Streamed via a special Wild LIVE event today, the Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice, made a number of important announcements as he launched the Tree and Peat strategies at Delamere Forest in Cheshire.
The headline announcement was that England will be the first country ever to set a target to halt nature's decline by 2030. Described as a “net zero equivalent for nature” this legally binding target linked to the recovery of species abundance will be included in the forthcoming Environment Bill.
Other announcements supplied real glimmers of hope for our beleaguered wildlife, including the establishment of a Species Reintroductions Task Force to look at bringing back iconic species we have lost as well as boosting populations of declining species. The explicit recognition of beavers as a keystone species for their role in ecosystem restoration was welcome too – with the promise of open beaver releases next year following this summer's consultation.
On trees and peat there was focus on their role in sequestering carbon with £500m of the £640m Nature for Climate Fund going toward trees (woodland creation, urban trees, natural regeneration, agroforestry and new riparian woodland corridors) and £50m towards peat (restoration, rewetting and – finally – a ban on the sale of peat in the amateur horticulture sector by 2024).
There was recognition that habitats needed restoring both in protected sites and in the wider countryside, and that land managers would be supported to do this. The ‘Leaders Pledge’ to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 will be adopted as a proper target following the COP15 meeting later this year which will set a similar target globally. The theme of reversing the downward trend in biodiversity featured throughout.
On the face of it, this speech set out some very welcome announcements. The explicit recognition by the Secretary of State that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, and that we urgently need to change our approach, that we need to turn the tide towards nature’s recovery, was all music to my ears.
The 160,000+ people who signed our #StateofNature petition can also be proud that their voices are starting to be heard.
But – there is still a journey to go on to turn these warm words into real action.
The Environment Bill has featured in three Queen’s speeches and is one of the most delayed pieces of legislation in history. The campaign for new environmental legislation began a decade ago following the publication of the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper (which I helped to write when I worked at Defra) which put into government policy the recommendations of the Lawton Report, Making Space for Nature. The Secretary of State admitted today to having recently read the 10 year old Lawton Report and remarked on how its recommendations were “filtering through into government policy”.
Ten years is a long time for nature’s decline to continue unchecked. And of course, it’s been happening for far longer. Modern nature conservation organisations like the Wildlife Trusts were founded more than a century ago, and the destruction of the natural world was already well underway.
We have all seen the State of Nature reports and there is no hiding from the fact that in less than a human lifetime we have destroyed half of our wildlife, risking ecosystem collapse. Certainly, in my 25 year career I have listened to countless similar ambitious speeches from past Environment Secretaries.
I was also reminded today of the wakeup call that Rachel Carson gave in her ground-breaking book, Silent Spring. Her words, written 60 years ago, ring eerily true today:
“We stand now where two roads diverge... The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
Unlike 60 years ago, we do not have the luxury of time. The pace and scale of biodiversity decline, along with accelerating global warming, is starting to destabilise our world. The need to act on climate change and to restore nature is now so urgent, so pressing, that we have no more time to waste.
In the coming months there will be layers of detail to be worked through, and policy experts will be watching to ensure that new powers in the Environment Bill to review and refocus the Habitats Regulations, for example, do not lead to weaker protections for nature (this will be a key one to watch). There will be consultations to respond to and targets to examine. The direction of travel looks good, but we are not there yet.
So - keep lobbying, keep writing to your MP, keep sharing information, keep educating others, keep the pressure on. We have the chance to turn this around, and there are real signs that our government, and governments around the world, are waking up. But until we see these promises turn into change on the ground we still need to fight for our future.
You can watch the event below (please note there are sound quality issues until 16 minutes in).