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Environmentalists dismayed as DEFRA fails to set target to halt decline of nature

Domestic laws undermine G7 rhetoric

9 June 2021

  • On 18 May the Environment Secretary promised a “Net Zero equivalent for nature” through a “legally binding target for species abundance for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature”.
  • This followed a campaign for a “State of Nature” target to halt nature’s decline by 2030, supported by 70 organisations and over 180,000 people.[1]
  • In an about face, the Government has published an amendment that does not set a target to halt nature’s decline.
  • Environment charities warn this is not a Net Zero for nature and have written to the Prime Minister to say that this undermines his promise of international leadership ahead of the (UK-hosted) G7 and COP 26 and at COP15 climate and nature talks.[2]

Nature groups are warning that the Government’s new target in the Environment Bill has fallen far short of the action needed for nature, and has weakened the UK’s position to negotiate a strong global deal for nature and climate action at international talks at G7 and beyond.

Amendments introduced in the Environment Bill yesterday would set a species abundance target for 2030, but they avoid setting a critical target to halt the decline of wildlife. This weakly worded target includes no set date for the Government to halt the decline of wildlife, merely requiring the decline to slow down by 2030. Other recent changes to the Bill could also lead to a weakening of pivotal protections for wildlife - the Habitat Regulations.

The changes to the draft law lack the ambition to halt the decline of nature by 2030 backed by the Prime Minister in the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and in the G7 environment communique. It also falls short of commitments made by the Environment Secretary, Rt Hon George Eustice MP, in a speech at Delamere Forest less than a month ago, when he recognised that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and committed to introduce a “legally binding target for species abundance for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature”.

The Environment Secretary described this target and changes to the Habitat Regulations as their “compass [for the] future” but the Government seems to have lost its direction on these reforms. Campaigners say this is not the historic “huge step forward” promised by the Environment Secretary. Changes to Habitats Regulations could in fact be a major step backwards for nature, opening the door to easier planning rules which could harm protected nature sites and protected species.

Beccy Speight, CEO of the RSPB, said: “No ifs or buts. Nature in the UK is in deep trouble and that’s an ongoing and growing disaster for both people and wildlife. We have a once in a generation opportunity to start to fix this through a strong Environment Bill for England. Prevaricating and weak wording in the proposed amendment will fail all of us. We need a strong, clear amendment that will provide the legal backbone to halt the decline of nature by 2030 and we need to strengthen the protection of species and the most important places for wildlife to make that possible on the ground. Either we want to do this or we don’t, in one of the most nature depleted countries in the world – and the Prime Minister has said many times on a global stage that we do want to do it. So let’s do it.”

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Without a clear date when it would be achieved, this wildlife target is certainly not a net zero for nature. With swift changes, the Environment Bill could still be world leading, but at the moment it remains a run of the mill Bill, not the groundbreaking law that was promised.”

“The Prime Minister is saying all the right things about averting an ecological crisis at the G7, but the Environment Bill must be urgently strengthened to give substance to his rhetoric. That means rapid action to introduce a definitive target to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030.”

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Ahead of the G7 in Cornwall, the Environment Secretary heralded their commitment to halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity by 2030 as a ‘major step forward’. But, with the Government giving themselves the power to unpick the legal protections for nature and a new target that falls short of halting nature’s decline, it seems we’ve now taken two steps backwards.

"Nature has provided us so much over the last year – but it’s declining at a speed never previously seen. One in seven species in the UK are now threatened with extinction. Without real Government action to reverse this trend now, we risk losing some of our wildlife forever. The Government must keep its promise and introduce a clear legally-binding target to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030.”

Darren Moorcroft, CEO of the Woodland Trust, said: “It is immensely disappointing to be left with a proposal which merely seeks to ‘further’ the halting of nature’s decline rather than to clearly stop it. It is certainly not world leading, in fact it is far below what is expected and what is needed.

“As the Woodland Trust’s recent State of the UK’s Woods and Trees report shows, the loss of wildlife from our woods and forests has been catastrophic and is reaching crisis point. If we don’t act now to save nature with everything we’ve got, we will be remembered as the generation that allowed the natural world to decline and die. We urge the government to rethink and adopt a clear target to not only halt nature’s decline but to reverse it, driving meaningful action across government, the economy and society with all the many benefits that will follow.”

Alongside this weakened species recovery target, new amendments were introduced recently (26 May) to the Environment Bill that could be used to weaken the Habitats Regulations, the UK’s most important legal protection rules for wildlife. This action was supposed to bring these regulations into line with, and support, a strong new species abundance target but could instead water down protections for wildlife.[3] A weak target with diminished regulation is undermining confidence in the Government’s commitment to meeting the PM’s 30x30 nature recovery promises.

Environment groups have been campaigning for a legally-binding ‘State of Nature’ target to end nature’s decline by 2030, with a petition to the Prime Minister already reaching more than 180,000 signatures, backed by environment, mental health and international development charities. Such a commitment, in law, to restoring nature by 2030, is essential to guarantee the extensive action needed to meet the PM’s Leaders Pledge for Nature and 2050 Net Zero targets.

There were high hopes that if England became the first country with a target to end nature’s decline, the Government would be setting a world-leading example that others would follow. Environmentalists had expected that such a ‘Net Zero target for nature’ in England would lead to other countries committing to similar legal deadlines to halt nature’s decline, as was the case with the legally-binding Net Zero deadline for emissions. [4] But the target put in place today is not a world-leading Net Zero for nature, it is a nod to nature needing help, without the legal power to end its decline.

Campaigners are calling on the Government not to abandon this major opportunity for global leadership on our nature and climate crises during our G7 and COP26 host year. They are urging the Government to rewrite the amendment to the Bill with a firm 2030 target to end nature’s decline.

The nature coalition, coordinated by Wildlife and Countryside link, is encouraging the public to sign their petition to demand the Government sticks to its promises to create a “Net Zero for Nature” by putting an effective 2030 deadline for nature's recovery in law. The petition can be found direct at the following link (https://e-activist.com/page/76784/petition/1?ea.tr...) or via the campaign page: https://www.wcl.org.uk/state-of-nature-campaign.as...

ENDS

Notes to editors:

  1. The letter to the Prime Minister has been signed by: A Rocha UK, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, the Badger Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Born Free Foundation, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Campaign for National Parks, Environmental Investigation Agency UK, Freshwater Habitats Trust, Greenpeace UK, Institute of Fisheries Management, John Muir Trust, League Against Cruel Sports, The Mammal Society, Marine Conservation Society, the National Trust, Open Spaces Society, ORCA, People's Trust for Endangered Species, Plantlife, Ramblers, the River Restoration Centre, the Rivers Trust, RSPB, RSPCA, Salmon and Trout Conservation, Surfers Against Sewage, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), The Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, Wild Justice, WWF UK, and Wildlife and Countryside Link.
  2. For a full list of organisations, celebrities and politicians backing the State of Nature campaign see here for more details.
  3. In addition to the species abundance target amendment, a recent amendment will allow Ministers to amend the Habitats Regulations, which provide the UK’s strongest protection for important wildlife sites and species. In particular, the new powers would allow Ministers to change the planning rules related to protected sites and species. For further detail, see here.
  4. Sweden was the first country in the world to put a Net Zero target in law, with a 2045 target to become carbon neutral put in law in June 2017.
    The UK became the first G7 country with a Net Zero target in law in June 2019, and was followed shortly after by France and Denmark. Similar commitments in law were made by New Zealand in November 2019 and Hungary in June 2020.
    Pledges (but not yet commitments in law) have been made to reach Net Zero by 2050 by Argentina, Canada (in draft law), Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Grenada, Ireland (in draft law), Japan, Laos, the Marshall Islands, Nepal, Norway (2030 with international offsets), Panama, Portugal, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain (in draft law), Switzerland, and the USA.
    Additionally the Maldives and Uruguay have pledged to meet Net Zero by 2030, Finland by 2035, Austria and Iceland by 2040, Germany (in draft law) by 2045, and Brazil, China, and Ukraine by 2060.
    See further details on each country’s commitments here and here.

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Nature coalition welcomes major milestone toward wildlife recovery