By Henri Brocklebank
Director of Conservation
The Government has committed to dedicating 30% of land for nature in the UK. This is, of course, a welcome ambition, and due to the dedicated hard work of numerous organisations and academics to bring the ecological crisis to the top table, globally and nationally. However we must not forget that this announcements sits against a backdrop of UK failure and contradictions. The real fate of nature, and the future success of this announcement relies not on a percentage, but on the depth of the intention through all levels of government.
The rate of extinction has been rising dramatically. It is reckoned to be now happening at 100 times the natural evolutionary rate - and is accelerating.
Sir David Attenborough September 2020
Understanding the problem:
The World Economic Forum estimates that half of the most likely and impactful global risks of climate change are linked to nature. The 30% target comes from a joint statement on a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people – to be delivered in tandem with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. This 30% New Deal for Nature and People, that the UK is now signed up to, simply has to work.
Have we been here before? Yes, I’m sorry to say we have, and the urgency then was not enough to make it work. Remember the Rio Summit (1992), remember Kyoto (2005)? A seriously impressive array of failed targets (globally and nationally). Failed because there simply was not the funding or prioritisation from the top to make it happen. Great intentions counterbalanced with contradictory approaches.
Making it meaningful:
Yes, the UK signing up to this global target is vital, but we need to remember that 30% for nature should be taken as 30% for fully functioning nature. Simply adding up degraded fragments of natural habitat, is not going to meet this target. Only ambitious, and intentional restoration, creation and reconnection is going to serve the intention of the global approach. And this is an approach that needs to span all government departments and all public bodies, on land, and equally critically, at sea.
Statistics are already being thrown around, about how much of the UK is already protected. But a statistic based on how much land is in current protected designations is no reflection on the condition of these areas or their ability to act as part of a broader functional network for wildlife. Here in Sussex we know that around 27% of our land is in conservation ownership, or is designated for wildlife, or is mapped as being a ‘priority’ habitat. That should mean that we’ve nearly hit our target? But this is no measure of functional and connected nature, it is not an index of nature’s recovery. It is in fact a perfect reflection of the shifting baseline of nature. If we think that we are in a good place for wildlife, think again.
In Sussex we have numerous internationally important wildlife sites that are not in favourable condition for wildlife. We have national treasures of sites that are struggling to maintain their wildlife value and our suite of 600+ local wildlife sites is under constant threat. If we look at maps of this 27% we see little connection, and failing ecosystem services, like water quality, flood resilience and species diversity
We know that 41% of British species are in decline. This isn’t even long term decline. This has happened in just the last few decades. In our lifetimes. This single statistic tells us everything we need to know about how to apply a 30% target.
The announcement of 30% of land dedicated for nature can be a turning point for nature’s future. But as Wildlife Trusts we are aware of all the risks that are rising like a tidal wave against us. We brace ourselves against new legislation on planning, a new agriculture bill and fisheries bill. Is nature at the heart of all of these? As environmental NGOs, we spend a huge amount of time attempting to embed principles for wildlife and make sure these are not watered down as they progress through the legislative process. A measure of the success of today’s announcement will be if we are still fighting for wildlife in national legislation and in local policies in two/ three/ten year’s time. We are currently forced into a protection based approach – we need the space to transform this into recovery, where protection is simply embedded into all public body working. Will today’s announcement enable this?
30% for us is about:
- Connected and functional nature, not just adding up the fragments. There is an interconnected nature network, robust to (climate) change - a ‘nature recovery network’
- Its about restoration of existing declining wildlife as well as creation of new connections
- It is where all sectors, at all levels embed the restoration of nature into their plans and policies and actions
- Where UK laws uphold the commitment to this approach
- Where funding enables a meaningful contribution by those willing to make it
- Measurements that mean something, and show genuine change
- It is about the other 70%, where wildlife is part of a broader national matrix, is not restored in 30% of our towns, countryside and seas, and neglected elsewhere
- Irreplaceable and critically endangered assets are recognised and protected for the long term