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Species abundance target: what’s in a word?

Richard Benwell, CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link, responds to Government's new Environment Bill amendment, explaining why this falls far short of the promised "net zero for nature" and how a simple change could make a world of difference.

June 2021

Last night, the Government published its new Environment Bill amendment requiring a 2030 target on species abundance.

It’s good that there will be a binding target for species with a deadline that’s sooner than 2037, which would otherwise have been the soonest allowed under the Environment Bill.

But the target falls far short of the “net zero for nature” promised by George Eustice in his speech at Delamere Forest.

Net Zero works because it sets a fixed goal for a fixed date.

Unfortunately, Defra’s proposal does not include a fixed goal to halt decline by 2030—one of the three key features of an effective target.

Instead, it merely requires Government to set a target in October 2022, with the level of effort guided only by the need to contribute—in the Secretary of State’s opinion—to “furthering” (not delivering) the objective of halting species decline.

This means that the Government could set a target that slightly slows the decline of nature, but there’s no requirement whatsoever in law to actually halt the decline.

This is certainly not the grand, global ambition laid out in the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and the G7 communique that Mr Johnson has supported, nor the domestic leadership needed to secure a strong deal in the Convention on Biological Diversity later this year. Nor is it the strong target that 185,000 people have called for as part of the State of Nature campaign.

So has the Government changed its mind since Mr Eustice’s speech? Can the ambition have fallen from a “net zero for nature” to a hazy hope on the horizon in the space of a few weeks? Has Mr Eustice gone back on his word? Apparently, it all comes down to one word. DEFRA’s commitment was for a “legally binding target for species abundance for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature”. It seems you can have a target that aims for something without the target being the same as the aim!

Luckily, there is still time for the Government to improve things. Ministers have stated time and again that they want the Environment Bill to be world-leading legislation. A simple change to the new clause would go a long way to fixing things.

In fact, once again, one word would make a world of difference.

In subsection (4), replacing the word “further” with the word “meet” would turn a vague exhortation into a clear requirement for the target to be strong enough to meet the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species.

That would be something to tell the world about.

Richard Benwell is CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link.

Follow: @RSBenwell and @WCL_News.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.