The government will not be able to achieve its nature targets by 2030, even though they are “embarrassingly poor”, the shadow environment minister and leading wildlife groups have said.
Next week at the Cop15 biodiversity conference in Montreal, Alex Sobel will be discussing Labour’s “science-led, joined-up plan to tackle the climate and ecological emergency”. The plan will aim to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, rather than simply halting it, which is the government’s current target.
As Thérèse Coffey heads to Cop15, the environment secretary is being subject to scrutiny on the government’s record on and plans for nature. The government has set a species abundance target, which suggested the UK would halt the decline in species abundance by 2030 and commit to increasing the abundance of wildlife by 10% by 2042, compared with 2030 levels.
Nevertheless, experts have little confidence that the government can halt the loss of biodiversity quickly. They expect that by 2030, even if the loss is halted, biodiversity will be far less abundant than it is today. Therefore, an increase of 10% on 2030 levels may result in less biodiversity by 2042 than we have today.
Alex Sobel, the shadow minister for nature recovery and domestic environment, who will also be in Montreal, said: “It’s clear the government won’t even be able to achieve their embarrassingly poor targets for protecting the UK’s natural environment. Ahead of Cop15, the UK should have been leading on biodiversity, challenging other countries and highlighting nature-based solutions, but the government are not treating it with the seriousness that it needs.”
He fears the UK will be unable to command the world stage at the nature summit, as the country’s biodiversity is so depleted. Sobel said: “The Conservatives promised that the Environment Act would deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth, but they have failed to do the bare minimum. They missed the legal deadline to introduce environmental targets, and it looks increasingly unlikely that they will meet their promised 30 by 30 deadline; a monumental dereliction of duty.
“Cop15 is an opportunity for countries come together to find and agree on solutions to the big challenges that face our planet. But the message to international friends, partners, and allies is that the UK is happy to kick biodiversity challenges down the road.”
Labour is considering tightening the ban on burning peatlands, some of Britain’s most important carbon sinks. The current law, put in place by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government only bans the burning of vegetation on deep peat on a protected site without a licence. This allows a large amount of England’s peat to be degraded.
“Peat is a hugely important carbon store for the UK. The government have an arbitrary policy full of loopholes, and no proper enforcement,” Sobel said.
He wants to review and potentially expand the Conservatives’ nature-friendly farming payment schemes to include, for example, hedgerow creation. “Unfortunately, the UK is one of the most severely nature-depleted countries worldwide. Going forward we need to focus on improving our rewilding, reforesting and biodiversity, which includes hedgerows. We should be the change we want to see – action at home can showcase for the world how nature can be practically lived across government.
“Labour has committed to a proper test for every single nature policy that halts and reverses the loss of biodiversity by 2030, for the benefit of all people and the planet. Labour will also introduce a clean air act to clean up the air in our cities.”
He would also look at further restricting the use of trawlers in the ocean in a bid to rewild the seas, protecting them from the most destructive fishing techniques.
Sobel said: “The Conservatives have failed to protect our seas. Trawler nets ripped the kelp from the sea bed and harmful sediments are regularly dumped from dredging activity. A sustained programme of ocean rewilding must be part of any plan to tackle the climate emergency and yet it is barely talked about in public policy.”
Nature organisations agree that the government’s targets are not good enough, and 20 scientists are protesting outside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) offices in London because they believe the government has failed to take the required steps to protect nature. They include leading experts in ecology and conservation science who have previously worked for or advised Defra.
Elliot Chapman-Jones, the head of public affairs at the Wildlife Trusts, said: “We are losing nature at a faster rate than any time in our history. Wildlife populations are the lowest they have ever been, and once common species could be lost forever. Halting this catastrophic decline by the end of the decade will require urgent and transformative action.
“Yet, progress is being held back by the government’s culture of delay – failing to deliver critical environmental policies on time and abysmally short of their pledge to protect at least 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030.
“Current plans will mean even less wildlife in 20 years’ time than the much-depleted state that we have now. A truly ‘world leading’ target must aim to leave the next generation with more nature – not less.”
Rosie Hails, the nature and science director at the National Trust, said: “Ending nature’s decline is urgent and essential – and it shouldn’t take another eight years to stop the numbers falling. But at the current rate of decline, it’s going to be a huge effort to even meet that target. With precious wildlife facing threats from every direction, there is a mammoth task ahead.”
Defra has been contacted for comment.