The House of Lords is scheduled to debate two motions relating to biodiversity over the next week. The first, scheduled for 22 April 2021 is being moved by Lord Teverson (Liberal Democrat) and asks the Government what plans it has to “declare a biodiversity emergency”.

The second, scheduled for 28 April 2021, is being moved by Baroness Boycott (Crossbench) and is taking place in grand committee. It asks the grand committee to take note of the “economic value of biodiversity and the report ‘The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review’, published on 2 February 2021”.

What is biodiversity?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs defines biodiversity as “the variety of all life on earth: genes, species and ecosystems. It includes all species of animals and plants, and the natural systems that support them”.

The Government’s strategic plan for biodiversity said that it is “key to the survival of life on earth.” An international ‘pledge for nature’, signed by the UK, also suggested that biodiversity loss will lead to “significant damage to global economic, social and political resilience and stability and will render achieving the [United Nation’s] sustainable development goals impossible”.

The Government has stated that there is a “biodiversity crisis”, saying it was in “unprecedented decline”. It estimated that 75% of the world’s land surface and 66% of the ocean has been “significantly altered and degraded by human activity” and that “one million species are threatened with extinction”. Other estimates suggest that only 3% of the world’s land remains “ecologically intact”.

Government policy

Biodiversity strategy

In 2011, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a strategic plan for biodiversity in England, Biodiversity 2000. The strategy argued that “nature is consistently undervalued in decision making” and, by altering this approach, it sought to reverse the decline in habitats and species. Its four priority areas for action were:

  • Establishing an integrated, coherent network of ecological areas on land and at sea, replacing the previous more “piecemeal” approach to conservation.
  • Engaging more people in biodiversity issues, including through nature conservation organisations, schools, and volunteering organisations.
  • Reducing pressures on biodiversity in areas such as agriculture, land management, forestry, fisheries and the planning system.
  • Improving the data and information available on biodiversity.

The Government published an evaluation of the strategy in 2019. It considered eight of the targets set by the plan. It found that in five cases there had been insufficient progress to meet the target. For the remaining three, there was either a risk of missing them or data was not available to make an assessment.

In December 2020, the Government stated that it was “developing a new strategy for nature to replace Biodiversity 2020”. It had previously said that the new strategy would include plans to:

  • promote clean, safe, healthy, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas;
  • restore 75% of the UK’s protected sites to favourable condition by 2042; and
  • establish a ‘nature recovery network’ to expand and connect wildlife habitats, by developing partnerships to manage land in a way that supports the recovery of wildlife.

Biodiversity is a devolved matter, although the UK Government has responsibility for obligations arising from international treaties and conventions. The devolved administrations have published the following:

Twenty-five year environment plan

In January 2018, the Government published a ’25 year plan’ to improve the environment. It set out a range of policies to promote biodiversity, including:

  • Strengthening the planning system so that proposed developments generated “biodiversity net gains”. An August 2020 white paper on planning expanded on these ideas, and provisions in the current Environment Bill (see below) would enact some of the proposals.
  • Increasing the number of ‘marine conservation zones’. 41 additional zones were designated in May 2019.
  • Reducing the illegal trade in wildlife, including financial help for developing countries.
  • Using a ‘natural capital approach’ to place values on nature and the environment, thereby allowing them to be protected and enhanced.

Environment Bill

An Environment Bill is currently going through Parliament. Its provisions in the area of biodiversity include:

  • Making a net gain in biodiversity of 10% a condition of planning permission.
  • Placing a duty on local authorities to consider what action they can take to conserve and enhance biodiversity.
  • Creating ‘local nature recovery strategies’.
  • Additional controls on the felling of trees.

Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

In the March 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the Prime Minister said that tackling climate change and biodiversity loss would be the Government’s “number one international priority”. The review argued that the UK was at the “forefront of climate action”; for example, it said the UK was the first major economy to adopt a legal obligation to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It also referred to the international climate finance programme. This has invested £5.8 billion over the last five years. The Prime Minister has committed to doubling this spend to £11.6 billion between 2021 and 2025.

Dasgupta review

In February 2021, HM Treasury published the report of an independent, global review of the economics of biodiversity, led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. It found that biodiversity was “declining faster than at any time in human history”, leading to “extreme risk and uncertainty for our economies and well-being”. It called for immediate action to reverse these trends.

The review said that human demands for goods and services “far exceed” nature’s ability to supply them. As a result, it estimated that the stock of natural capital per head of world population decreased by 40% between 1992 and 2014.

Recommendations from the review included:

  • Humanity should “fundamentally restructure” its production and consumption patterns to reduce demands on nature. This would include greater recycling, reuse and sharing of materials.
  • Introduce natural capital into the national accounts systems, so that measures of economic activity, such as GDP, better reflect “inclusive wealth” (ie including natural assets). This would mean that economic decision-making took more account of natural assets.
  • New supranational institutions. These could, for example, supervise payments to countries to conserve natural assets on which all humankind relies, such as rainforests. They might also oversee management of international waters.
  • Restructuring the financial system so that it channels investments towards activities that enhance the stock of natural assets and encourage sustainable consumption and production.
  • Giving nature greater priority within education systems, allowing citizens to make informed choices and demand change.
  • Investing in natural capital as part of the recovery package after the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government has not published a formal response to the Dasgupta review. However, the Integrated Review said it would respond by investing in nature and in a “nature positive” economy by “integrating biodiversity into economic decision-making”.

Biodiversity indicators

Since 2012, the UK has published annually its progress towards a set of biodiversity goals known as the ‘Aichi targets’. In its 2020 update, considering long-term trends, the indicators suggested that the UK was:

  • improving on 23 of the 42 indicators assessed;
  • showing little or no change on 3 of the 42;
  • deteriorating on 14 indicators; and
  • that there was insufficient data to form a judgement on the remaining two.

In a report published in February 2021, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said that the Government was on track to meet only a quarter of its biodiversity goals.

International conferences COP15 and COP26

COP15 is the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). CBD is a multilateral treaty on biodiversity. It was signed in 1992 and came into force in 1993. The UK was one of the original signatories. Currently, it has 168 signatory countries, and a further 32 parties who are not signatories.

COP15 will take place in Kunming, China, in May 2021. It is expected to review the CBD’s 2011 to 2020 strategic plan, and put in place a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

The UK Government said that at COP15 it would be “driving support for ambitious new global targets for nature”. These targets include protecting at least 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030.

COP15 precedes the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November 2021.

The UK is also a signatory to the ‘leaders’ pledge for nature’, drawn up at a UN summit on biodiversity in September 2020. The pledge commits countries to a series of actions to “put nature and biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030”. These included international cooperation and multilateral action in areas such as pollution, supply chains and land use.

Read more

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into biodiversity and ecosystems. The committee has not yet published its report, but transcripts of evidence from a range of witnesses are available on its website. Witnesses to date include Professor Partha Dasgupta and representatives of the Government.

Cover image from Pixabay.