Environment Bill

Environment Bill

Robinswood Hill by Nathan Millar

For much of my career, getting airtime with politicians and other decision makers to talk seriously about the environment has been a largely depressing experience. In the face of devastating evidence about the ecological and climate emergencies, there always seemed an excuse to bump nature down the list. But in the last few weeks, there are signs that finally we are making the first step on the long journey to nature’s recovery.

Seeds of hope?

Last month, the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, set out plans to restore nature and build back greener after the pandemic. He unveiled a range of policy announcements for nature’s recovery, including new peat and tree strategies, increased funding, and a species reintroduction taskforce. You can find out more about the detail of the announcement and the Wildlife Trusts’ response here.

Collin Park Wood - Nathan Miller

Collin Park Wood - Nathan Miller

A ‘net zero’ for nature 

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. 

This is big news because recognising the link between the ecological and climate emergencies is long overdue. The two crises are interlinked, and we cannot talk about one without addressing the other.

I am delighted that everyone wants to talk about planting trees now, largely because they understand that trees store carbon and can help to tackle the climate crisis. But while woodlands (and indeed peatlands, grasslands and wetlands) may well be important carbon stores that is not the (only) reason to care about their future. They deliver heaps of other benefits to people, like preventing flooding, keeping us healthy, and providing us with amazing places to live and visit. But just as important, they support thriving ecosystems on which we all depend.

So, this is a significant shift – a pledge that government policy will deliver on what the Prime Minister has referred to as “two sides of the same coin” and begin to look at how we tackle the climate and ecological emergencies together. The Environment Bill has featured now in three Queen’s speeches and is one of the most delayed pieces of legislation in history. Addressing the urgency of losses in the natural world is going to need a seismic change in funding and attention to the nature side of the coin, but it looks like the policy commitment at least is there.

Tree Planting_Stockley Hill

Tree planting at Stockley Hill

10 years to turn around the decline 

Turning this policy into action will not be an easy task. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and our wild places in Gloucestershire and around the UK are too few and too fragmented. The government have declared an ambition of 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 but to get there we need to think about restoration on a grand scale. Vast restoration projects will need funding to help reach the target, but they can deliver multiple benefits.

Along with other Wildlife Trusts we fear that there is a real danger of ‘building back’ just as before – by investing in new roads and infrastructure such as HS2, rather than investing in nature on land and at sea on the scale that is urgently needed. Our survey at GWT last year just after the first lockdown made it clear that most people wanted stronger leadership and action from local and national Government on tackling the biodiversity and climate crises, together.

We have less than 10 years to turn around declines in wildlife. That’s a sobering fact and we’ll be sharing with members shortly some of our plans for the next 10 years, reflecting the urgency for Gloucestershire and the whole country. In essence we want to focus much more on delivering nature’s recovery at scale, getting more people to take action for nature, and making sure that nature plays its proper role in our county in addressing the climate emergency. Watch out for our summer mailing so you can let us know what you think about our draft plans.

Red Mason Bee

Red mason bee (c) Penny Frith

A turn around year?

So back to influencing politicians and decision makers. Are they listening now? Well, I am pleased to say there has been some progress, but we’ve got a long way to go. Despite some great pledges, we are still seeing new homes and infrastructure built in the county without proper regard for wildlife, natural solutions to climate change (like the pioneering Stroud Rural SuDS Project) are not being scaled-up, and our remaining wild places are really struggling as their size and functionality dwindles.

Could this be a turnaround year in political terms for nature and the climate? The UK is hosting the G7 summit in Cornwall this month, where some of the world’s wealthiest nations will come together to discuss nature and climate as one of four key policy priorities (check out this great film from our friends in Cornwall Wildlife Trust welcoming the delegates). In October nations come together for the United Nations Biodiversity Conference to set international targets for nature’s recovery. And the UK is hosting the United Nations Climate Conference COP26 in Glasgow, where there is a real opportunity for the UK to push the role of natural solutions in tackling the climate crisis.

Fingers crossed the urgency of the nature/climate challenge is recognised at these summits. Changing behaviours and doing things differently means turning round a ‘super tanker’ in so many areas of life. But if the pandemic has taught us anything in the last year, it’s that change is possible.

St Ives (c) PixabaySt Ives (c) Pixabay

St Ives (c) Pixabay