on water quality, water retention, and peatland vegetation, with large areas now in urgent need of restoration.
Crucially, the state of our upland peatlands is not helped by repeated burning to improve heather cover for red grouse on vast shooting estates. Despite peatlands being identified as sensitive (no-burn areas), peatland vegetation is still burnt each year, particularly in England and Scotland, to create a patchwork of young and old heather – grouse prefer to feed on young (more nutritious) heather and nest/hide in longer heather.
And this isn’t just a disaster for wildlife, it’s also bad for climate. Upland peat bogs store an estimated 2,000 megatons of carbon in the UK. But because they are not being managed well, they are eroding: in England, they release 350,000 tonnes CO2 to the atmosphere each year, the same as 140,000 cars. And despite wanting to lead the world on climate change, our government continues to allow our uplands to be set ablaze each year.
The appalling failure to protect and enhance our uplands is just one example of negligence; we can see the pattern repeated elsewhere, such as on the Wash. We believe, fundamentally, that the cause for this failure is that while we may set targets for the recovery of species and habitats with all the best intentions unless they are legally binding, monitored, and enforced they can be ignored. Voluntary agreements are rarely effective . Taking the uplands as an example again, we need a legal ban on burning.
We know people care about nature. We know that people more than ever want to see a green recovery, for our land to be full of life, full of colour and birdsong. And to do this we need our government, and governments around the world, to set legally binding and ambitious targets to ensure that this happens.
To put the UK back on track, the RSPB is launching a campaign to Revive our World that will give everyone a place to voice their concerns and outrage at the inaction of the UK, as well as proposing the legislation and priorities the UK and devolved governments must set to avoid another lost decade. We must act now – nature cannot wait any longer.
To find out more visit www.rspb.org.uk/ReviveOurWorld
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