Is the government kicking nature recovery into the long grass?

The government claims the UK is leading the pack on nature restoration, but it failed to meet international targets and its Environment Bill biodiversity goals have been slammed for being merely ‘a loose encouragement towards halting decline’. Tess Colley reports

Is the government kicking nature recovery into the long grass? Photograph: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images Is the government kicking nature recovery into the long grass? Photograph: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

In October, the UK hopes to take its G7-backed pledge to protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030 to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), or COP15, where negotiators will be deciding on biodiversity targets for the next ten years.

The world previously committed to the ambitious ecological ‘Aichi targets’ at the last CBD in Japan in 2010, and the UK government has described its Environment Bill and its targets as ‘world leading’.

But the UK - along with the rest of the world - failed to meet the vast majority of the Aichi targets on biodiversity, so what will make the fate of the current raft of promises and targets any different?

The Aichi targets were not legally binding, and this is what campaigners say was their Achilles’ heel. Green groups, campaigners and a coalition of politicians are now rallying behind a drive to ensure that the next set of international and domestic biodiversity targets do not fall foul of the same.

There is already a requirement written into the Environment Bill for the setting of long-term legally binding targets on biodiversity to be met by 2037 - a win for campaigners. 

READ MORE: Environment Bill Briefing: Your comprehensive guide

However, there is a catch. The problem with the long-term targets, says Pip Goodwin, senior policy officer for the RSPB is that “2037 is such a long end date it’s outside the focus of politicians right now”.

“There is the provision for interim targets [in the bill] that should set the path towards that long-term target, however, those are not legally binding.”

In May, green groups felt they had achieved another big win when George Eustice, secretary of state for the environment, announced the government would be tabling a legally-binding biodiversity target, which would see a halt in the decline of species, and represent a new “net-zero” for nature - comparable to the net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 target set in the Climate Change Act. 

However, when tabled it was met with dismay and the detail perceived to fall short of the ambition laid out by Eustice. Critics are disappointed that the amendment only sets a target to ‘further’ the objective of halting decline, rather than meeting it.

For Richard Benwell, chief executive of the NGO coalition the Wildlife and Countryside Link, the current version is extremely weak. 

“It’s a loose encouragement towards halting decline”, he told ENDS, “if it’s going to be meaningful and show leadership in the COP15 talks then it’s got to be beefed up to a definite target to halt nature’s decline by 2030”.

It’s not just green groups saying so - just this week the Environmental Audit Committee described government targets as “toothless”, calling for the introduction of statutory interim targets. 

The government says it will not set the final species target in secondary legislation until after the agreement of global goals at COP15 - though peers in the House of Lords have called for the target to be set sooner in order to show leadership. 

The new CBD framework being negotiated ahead of COP15 will set the direction on biodiversity for the next ten years, and according to Georgina Chandler, RSPB senior international policy officer, targets set at home play right into what will happen internationally: “The Environment Bill should be a demonstration of leadership by doing, it should be our walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

“To have targets for nature’s recovery in law is world leading and it is something we should be proud about - if they say the right thing. It has the real potential to show us as a global leader for the environment in the same way that the Climate Change Act did.”

For Chandler, it’s getting the implementation framework right for COP15 targets which will make all the difference: “The Aichi targets weren’t that bad but everyone just failed to implement them, and there was just no accountability.”

This is why, she argues, governments like the UK need to come forward with tangible, legally-binding domestic goals, and put “the money on the table” to send a message to other countries. 

But what is the money on the table? When it comes to meeting the costs of some of the government’s most ambitious nature targets, such as to protect 30% of UK land and sea by 2030, experts say that the proposed environmental land management schemes (ELMS) for farmers will be key as they reward environmental projects. 

“A lot will depend on ELMS”, says Benwell, “if DEFRA actually made that £2.4bn per year work for environmental delivery, then the additional funds needed for nature won’t break the bank. Add clearer targets to give the private sector confidence to invest, and the funding and finance needed for rapid environmental recovery are within reach."

Goodwin agrees, so long as the money goes to the right parts: “There is a risk that if they make it quite easy to achieve, loads of farmers will go for [the Sustainable Farming Initiative - the most basic of the ELMS] and that’ll suck most of the money in the system to doing quite basic stuff.”

Diane Mitchell, chief environmental advisor with the National Farmers Union is clear that farmers will be key to the successful delivery of any targets around biodiversity that come out of the Environment Bill:  “Any targets aimed at protecting and enhancing the environment must be joined up with policies that support farming’s ability to improve productivity.”

“At the same time”, she added, “we believe that any new targets must consider the current landscape within which we are working.” 

According to Mitchell, the UK trade deal with Australia has produced a raft of uncertainties for the UK farmers who are facing a future where they may be competing with those who are held to much lower animal welfare standards.

She says this, combined with the changes in agricultural support and the development of ELMS, “will all impact on the level of ambition and the ability of agriculture to contribute to the delivery of any targets.” 

In response to the suggestion that the UK’s targets for nature are currently falling short of promised ambition, a DEFRA spokesperson said: “We have hosted the G7 summit, and are heading into COP26, as leaders on the world stage when it comes to the protection of the environment and nature. Claims to the contrary are wrong.”  

With the Environment Bill slowly progressing through the House of Lords, and the prospect of further delays to COP15 already raised, the final formulation of the government’s targets for nature could remain to be seen for a while.