Skip to main content

Late last month, the Prime Minister joined 64 other global leaders in signing the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. The Pledge aims to build upon global efforts made under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which has taken on greater urgency in recent months, as various studies have shown that the world has collectively failed to meet any of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets that were established in 2011.

The UK’s State of Nature 2019 report and the RSPB’s analysis illustrates what this looks like in reality: 41% of UK species in decline, 15% under threat, and an estimated 15% of the 8,500 assessed species approaching extinction.

Beyond the signing of the Leaders’ Pledge, the UK must advance new, concrete policy measures to combat biodiversity decline and safeguard nature. Two areas of particular relevance for UK policymakers to focus their efforts are the proper management of and investment in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and combating the global Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT).

Point Three of the Leaders’ Pledge calls for a holistic, integrated approach to biodiversity protection, including in the area of marine biodiversity management. The UK has made significant progress on establishing MPAs over the past 20 years. But while the amount of marine areas under protection in the UK exceeds the 10% specified in the Aichi Targets, the Government has acknowledged that many MPAs are not being effectively managed and monitored.

The focus on increasing this percentage of MPAs is important, but so is their effective management. Some have argued, including Lord Zac Goldsmith, that many of the MPAs may in reality be ‘paper parks’: that is, areas technically under protection, though lacking the resources and oversight required for safeguarding their biodiversity. Studies have shown that action on stronger measures to manage MPAs effectively would assist in species and biodiversity conservation more broadly, with significant added economic benefits.

One such measure could be to ban bottom trawling in all UK MPAs, a practice which is currently still permitted. Bottom trawling commonly involves dropping a weighted net onto the ocean floor and dragging it. Bottom trawling disturbs or destroys everything in its path, including rocks and coral reefs that are habitats for marine life. Many maritime species not intended to be caught, such as seabird and turtles, are also caught and often do not survive. Bottom trawling frequently contributes to overfishing and undersized catches, leading to marine life being discarded. Bans on bottom trawling are already in place in other countries such as New Zealand, Indonesia, and certain states of the United States.

As part of its efforts on MPAs the UK should also consider its role in safeguarding biodiversity abroad, where stronger protections for marine areas in UK Overseas Territories should be encouraged as well. This is particularly important for the UK’s “Blue Belt” initiative to promote the establishment of MPAs in areas where coral reefs are coming under increasing pressure and native species of fish are threatened with overexploitation by commercial fishing.

Point Six of the Leaders’ Pledge makes a commitment to reducing the IWT. As the world’s fourth most profitable criminal enterprise, the IWT has had a devastating impact on some of the most charismatic and endangered species on the planet. Through Royal Assent of the Ivory Act, funding for the Illegal Wildlife Challenge Fund and £220 million of funding for the International Biodiversity Fund that was announced late last year, the UK Government has gone some way to thwarting the IWT.

In Bright Blue’s report, Global green giant?, we put forward several policy recommendations for the UK to go further on tackling the IWT. Similar legislation to the US Magnitsky Act 2012 – legislation which allows the US Government to sanction individuals implicated in gross human rights abuses by freezing their assets – should be enacted to allow sanctions to be placed on those who are suspected of committing gross species and habitat destruction, with the type of sanction and authority to enact them at the discretion of the UK Government.

Organisations may also become implicated in the IWT, particularly through their supply chains. The Wildlife Financial Taskforce brings together representatives from thirty international banks and financial institutions to increase investigations and prosecutions in relation to the IWT. The Taskforce currently operates on a voluntary basis in terms of its membership. By contrast, the Modern Slavery Act makes compulsory the assessment and prevention of slavery in the supply chains of organisations with an annual turnover in excess of £36 million. This framework should be emulated for monitoring financial flows that may be connected to the IWT.

Brexit may also undermine the UK’s ability to tackle the IWT if it entails the UK’s departure from EU-TWIX (EU Trade in Wildlife Information Exchange), an EU-wide intelligence sharing database with records of over 55,000 wildlife trade seizures. Not only should the UK seek to remain a part of EU-TWIX once the UK has fully left the EU, but the UK Government should also seek to establish a Commonwealth version of the EU-TWIX programme to create a wider network of intelligence sharing on criminal IWT activity.

At present, the state of global nature is grim. Whilst the Pledge for Nature is a welcome gesture, unless supported by concrete policy measures it shall remain just that. The aforementioned policy recommendations offer a starting point for the UK Government to safeguard our ocean ecosystems, tackle the IWT, and ultimately stem the tide on biodiversity decline. Fundamentally, the signatories of the Pledge for Nature will be judged not by what they say and sign, but by what they do.

Patrick and Andrew are energy and environment researchers at Bright Blue. [Image: Airwolfhound]