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Government has made no appreciable progress on its policy to protect 30% of the land and sea for nature by 2030

19 October 2022

  • The Government is not on course to protect 30% of the land and sea for nature by 2030.
  • Just 3.22% of England’s land and 8% of the sea was effectively protected by 2022. This is an increase of just 0.22% of the land and 4% of the sea compared with 2021.
  • Deregulatory proposals to reform or repeal the strongest laws for nature and to liberalise planning laws would take England even further away from meeting nature targets.
  • The report comes just weeks ahead of global nature talks where the UK is expected to sign an international treaty to implement 30x30.

In 2020, the Government committed to protect at least 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 (its 30x30 target). Two years on, nature campaigners are warning that little progress has been made.

In its first annual 30x30 progress report, Wildlife and Countryside Link is calling on the Prime Minister to send a clear international message that the UK will be a global leader in implementing 30x30. The 30x30 target is expected to be a key commitment in global nature talks at COP15 in Montreal in December.

The report argues that this means “designation, not deregulation” – protecting more land and sea for nature, rather than weakening environmental laws. The report singles out the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill for criticism. The bill will reform or repeal hundreds of EU-derived environmental laws by the end of 2023. In particular, plans for “fundamental reform” of the Habitats Regulations could weaken the UK’s most legally-robust and most effective laws that defend natural habitats and wildlife.

Campaigners are also calling on the Prime Minister to confirm her intention to attend COP15 nature talks in person to push for global action to protect and restore nature.

Key figures detailed in the report:

  • Only 3.22% of England’s land is effectively protected for nature.
  • The Government has designated 2831 hectares in three new Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), contributing 0.22% to the amount of protected land. [1]
  • A maximum of 8% of England’s seas could be said to be effectively protected for nature.
  • The progression of management measures in some Marine Protected Areas has increased the amount of ocean by 4% at most. [2]

The report will be launched at an event in Parliament this morning (19.10.22) with speakers including:

  • Daniel Zeichner MP and Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
  • The Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville
  • Beccy Speight, CEO, RSPB
  • Craig Bennett, CEO, The Wildlife Trusts
  • Richard Benwell, CEO, Wildlife and Countryside Link

Separate analysis has found that at least 90% of UK marine areas with protections in place were damaged by bottom trawling or dredging during 2021. On land, widespread burning on England’s protected peatlands in 2022 has been damaging our biggest carbon store, with 51 burns on land protected by multiple conservation designations and public reports of burning up 67% from 2021.

This lack of progress, coupled with a Government deregulatory agenda is putting the UK at risk of moving even further away from where it needs to be to protect and restore nature.[3]

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:

“30x30 is a brilliant environmental promise and the Government still has chance to set an international lead in restoring nature. Unfortunately, our figures show that in the race to halt nature’s decline by 2030, the Government is limping backwards. At this rate, the Government’s prospects of effectively protecting 30% of the land and sea for nature by 2030 are vanishing.

“If deregulatory plans set out in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill go ahead unchanged, and if the current review of farming policy interrupts the transition to greener agriculture, then any hope of meeting the 2030 target could be dashed.

“Fortunately, there is still time to succeed and the actions needed are set out in our report. The Government’s own reviews have recommended strengthening the rules for restoring nature in National Parks and AONBs and proposed a network of Highly Protected Marine Areas at sea. Instead of chasing after imaginary end-of-rainbow rewards of deregulation, the Government should implement these reviews to get back on track for 30x30.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“Nature will not recover without protecting at least 30% of land and sea by 2030. The Government has committed to that target, but this report shows an alarming lack of progress. Pursuing a dangerous agenda of deregulation and weakening support for nature-friendly farming will make the path to 30 by 30 even harder, threatening our soil health and pollinators, undermining our food security, and wiping out vulnerable species like hedgehogs and turtle doves.

“We need policies that help to restore nature – as fast as possible – not make things worse. That means strong laws and investment in cleaner rivers, recreating wetlands and wildflower meadows, and boosting vanishing insect populations – before it’s too late.”

Beccy Speight, chief executive if the RSPB said:

“England is one of most nature-depleted countries on earth, but in a welcomed and bold move, the UK Government committed to protecting 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030. However, two years on from this commitment, and with just eight to go, there has been next to no progress on the condition or extent of our protected areas, the places our wildlife needs and people value most. In fact, recent events would indicate that the UK Government may be actually dismantling the fundamental building blocks needed to achieve this target by proposing plans to scrap the laws that protect nature, and funding for nature friendly farmers.”

Further quotes from The Rivers Trust, Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife can be found in the notes.

The 30x30 progress report sets out the specific progress that has been made by Government in protecting land and sea for nature in England as well as setting the areas of most concern. Commitments for ocean protection including designation of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) are welcome. [4] However, just 0.53% of English waters have been designated as HPMAs, against a target of 10%. [5] Progress has been made when it comes to protection in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) but this remains slow, with just four offshore MPAs protected fully or partially against damage caused by bottom trawling and dredging against a commitment to protect 40 sites by 2024. [6]

Turning to protection of land, the report praises the designation of new Sites of Special Scientific Interest but notes that these have only added 0.22% to the amount of land protected for nature. Campaigners also highlight the lack of sufficient statutory funding and action to improve the condition of all protected nature sites and lack of progress in coming forward with specific proposals on how other site protection and conservation tools such as Local Wildlife Sites, and Wildbelt can be strengthened to meet the grade to count towards 30x30.

The report concludes that Government can make significant progress in the next year towards achieving 30x30 by:

  • Bringing existing terrestrial protected sites into good condition by implementing and investing in management measures and regular monitoring, with a target to have at least 75% of SSSIs in favourable condition by 2042. The current figure is 40%.
  • Extending the protected sites network on land with an action plan for completing the protected sites network.
  • Boosting nature in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty by strengthening provisions for nature and providing greater resources to support nature’s recovery in these protected landscapes.
  • Delivering the initial five Highly Protected Marine Area pilot sites and designating further HPMA sites
    to contribute to achieving at least 10% of England’s seas in HMPAs by 2030.
  • Implementing improved management of marine protected areas by implementing bans on damaging practices including bottom trawling withing them.
  • Retaining and strengthening the Habitats Regulations, which provide the strongest protections for our most significant and vulnerable sites and species.

Read the full report Achieving 30x30 in England on land and at sea: One year on (including policy recommendations on protecting more of our land and sea for nature) here.

Notes to editors:

  1. Swanscombe Peninsula, Dearne Valley Wetlands, and Cotswold Water Park
    1. Since the report was compiled, Penwith Moors, a 3,100 hectare area of important lowland heath in West Cornwall, has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. This figure will feed into our 2023 assessment. If the whole site is in good condition this will bring our calculation of the percentage of land effectively protected for nature in England up to 3.24% from 3.22%.
  2. Poor monitoring makes it impossible to adequately assess nature’s recovery in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), so this figure could be much lower.
  3. Notes on deregulation:
    1. The Habitats Regulations protect 256 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 90 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in England covering over 7.9 million hectares. List of English SACs and SPAs (sites protected by Habitats Regulations) available online by downloading the list of designated sites spreadsheet.
      1. Across the UK this figure rises to 284 SPAs and 658 SACs, covering 18.8 million hectares
    2. Some of the key environmental laws the Retained EU Law Bill threatens
      1. The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017: rules that protect hundreds of wildlife sites from unsustainable development and safeguard threatened species from destruction.
      2. The Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England and Wales) Regulations 2017: the laws that set strict standards for rivers and streams, guarding against pollution and over-abstraction.
      3. The Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010: imposing limits on toxic air pollution, such as particulate matter, which is responsible for widespread environmental harm and serious harm to human health.
      4. The Marine Strategy Regulations 2010: requiring government to implement plans for the protection of our seas and vulnerable sea life.
  4. The Government has now consulted on pilot HPMAs, which include the coast of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, Allonby Bay, Cumbria, and three offshore sites—two in the North Sea and one at Dolphin Head in the Channel.
  5. 0.53% of English waters have been newly designated as Highly Protected Marine Areas, having previously been designated Marine Protected Areas. While these waters now have more protection, they are not new sites so do not add to the amount of ocean protected for nature.
  6. Damaging fishing practices were banned from four MPAs in 2022

Additional quotes from environmental and nature organisations:

  • Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust, said: “The government’s 30x30 nature target should be a keystone for protecting rivers, the life-giving arteries of our landscape. Sadly though, this report shows that targets mean nothing if they’re not underpinned by robust policy and regulation. The current rate of protection for land and marine areas is dismal, and the prospect of scrapping environmental regulations and incentives for farmers to play a leading role in landscape recovery is a serious threat to the credibility of the 30x30 target. We implore the government not only to re-commit to that target at COP15 in Montreal, but also to implement policies that ensure it is achievable.”
  • Julie Williams, CEO of Butterfly Conservation, said: “The ambition to protect 30% of the UK for nature by 2030 is admirable and we welcomed the Government's commitment to do so in 2020. But almost nothing has happened since that announcement. We need more than just warm words, we need actions which lead to delivery.
    “Nature is in crisis. Encounters with butterflies and moths are now infrequent for many people, but we have the knowledge to deliver a different future. We need to be nature positive, to ensure that land use decisions are sustainable, to work to recover populations of threatened species and restore abundant nature, to enable butterflies and moths to thrive alongside people.
    “People want to be connected to nature and recognise that nature needs protection, the Government needs to act.”
  • Ian Dunn, CEO, Plantlife, commented: “Progress to reach 30% by 2030 has been glacial so far and the government’s proposals to scrap the Habitats Regulations threatens to put a further freeze on the change nature and wildlife so urgently needs. That just 3.22% of England’s land was effectively protected by 2022 is not the fast start needed. Ahead of December’s global biodiversity conference, now is time to step up the pace and show leadership, not drop further back in the pack.
    “Nowhere is the need for protection as pressing as Britain’s vanishing temperate rainforests. They have become smaller, more fragmented and isolated from each other over centuries due to overgrazing, clearance and conversion. Nearly three quarters of England’s remaining temperate rainforest do not have any formal protection: despite being bountiful biodiversity hot spots 73% of those rainforests that are mapped fall outside Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
    “What do Burkina Faso, Estonia, Sri Lanka and over half of the countries of the world have in common? They have all signed up to the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People. HAB signatories commit to protect AT LEAST 30 % of the planet’s land and oceans by the end of this decade for nature. 30by30 is by far the best chance we have to ensure a stable and livable planet for people and nature. The UK - as a founding coalition member alongside France and Costa Rica must, simply must, deliver on its HAB commitments or, collectively, we must hang our heads in shame as the natural world crumbles around us”

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