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As the RSPB’s recent report, A Lost Decade for Nature, makes clear, the Government must redouble its efforts on the conservation of ecosystems and wildlife throughout the country. Assessing the UK’s performance on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, established at a UN conference in Japan in 2010, the report concludes that the UK failed to reach 14 of 20 biodiversity targets, including on the key objectives of protecting nature areas and halting species decline. RSPB estimates that ‘only around 5% of the UK’s land is both protected and effectively managed’ – contradicting the Government’s claim that this has reached 26% – and presents evidence that the UK is most likely going backwards on species protection. 

While the Government has reaffirmed its commitment to strengthening land protection measures, signing on to a 30% target in the UN Leaders’ Pledge for Nature last week, its willingness to adequately fund conservation efforts remains unclear. The UK’s spending on biodiversity protection and management has declined markedly over the past decade, falling by around 30% from £641 million per year in 2012-13 to £456 million in 2017-18. Such reductions have had severe implications for the protection of endangered animals, with around fifteen percent of almost 8,500 species in the UK on the brink of extinction. This comes in addition to the estimated 56 percent of species which are currently in decline across the UK –  the result of decades of the overexploitation of nature throughout the UK, as a recent study from Bright Blue has noted.

The Government’s own report on the Aichi Biodiversity Targets gives a more positive outlook on its progress, but it recognises that further success on biodiversity management and monitoring will depend on making significant investments. The RSPB’s analysis shows that even on marine protected areas (MPAs) – an area in which UK biodiversity efforts have made consistent progress over two decades – ‘management measures have only been fully implemented in 10% of marine sites, and only 13% of sites have full monitoring in place’. It projects that ‘over the next ten years, we need to spend a total of £2.9 billion annually on environmental land management, including £615 million each year on restoration and creation of natural habitats.’ 

However, more investment will be insufficient for meeting the Aichi targets without a broad-based adoption of biodiversity principles across the public and private sector. And the mainstreaming of biodiversity conservation will be crucial for achieving the UK’s climate and sustainability ambitions. Thus the Government should consider establishing a legally-binding biodiversity management plan for the proposed Office of Environmental Protection (EOP) moving into the post-Brexit period. As the current version of the Environment Bill (Chapter 6) primarily considers biodiversity through the lens of local and regional planning, with biodiversity metrics and credits determined by the government, subject to cost-benefit assessments, there is room for further development. 

This sort of measure would also hand the government an opportunity to win a treble of climate victories leading up to the COP 26 conference to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. UK biodiversity protections aimed at protecting species, habitats, and land in the short term will reduce investment required for doing so over the medium to long term, establishing norms and creating savings for other climate change efforts. The G7 report last year found that biodiversity investment protects significant economic growth, and the UK government estimated in 2011 that coastal wetlands alone provide £1.5 billion in benefits per annum. 

The second victory would be on strengthening the link between public health and environmental conservation. A majority of the UK public favours investment in new green spaces and has expressed greater appreciation for the social and psychological benefits of nature due to the Covid-19 pandemic. More investment in AONBs and other nature reserves moving forward into 2021 could provide a much needed outlet for people throughout the country, one where social-distancing is possible and recreation is freely available. It is also important that local authorities have resources to deal with increased demand in parks and other protected areas. 

And finally, the creation of a stronger authority on biodiversity would help to maintain the UK’s status as a leader on climate change mitigation efforts. This is especially important in moving forward to the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November 2021, where the UK will host. The government could make ambitious moves on meeting the Aichi targets and thereby emphasize the need for stronger action on climate mitigation among its international partners. 

With a stronger set of commitments and management protocols for protecting biodiversity, the UK can achieve victories on species decline and land protection at home and thereby level up its status and influence as a leader on climate change issues abroad.

Andrew is an energy and environment researcher at Bright Blue. [Image: Airwolfhound]