Stanley Johnson: Why we need a clear domestic target to restore nature by 2030

1 Mar

Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist, author, former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate.  His new novel, The Warming, will be published next year.

Today, the Chief Executieves of more than fifty environmental non-governmental organisations have written to the Prime Minister, thanking him for his “personal efforts to put the UK at the forefront of international work to mend our broken relationship with nature”,

They refer, in particular, to the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, supported by the Prime Minister, and now signed by Leaders of 84 countries and the European Union, which proudly boasts in a banner headline that they – the leaders – are “united to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 for sustainable development”.

They insist that, to achieve that aim, the Leaders’ Pledge must be a “precursor for a strong international deal” at the 15th Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) which is due to place later this year in Kunming, China.

Owing to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the Kunming meeting – planned for May – is likely to be delayed again, and a new date has yet to be fixed. That is a matter for China, as the host of COP 15, to decide.

But one thing is certain. The Kunming Conference is likely to be as significant for the world’s biodiversity as the 26th meeting of the UN’s Climate Change Conference (COP 26), which will take place in Glasgow in November this year with Alok Sharma presiding, will be for the world’s climate.

Indeed, the two issues are inextricably linked. Quite apart from the fundamental importance of nature and natural resources for the health and wealth of nations, ‘nature-based solutions’ will play a major role in the fight against global warming. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, for example, probably the most respected international body in the field of nature conservation, has recently stated  that “each country should maximize the contribution of nature-based solutions; ramping up nature conservation is critical for solving the climate emergency: nature-based climate solutions have the potential to provide up to 37 per cent of the climate change mitigation needed by 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2°C.”

In today’s letter to the Prime Minister, the NGO chiefs go on to say: “though the UK is uniquely placed to secure a global agreement and can show real leadership by setting an example domestically, more decisive action is needed here in the UK to ensure we realise this rare opportunity”.

They point specifically to the Environment Bill, and the opportunities it may provide if some simple changes are made to the text currently before Parliament. They hope, in particular, to ensure that the Bill includes a clear domestic target to restore nature by 2030.

They point out that though, under the current draft, the Secretary of State has the power to set biodiversity targets – and indeed an obligation to do so – the Government would not in fact be allowed to set new 2030 targets in law since Clause 1 (6) of the Bill provides that any target date must be “no less than 15 years after the date on which the target is initially set”.

“This mismatch in urgency and timescales means that it would not be possible to set a 2030 target to halt nature’s decline, and that important actions to deliver it, such as your own commitment to protect and manage 30 per cent of land and seas for nature by 2030, cannot be placed in law under the Environment Bill framework.”

The NGO leaders are much impressed by the impact on policy of the 2008 Climate Change Act, and the legally binding targets established under its terms for greenhouse gas reductions. They believe that the same approach can be adopted for nature protection: “just as the UK led the way in creating the world’s first Climate Change Act, so we can be the first country to set ambitious targets in law for the recovery of the natural world.”

But it is not only a question of protecting and restoring our own wildlife, our wild areas and landscapes, and much-threatened biodiversit -, whether terrestrial or marine. The Environment Bill, with a key legally binding biodiversity target to halt and begin to restore the loss of biodiversity enshrined in the primary legislation, could be a template for other countries ahead of COP15. It might even help to strengthen their resolve to achieve a truly ambitious global biodiversity deal at Kunming.

So I much hope that the fifty-plus NGO leaders who wrote to the Prime Minister today, and the nation-wide petition which they are launching, do indeed succeed in their aim of persuading the government to include, as of now, a “State of Nature Target” clause in the Environment Bill.

George Eustice, Rebecca Pow and their team have done a tremendous job in getting this once-in-a generation environmental legislation as far as they have under tremendously difficult circumstances. Now is the time to go that extra mile.

And I also hope that China, with its own superb mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, coasts and wildlife, is able to seize the spectacular opportunity that hosting COP 15 presents. We have continued to destroy our natural world as if there were no tomorrow. To give just one example: according to WWF’s Living Planet Index, world-wide population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have seen an alarming average drop of 68 per cent since 1970. We have been trashing nature and wildlife for much too long. Now is the time to stop.