Toothless Government policy and targets insufficient to stem the tide of UK biodiversity loss
30 June 2021
The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) urges the Government to conserve and restore UK biodiversity and ecosystems amid grave concern that of the G7 countries, the UK has the lowest level of biodiversity remaining.
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- Inquiry: Biodiversity and Ecosystems
- Environmental Audit Committee
The EAC found that existing Government policy and targets were inadequate to address plummeting biodiversity loss. This is made worse by nature policy not being joined up across Government, nor is nature protection consistently factored into policy making.
The Government is not on track to improve the environment within a generation, and due to a lack of clear statutory targets, its 25 Year Environment Plan does not provide sufficient direction to change this. Further, the recent biodiversity net gain policy, while welcome, in its current form with the potential for a lack of compliance monitoring and non-implementation of mitigation measures, does not go far enough.
The sheer variety of data systems and inadequate monitoring, coupled with a lack of ecologist expertise in the heart of Government and in local authorities, presents challenges to introduce effective mechanisms to halt biodiversity decline. Funding cuts to bodies exacerbate this, and the EAC urges the Government to consider increasing Natural England’s multi-year funding to reflect the scale of their tasks to protect nature.
The Government’s pledge to protect 30% of the UK’s land and seas by 2030 is welcome, but UK protected areas are currently poorly managed. For seas, a timetable should set out management plans and monitoring for all Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), with destructive bottom trawling banned or restricted and effective monitoring introduced to establish if habitats are recovering.
Irrespective of being classified as ‘protected areas’, the Government should protect existing ecosystems such as ancient woodland and peatlands given their benefits as nature-based solutions for climate change. Much more needs to be done to lock in carbon in these areas, and the EAC calls for the proposed ban on the sale of peat products to be brought forward to as soon as possible before 2023.
The EAC found that all too often, governments spend more on practices that exploit the natural environment than conserving it. The Government must urgently establish a natural capital baseline to measure progress against environmental goals.
It should also legislate for mandatory disclosure of nature-related financial risks. The Government should explain how it intends to move beyond GDP as the primary measure of economic activity and towards an additional measure which includes consideration of the UK's natural capital. A new fiscal rule should be set focused on balancing our demands on nature with nature's supply.
Overall, the EAC found that biodiversity loss was not being treated with the same urgency and ambition as climate change. Countering the collapse in biodiversity must be raised up the political agenda and be factored into decision-making across the public and private sector. The EAC noted that we have seen a shift towards this with climate change: the same is possible for biodiversity.
Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said
“The UK is home to many millions of species, but Government inaction to protect habitats is leading to a significant decline in wildlife.
“Although there are countless Government policies and targets to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’, too often they are grandiose statements lacking teeth and devoid of effective delivery mechanisms. We have no doubt that the ambition is there, but a poorly-mixed cocktail of ambitious targets, superficial strategies, funding cuts and lack of expertise is making any tangible progress incredibly challenging. All Government departments must consistently factor nature into policy decisions, the Bank of England should develop a nature stress-test, and the 25-year Environment Plan must have interim statutory targets to assess progress.
“Despite central Government’s responsibility for policy decisions, the responsibility for nurturing natural habitats also rests with each and every citizen. Work to embed nature into the national curriculum, and to inspire the ecologists of the future, is absolutely crucial if we are to protect biodiversity effectively for generations to come.”
Some of the EAC’s recommendations include:
- The Government should introduce statutory interim targets – met by every Government department – to ensure that its proposed species abundance target is met to halt the decline of nature by 2030.
- The Government should implement a preferred approach to data management and monitoring, to strengthen a consistent evidence base on the UK’s natural capital. The data should inform decision-making in Government far more substantially than at present.
- The Government must establish a timetable to put management plans and monitoring in place for all Marine Protected Areas, with different categories of destructive bottom trawling banned or restricted. More MPAs should be established as 'no-take' zones.
- A legally-binding target for soil health should be established.
- In the next Spending Review, greater funding must be given to Natural England which reflects its responsibilities and tasks.
- The Government must provide a comprehensive, consistent, and time-bound record of funding for the 25 Year Environment Plan.
- The Government should commission a review identifying and tracking public expenditure harmful to biodiversity. Once identified, Ministers must act to remove harmful subsidies and re-direct money to nature conservation and recovery.
- The Government should explain how and when it will move to embedding environmental net gain in the planning system, and it should strengthen local authority capacity and enforcement mechanisms to deliver biodiversity net gain.
- Tree planting should not occur on peat soils and floodplains would be better used for restoring floodplain meadows rather than afforestation projects.
- The Government should start the process of setting an environmental footprint target by launching a consultation ahead of COP15 on how to model the overseas environmental impact of UK consumption.
- The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should set out the extent to which the announced cuts to the UK's aid budget will affect overseas development assistance for family planning and reproductive healthcare, with ODA for family planning and reproductive healthcare being protected.
- The Government should include a Net Zero test of the 2021 Budget in its Net Zero Review, and should be further rolled out for future fiscal events to assess the climate impacts of taxation, spending and resource decisions. The Government should develop nature tests to ensure spending packages are aligned with the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework.
- The Bank of England should conduct an exploratory exercise into stress testing biodiversity loss. The Government should also ensure the National Infrastructure Bank has a mandate for net-zero and includes a focus on nature and biodiversity for investment in its objectives.
- Education on biodiversity must increase: a Natural History GCSE should be introduced and investment in skills should be increased for chartered ecology and associated disciplines.
- Ministers should implement recommendations of the EAC's Invasive Species without delay, including increasing biosecurity funding directed at countering invasive species to at least £3m a year. Invasive species cost the UK economy £1.8bn a year.
Image: Damselflies by Michael Swailes, submitted on his behalf by Eileen Swailes