Why Secretary of State George Eustace plans are not enough

Bingsty common - Andy Bartlett

2021 is a big year for international conferences, and the UK is playing a big role in them. The G7 summit in June in Cornwall, the COP 26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in November, and just as important, but less close to home, the Beijing Conference on Biodiversity in October. 

Pressure on World leaders to cooperate will be as high as it has ever been, with health, humanitarian and environmental crises crippling economies and dominating headlines across the globe.

Gatherings of World leaders generally conclude with grand statements, and we usually get a sense of the appetite for ambition in the run up to these events.  So far there are signs of promise.  Our own government has set World leading targets on carbon reduction, and these have recently been sharpened considerably in the run up to COP 26. We should commend the progress made of course - compare it with Brazil’s lame offer to stop illegal deforestation by 2030. 

This week we heard another big announcement from government.  Topping the bill was a commitment to introduce a legally binding target to halt the decline of species by 2030.  The detail is still somewhat vague, but this is a huge step forward and shows, as much as anything else, that concerted pressure from the public really can push governments to make changes. Secretary of State George Eustace had plenty to say about tree planting, restoring peat bogs and species reintroduction too, with several name checks for the beaver, as well as passing references to the golden eagle, wild cat and red backed shrike.

These announcements are undoubtedly a step forward and are more than welcome.  But targets and grand statements will only cut the mustard if there are laws, policies and plans to back them up.  From Rio in 1992 to Paris in 2015, a quick look at the past record of nations’ delivery compared with rhetoric gives little cause for celebration.  The dangers of history repeating itself are all too clear in the UK’s commitments.  We’ve made good progress on renewable energy for sure.  But £billion on new roads? Scrapping the Green Homes Grant?  New coal mines in Cumbria?  Something is not adding up.

The Scale of the ambition is rather less than the words would have us believe

So it’s worth taking a closer look at the government’s recent announcement on the natural environment.  The scale of ambition is rather less than the words would have us believe.  Take peat.  The hard facts about peat bogs are well known, but they are worth repeating.  They hold more carbon than any other habitat, storing one third of all soil carbon in just 3% of the land surface, more than forests and all other vegetation combined.  They play a crucial role in storing, regulating and purifying water supply.  They are vitally important wildlife habitats, being the basis of some of our most productive and wildlife rich ecosystems. Fenor Bog in County Waterford, Ireland has 118 plant species in one square kilometre.  Tropical peat bogs boast far larger numbers.  Yet they are being drained, ploughed, dug up, burned and desiccated at a truly alarming rate. Intact peat bogs in Europe are hard to find, and a shocking 80% of UK peat bogs are damaged and emitting carbon.

Good news then that the government is setting a target for restoring peat bogs.  The trouble is, the upper limit of their ambition is 35,000ha, or about 5% of the UK’s peat bogs.  That would leave three quarters of our peat bogs damaged and giving off carbon dioxide.  But it’s more worrying than that.  Unbelievably, we are still selling garden compost with peat in it.  You can go to any garden centre and buy it.  In fact, you probably wouldn’t even know as there is no obligation to label clearly.  There are perfectly acceptable alternatives to peat compost, so surely it’s a no brainer – ban it!  But no, after decades of lobbying, and a recent campaign by The Wildlife Trusts, the government has decided to hold a public consultation about whether we should ban peat in garden compost.  Which means we are likely to be digging up pristine peat bogs to fill those plastic bags that feed our roses, dahlias and lilies for some years yet.  We need our leaders to be much, much braver than this.

What’s equally striking about the government’s announcement is what was not in it.  And of the many things that could go on that list, it’s our continued failure to protect what we currently have that really stands out.  Only one fifth of our rivers are in a healthy state.  Yet the resources to help prevent pollution and take action against those who do are barely a tenth of what they were a decade ago.  And we are still subsidising environmental destruction on a grand scale.  It was heart-breaking to see the bulldozers and chainsaws of HS2 smash through the Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve in Buckinghamshire last week, turning what was a beautiful woodland into sterile heaps of mud and rubble.

One government announcement isn’t going to solve every problem of course.  But this week a piece of utterly crucial legislation comes back to Parliament. The Environment Bill has been delayed, delayed and delayed again.  This alone tells us something about government priorities.  Now it has at last returned, we must remind our elected members that we expect nothing short of the absolute best.  World Leading.  Game changing.  Because we may not get another chance for many years.

So what do we want to see? 

First, better protection.  The watchdog proposed in the bill simply isn’t strong enough, and the planned reforms to the planning system look extremely worrying - a “developers’ charter” according to some commentators.  That’s why we still see big infrastructure projects ploughing through nature reserves and ancient woodland.  That’s why pollutants pour into our rivers and nobody is prosecuted.  These violations need to stop, and right now.  

Secondly, we need greater ambition.  5% of our peat bogs restored?  Why not 50%?  And 12 % of our country wooded?  Why not 20%?  After all, the European average is more than double this at 45%.  And let’s have similar targets for our heathlands, our wildflower meadows, our coastal wetlands.  This is the only way we are going to get anywhere near the 30% coverage of natural habitat we need.

Thirdly, we need the resources to make this happen.  £27 billion is being spent on new roads, and HS2 is costing over £80 billion.  The total amount being spent on the natural environment is less than one hundredth of this.  £3 billion a year – about treble the current level, but far less than almost every other area of government expenditure – would make a huge difference. It would mean large scale restoration projects could be properly funded.  It would help restore past damage done and tackle those who continue to cause problems.

The Environment Bill is this government’s landmark piece of legislation.  Thanks to the recent improvements, in particular the legally binding target, it’s looking a lot better than it was, but it is still a long way from guaranteeing that we’ll leave the environment in a better state than we found it.  

So please add your name to our State of Nature petition to tell the Government about the changes we want to see.  Please tell them we need much stronger protection, much greater ambition and the funding to make it happen.  Please tell them about the importance of giving the Nature Recovery Network real teeth in the bill, and that we need 30% of our land and seas in recovery for wildlife, not just 30% designated as National Parks.  Public pressure has led to this announcement and the introduction of a legally binding target – something the government resisted for a long time.  Public pressure can bring about further positive changes too.   

It feels like we are on the cusp of a radical shift.  We have the money, the technology and the public support for largescale change.  Now we just need the political will.  That will ultimately be driven by public pressure and intelligent consumer choice.  And that is up to all of us.  This is our moment!

Sign the State of Nature petition here