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Environment Bill: the missing "state of nature" clause

Richard Benwell, Wildlife and Countryside Link's CEO, writes in support of a "state of nature" amendment to the Environment Bill.

January 2021

Tomorrow, MPs will debate a critically important amendment to the Environment Bill.

As it stands, the bill includes a promise to set legally-binding environmental targets. But there is no guarantee about what they will cover, or how ambitious they will be. Not a single target will be set before Autumn 2022, and no deadline can come sooner than 2037.

For some aspects of the natural environment, that is probably ok: we already have targets for air and water from the EU that will be in force until 2027 or beyond - though of course there are strong arguments for including targets like a WHO standard for air pollution in the bill. In other areas, there remains technical work to be done about metrics and measurement.

But for biodiversity that framework is too slow and too uncertain.

We need a "net zero" equivalent for nature

We have no legally-binding targets in place for the recovery of species and habitats. There is no fixed goal for nature’s recovery to galvanise action across Whitehall, give the confidence needed for private sector investment, or provide a reference point for holding government to account. Without that legal anchor point, environmental action is allowed to slip down the priority list whenever the going gets tough and policy promises can be quietly forgotten.

But we do know what needs to be done. The State of Nature reports have shown that 41% of species are in long-term decline and 15% are at risk of extinction. This forms part of a global pattern of wildlife losses that risk the collapse of ecosystems and irreversible losses for our natural world, as well as terrible consequences for people and economy.

Later this year, world leaders will gather (virtually or otherwise) for talks under the Convention on Biological Diversity. We hope they will agree a 2030 mission to halt and begin to reverse nature’s decline. The UK is one of the forerunner countries that has already signed the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which aims to “reverse biodiversity loss by 2030”. This international promise matches the domestic rhetoric of the 25 Year Environment Plan, with its aim of ensuring that nature is passed on in better condition to the next generation.

But the rhetoric is at odds with the gap in the Environment Bill targets framework. How can the Government pass a once in a generation flagship environmental bill without legislating for its own flagship promise?

The "state of nature" amendment

Now, a cross-party group of MPs has tabled a “State of Nature Amendment” (NC5 here) that would set this 2030 target to halt and begin to reverse the decline in nature in law. The amendment was tabled by Hilary Benn (Labour), with the support of Dr Matthew Offord (Conservative), Caroline Lucas (Green) and Layla Moran (Liberal Democrat) and a growing number of MPs.

Conservation science has shown that achieving the target is possible and affordable. The State of Nature Report—and the global pandemic—have shown that it is necessary.

Experience of agri-environment spending has shown a return of investment of 3:1 and the ability to reverse the fortunes of farm wildlife; experience of protected site management has shown that when these special places are managed well, they can be havens for wildlife to recover; experience of species conservation and reintroduction has shown that targeted action for bees, birds and butterflies can bring wildlife back from the brink. Concerted actions like these can take us much of the way to recovery by 2030. So, an ambitious and fixed legal target can help ensure that we multiply these experiences across the land and sea to help reknit the fraying fabric of our natural ecosystems.

Targets may seem abstract, but they are a vital legal tool for setting a strategic trajectory for change and for holding Government to account. Of course, this target would need to be accompanied by a truly independent and powerful Office for Environment Protection, and form part of a plan for investing in a green recovery.

There are many good measures in the Environment Bill, and many good initiatives for nature across Government. Others require great improvements, like the need to strengthen environmental principles like the Precautionary Principle and the Polluter Pays Principle, and the need to fix the feeble duty to use Local Nature Recovery Strategies in real world planning and spending decisions. But without putting that centrepiece promise for the State of Nature in law, we are likely to see a repeat of so many previous failures to reverse environmental decline.

As the bill goes forward through Parliament, we will be campaigning with our members and friends in Greener UK and other coalitions to press the Government to live up to its promises. You can take action now with the RSPB here and with the Wildlife Trusts here. Please watch this space and join us in asking Government to finally commit to improving the State of Nature.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO, Wildlife and Countryside Link


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