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Will targets help tackle the nature crisis?

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Georgia Stokes

CEO of Somerset Wildlife Trust

In this feature Georgia Stokes of the Somerset Wildlife Trust explains the challenges of delivering the Government’s environmental targets and elucidates some prime examples where targets and practise are not necessarily in alignment.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for some years, you will know that globally we are facing an existential crisis due to climate change and that world leaders committed in the Paris Agreement to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to keep our warming climate to 1.5 degrees.

What’s perhaps less well known is that we are facing a twin crisis of equal and connected importance: an ecological emergency with one million species world wide facing extinction and our ecosystems on the brink of total collapse. In the UK 41% of species are in decline, with some at risk of disappearing forever.

These two crises are interlinked. Climate change is worsening biodiversity loss, and ecosystem decline is increasing climate change. We must tackle these two emergencies together: investing in restoring nature at scale can and will help us reduce the impact of climate change and help us adapt to the changes that are inevitable.

Somerset Wildlife Trust has been working with communities, land owners and partners, supported by hundreds of volunteers, to protect nature across the county since 1964. We manage nearly 2000 hectares of land across 70 sides with an enormous amount of diversity of species and habitats.

We were the first to purchase a peat void on the Somerset Levels and Moors, recognising the opportunity to turn an industrialised landscape scarred from peat extraction into a haven for wildlife. We raised & invested millions of pounds to create the internationally acclaimed Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve; now part of a network of NNRs that together make up one of UK conservation’s greatest success stories, protection of the Bittern. Once extinct, Somerset is now home to a quarter of the UK’s Bittern population.

However, this has not been enough.

Nature is in decline in Somerset, as it is globally. We recognised in our Wilder Somerset 2030 strategy launched last year that we need to do more, faster and we need to do things differently. We have set ourselves the target to work with communities, partners, land owners, local authorities and business to get 1 in 4 people taking action for nature, to achieve at least 30% of land and sea managed positively for nature but improving everywhere. These goals are shared by The Wildlife Trusts, a federation of 46 independent charities working together for nature’s recovery in the UK. To achieve our goals we need everyone involved including local and national government, and that’s where legally-binding targets are needed.

View Georgia at our Taunton Panel event on the Environment in the South West

The Environment Act

In November 2021, the long awaited Environment Act finally became law. This is ground-breaking legislation that recognises the need for all of us to do more to protect and restore nature to the UK, and to take action to address the nature and climate emergencies together.

The Act contains a number of important new policies and the requirement for a new legally-binding 2030 target on species abundance. While we welcome a legally-binding target we have concerns over implementation and scope.

Targets are useful but they must be followed up by investment and support for delivery. Globally and in the UK, we are failing to hit the targets that have already been set for the climate. The recent IPCC report warned that unless urgent action is taken the 1.5 degree target will soon be beyond reach. So, will the targets for nature be any different?

There are some key things we need to ensure happen to make these targets meaningful with a focus on delivery:

  • Targets must be clear
  • There must be a clear and agreed baseline
  • Targets must be followed with investment and resource
  • Targets must be fully embedded in decision-making
  • Targets must be monitored, reported on with monitoring informing future delivery
  • Targets must align and be delivered together

Setting Clear Targets

The current wording in the amendment to the Environment Act that sets the abundance target is to ‘further the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species’. This does not go nearly far enough, and does not measure up to the promise from Secretary of State, George Eustace delivering a speech in May 2021 committing to the ‘net zero equivalent for nature’. If we are do have any meaningful impact on the state of nature we must commit to reversing declines, to put nature into recovery; restoring healthy, functioning ecosystems.

Agreeing a Baseline

In September 2020, the Prime Minister committed the UK government to protect 30% of the UK’s land for nature. We welcome this commitment; however the detail is important. According to the government we are already at 26% because they have included all existing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These areas are indeed designated as important landscapes, but not for nature. The real figure is far lower. In England, 8% of land has a designation for nature and of that, only 40% is in good condition. That equates to about 3% of land protected for nature – a far cry from the government’s claim of 26%.

If targets are to deliver meaningful and much needed change to tackle the nature crisis we must start with an honest baseline.

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Georgia and Environment Minister Rebecca Pow MP listening to the environmental concerns of local Councillors

Targets to be followed with investment and resource

We are now waiting for a Green Paper on nature that will set clear targets for nature and how they will be measured, which must include the actual baseline. These targets must then focus on improving the condition as well as quantity of habitats, and species abundance, diversity and distribution.

For instance, there must be a target that at least 75% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are  in good condition with a clear date for this to be achieved, current baseline is 38%. This is particularly important for Somerset with the recent downgrading of all Levels and Moors SSSIs to ‘unfavourable – declining’ (second lowest only to ‘failing’) due to poor water quality from high phosphate load. To achieve this target there will need to significant resource available to address the reasons these sites are in poor condition.

Targets must be embedded in decision-making

An important commitment in the Environment Act is developing Local Nature Recovery Strategies; local spatial strategies that establish priorities and map opportunities for nature’s recovery in each local area (usually county) of England. These could be very positive if they are fully embedded in the planning system with legal requirements for them to be implemented. If the planning system requires applications to just ‘have regard to’ this is next to meaningless. Those of us who work with the planning system know this simply means a need to mention the relevant policy has been read – there is no requirement to act or implement. It must be mandatory that Local Nature Recovery Strategies are implemented through the planning system otherwise they are next to meaningless.

Targets must be monitored

We welcome the requirement for all new developments to deliver at least 10% Biodiversity Net Gain. This must come with a principle to avoid harm first and must be seen as a minimum amount. Crucial to the success of net gain is the monitoring. We must make sure that net gain is actually being delivered in practice, not just in theory. This is where the Environment Act and the subsequent DEFRA metrics currently fall down. How will net gain be monitored and even more important, what happens if net gain is not achieved?

We need clear monitoring and enforcement mechanisms and a recognition that net gain cannot be applied to irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodlands or peatlands.

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Somerset peat extraction: then and now.
Credit: Background- Patrick Mackie, foreground- Alexander Hasse

Targets must align and be delivered together

The Environment Act targets must work with the new Environmental Land Management Systems, replacing EU agri-environment schemes (known as ELMS). ELMS must contribute to delivering the targets for nature and to the Local Nature Recovery Strategy. Likewise, Biodiversity Net Gain must be integrated as part of the Local Nature Recovery Strategy, which should identify the opportunities for Biodiversity Net Gain impact and drive nature’s recovery.

Perhaps one of the most important areas for Somerset where government policy does not currently align, is the area of peat. Our peat soils are so important for nature and for the climate. Peatland habitats are home to a wide range of fantastic species and wildlife cover only 3% of the earth’s surface but contain 30% of all soil carbon.

We welcome the Peat Action Plan for England coming from the Environment Act, including the target to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland. This is a good start but the importance of our upland and lowland peatlands for nature and the climate cannot be understated. We estimate the Somerset Levels and Moors is currently storing almost 11 million tonnes of carbon in our peat soils. How we manage this land, restoring and rewetting the peat is crucial to nature’s recovery and our actions to mitigate climate change. It is therefore illogical that peat extraction is allowed to continue in Somerset at huge environmental and carbon cost, which you can read more about here. In fact, in Somerset we have been successful in securing £350k funding from the DEFRA Peatland Grant scheme to develop peatland restoration projects including on one of our sites, Honeygar. Right next door peat extraction is continuing requiring significant drainage of the surrounding land, drying out the very peat DEFRA is paying us to restore.

We need immediate action to end peat extraction with a complete and urgent ban on all peat sales (retail and professional) and an end to imports. Voluntary targets and other measures haven’t worked.

The Environment Act is certainly a big step forwards and there is much to welcome. The targets themselves have the potential to be meaningful, but like all targets they also have the potential to deliver nothing. What will make the change is the political will at all levels and the investment in delivery that follows.

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