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The three essential features of a State of Nature target

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife & Countryside Link, sets out three critical features the Government must include in the new Environment Bill wildlife target, if it is to match the State of Nature ambition supported by over 180,000 people and 60 nature charities.

June 2021

The Government has agreed to introduce “a new world-leading target on species abundance for 2030 aimed at halting species decline”. The target, promised in response to the State of Nature campaign, is intended to give domestic effect to the G7 ambition to “bend the curve of biodiversity loss by 2030”.

If the legal detail is right, this target could stimulate the investment and action needed to protect and restore wildlife, after a century of decline. It could inspire commitment around the world.

However, the legal detail of the target has not yet been published. The Government is expected to introduce an amendment to the Environment Bill to require the full target to be set in Regulations at the end of 2022. This means that the wording in the Environment Bill itself must be precise enough to give confidence that the final target will be robust.

So, what are the essential features of a State of Nature amendment that must be in place for the Government to live up to this promise? To be able to claim domestic credibility and international leadership on ecological recovery, the State of Nature target must have three features.

(1) An expansive definition of “abundance”

George Eustice has said the target will be “a legally binding target for species abundance”.

To be ecologically rational, abundance must mean more than raw numbers. It would be absurd to set a target that could be met simply by increasing the numbers of a few species, while other wildlife fades away—a surfeit of pheasants is not ecological recovery.

So, to be meaningful, the amendment should be clear that abundance also includes the diversity of species. We need the average abundance of native species, both common and rare, to stabilise and begin to recover. Ideally, this should include parameters for reducing extinction risk, giving clear weight to the conservation of the rarest species. It should also be clear that the target covers terrestrial and marine wildlife.

(2) A clear target date

The amendment must specify that the target date is 2030, in line with international commitments.

The duty on the Secretary of State must be to ensure that the target is met by that date. The simplest way would be to tie the target into the existing framework in the Environment Bill, with a requirement for targets to be met, annual reporting in Parliament, a link to Environmental Improvement Plans, and scrutiny by the Office for Environmental Protection.

(3) A precise level of ambition

The Environment Bill may not set out the details of the metric that will measure biodiversity, but it must set out a clear level of ambition: that the decline of wildlife will be halted by 2030.

The Government has staked its international leadership to this level of ambition in the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and in the G7.

Previous international agreements to halt biodiversity loss under the Convention on Biological Diversity have failed because they have not been translated into domestic law to drive implementation. Without a clear level of ambition in law, the Environment Bill would be yet another vague promise of action.

It is this legal anchor—a firm, enforceable timeline for halting the loss of wildlife—that would make the real difference in ensuring that the policies and investment needed for nature are forthcoming.

Exciting days ahead

Of course, there are ways that the Government could exceed expectations, for example by including habitats alongside species, or by setting a further target for nature’s recovery. But these three features would add up to a genuinely ambitious legal provision for halting the decline of the State of Nature.

If these three features are met, in combination with strong protection for sites and species, then the State of Nature target could become a pattern for international ambition for nature.

Without these three features in law, the Environment Bill will fail to match the Government’s international rhetoric on nature. It will fall short of the State of Nature ambition, which has been supported by 183,000 people and over 60 nature charities so far.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO, Wildlife and Countryside Link

Follow: @RSBenwell

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