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Wales Needs to Put its Law Where its Mouth is for Nature Restoration

Nature restoration in Wales following COP 15
alexander phillips

Alexander Phillips

Policy and Advocacy Specialist

Alexander Phillips works on the Triple Challenge of Climate Change, Nature Loss, & Sustainable Food Supply for WWF in Wales.

In an exclusive for Chamber UK, policy specialist, Alexander Phillips at WWF Wales analyses Chamber UK’s interview with Welsh Minister for Climate Change Julie James, and discusses Wales’ stance on nature restoration following COP-15.

After several Covid-19 delays COP15 finally took place in Canada last December. Like the rest of the world the Welsh Government was there. Forever keen to play its part on the world stage and demonstrate the advantages of a small nation’s agility and ambition to respond to the Nature and Climate Emergency.

Environmental impact of Wales

Wales has a positive story to tell. Over the past decade we have set out to lower our environmental impact at home and abroad, improve our wider well-being, and set ourselves the target of hitting Net Zero by 2050. To achieve this, we put in place the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016.

As someone who contributed to both Acts, and who now analyses how well they are being implemented I appreciate that neither are perfect. That is the inevitable ‘realpolitik’ of developing legislation in the collaborative atmosphere that underpins Welsh democracy. Yet less than a decade on it has become increasingly obvious that there are gaps in urgent need of fixing.

COP15’s conclusions shined further light on one of particular importance: Nature Restoration.

The need for nature restoration

Wales and the wider UK are one of the most nature depleted nations on Earth. So established is this depletion that many of us don’t even see it. For generations we have become so used to landscapes with little nature in them that we have come to regard them as beautiful, while what was once normal has been pushed to the margins, or protected sites which are themselves in bad condition.

The Welsh Government responded to this challenge in 2016 by placing a duty on public authorities to “maintain and enhance biodiversity… and in doing so promote the resilience of ecosystems”.  Readers will note an obvious omission in that rather densely drafted piece of legalise, the fact that maintenance, enhancement, or resilience are very different to actual restoration.

Rather than restoring what’s been lost, our legislation’s ‘maintenance and enhance’ permits a focus on improving what’s left behind. From a nature perspective that obviously isn’t good enough and the recent COP15 demands we go further.

Criticism of Wales’ restoration agenda

In response to criticism of Wales’ restoration omission, government lawyers fall back to the idea that restoration requires the setting of a baseline to restore to. Something which can’t be done in a changing world. This is not fair criticism. Restoration does not imply returning to a precise past state and can instead mean achieving a percentage improvement or an intactness index level.

Furthermore, such reservations haven’t stopped COP15 from calling for restoration. It didn’t stop the European Union from setting nature restoration laws. It didn’t stop the UK Government from establishing long-term biodiversity restoration targets. Nor did it stop the government of Quebec from setting out the need for ecological restoration of ecosystems as far back as 2002. In other words, restoration is legislatively achievable! Sadly, for all its positive words about COP15 Wales remains behind the legislative curve. The new Agriculture (Wales) Bill 2022 is an opportunity for it to right the course. To set the restoration of biodiversity as an explicit objective for the new Sustainable Farming Scheme. Doing so would ensure that ~90% of Wales’ landscape could be supported to deliver that restoration. If it’s worried about conflicting with the existing Environment Act all it needs do is amend it as part of the process.

WWF Cymru is calling on the Welsh Government to deliver. You can support this call by joining our e-Action to strengthen the Agriculture Bill. Please do so today and help Wales fight the Nature and Climate Emergency.

Chamber’s interview with Welsh Minister for Climate Change, Julie James

View our interview with Julie James, Welsh Minister for Climate Change as we discuss biodiversity

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