Environmentalists have welcomed the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to protect England’s biodiversity as a step in the right direction but say it doesn’t go far enough.
Johnson pledged to ensure that 30% of land in England would be protected for biodiversity. Some 26% of this land is already protected as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other designations, so in reality he is talking about adding a further 4% – around 400,000 hectares.
Environmentalists have also said that some of the land already ‘protected’ isn’t looked after well and some is subjected to heavy pesticide use, harmful to nature. They add that it is widely accepted that the enforcement bodies charged with looking after our protected lands, and nature - such as Natural England and the Environment Agency - are underfunded and under-resourced.
Professor Dave Goulson at Sussex University’s school of life sciences said: “I’m delighted to hear the words and ambition, but the devil is in the detail. Words are easy, genuinely helping biodiversity is not.
“The announcement notes that 26% of the UK is already protected for nature, for example in National Parks. Yet many of our national parks, such as the South Downs where I live, are largely intensive farmland – huge monoculture fields, drenched in pesticides.
“Much of the Lake District is heavily overgrazed sheep country. These areas do not support biodiversity, and so we are kidding ourselves if we think anywhere near 26% is already protected.”
Goulson is the author of several books on bees, and more recently a title encouraging increased use of allotments to produce zero food miles and healthy food, which are rich in biodiversity. Although, he says, allotments would not solve the biodiversity crisis in itself.
The Prime Minister unveiled his plans to increase land for biodiversity in England in the run up to the UN summit on biodiversity – being held virtually in New York – that opened yesterday (30 September).
Sustain’s sustainable farming campaign coordinator Vicki Hird said: “I can see why [Johnson] has done it. And it's important to show leadership at the UN and to other players. On the global platform […] it's good to be seen to be doing something specific.
“That's probably what it's about. But the reality on the ground is that nothing has really changed. We've got to do so much more on protecting nature and protecting our health. The evidence is that that we're not doing very well and in fact, many countries aren't doing very well. As you saw in the data none of the big targets are being met globally.”
UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has said COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of biodiversity, as destroying it destroys the systems that support human life; and that the more diverse an ecosystem, the more difficult it is for pathogens to spread or dominate. Yet UN biodiversity targets are being missed across the board.
Hird said: “We absolutely rely on biodiversity and nature. Therefore, if we destroy it. We're destroying ourselves. We need to have as much global effort put into protecting it and nurturing it as we do with climate.”
She added: “The reality is we're not attacking the underlying drivers, which include poverty and inequality. They include commodity chain and global corporations being able to do whatever they want. There's a lot of really deep, difficult policy change that needs to happen.”
She pointed to a range of issues that need to be addressed from the paper we write on, to protecting the habitats that are being cut down to produce cheap protein, to the clothes we wear and the materials we use to make them. She argued that what we need are global rules and regulations to protect habitats, that will hold companies accountable.
Hird said: “That will require a global coordinated effort, because if one country like the UK or even Europe sets legal measures to stop deforestation, it's not going to work unless it's actually implemented on the ground in the country where the destruction is happening.
“But, you know, in the UN at the moment they are all making their pledges. They ought to be pledging to have a massive investment in new legal approaches to protecting the biodiversity, not just not having reserves […] that look great.”
The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs is currently consulting on measures to protect forest environments around the world, which is open to the public until 5 October 2020.
A life on our planet
Conservationist Sir David Attenborough has helped biodiversity take centre stage in his latest documentary A Life On Our Planet. He famously brought to the public’s attention the scourge of plastic waste in the Blue Planet series, and environmentalists hope he may do the same for biodiversity.
This week he issued a rallying cry to not waste food and natural resources – but also not to waste “power” to demand that governments take action to protect our environment.
Attenborough told BBC Breakfast: “Don’t waste, don’t waste anything, don’t waste electricity, don’t waste food, don’t waste power – just treat the natural world as though it is precious, which it is – and don’t squander those bits of it that we have control of.”
In the face of other large countries being slow or sceptical about climate action he said: “We have to do what is in our power, we can’t take that as an excuse for doing nothing. We must do everything that all of us can do and must do.”
Hird said: “I thought that was so nice because of everything he's talking about, food waste, or waste from clothing, but he's actually also saying don't waste your ‘power’. I thought that was fantastic. So we as citizens ought to be demanding that our government do more.”