Nature is in crisis. The UK and EU must not preside over another lost decade of delay and destruction.

Paul de Zylva06 May 2019

The UK prides itself on being a green and pleasant land. It also wants to be global leader on protecting nature. This is good because the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories abound with biodiversity and need care and attention.

The EU wants to step up action to halt global biodiversity loss. That matters because of the EU’s global influence as a trading power and political voice.

As the world wakes up to nature in crisis and governments prepare to renegotiate global agreements on reversing its decline, how well are the UK and EU faring? 

The state of nature in the UK

For a small island nation, the UK is blessed with a fantastic variety of wild species, habitats and tidal ranges, geology and soil types.  

Britain is home to most of the world’s chalk streams, to over 260 bee species (including 10% of all bumblebee species), internationally important bat species, 4,000 beetles, 2,500 butterfly and moth species, 1,500 lichens, 1,500 native higher plants and over 200 species of breeding bird.  

There is so much natural wealth to treasure but there is no getting away from declining state of nature in the UK, as revealed by many independent studies as well as official government data and reports. 

Indicators going the wrong way 

UK governments use a set of about 50 indicators to track the state of biodiversity – the habitats and the plant, insect and animal species they are home to – across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland1

12 of the indicators worsened over the 10 years to 2019. 8 worsened over the 5 years to 2019. Indicators flashing red for heading in the wrong direction include the condition of important habitats, the abundance and distribution of wild species, the size of fish in the North Sea, the status of pollinating insects, and birds on farmland and in woodlands.

Half of the indicators show some sign of improving over the long term (10 years to 2019) including sustainable fisheries and the extent of marine protected areas. But with only 18 indicators improving in the short term (5 years to 2019) the indicators may show that any progress is stalling.

  • Butterflies and birds - these continue to decline on farmland in Britain.
  • Landscapes - the condition of valued landscapes and habitats, many of which are so important for nature that they are important for the whole of Europe, is in decline. 
  • Priority wild species - the percentage of wild species most at risk and requiring priority action, which has deteriorated in both the short and long term. 
  • Water bodies - the proportion of lakes and wetlands in England in good condition confirming earlier data that just 17% of rivers in England are in good condition. 

This sorry picture is not new. For years the four UK governments have produced their own reports and data tracking on the state of nature as well as receiving independent reports of too many indicators heading in the wrong direction and advice on the action required to turn many more of the red indicators to green, and to keep them there. 

More than a decade ago, the 2008 state of the natural environment report from the UK government’s own wildlife watchdog found that “Over the last 50 years or so England's natural environment has suffered serious losses... Many of the surviving wildlife rich sites form a small isolated and fragmented resource.”2

Even protected areas show decline 

In 2010 a government commissioned review of the existing network of National Parks, nature reserves and other protected areas in England found “compelling evidence that England’s collection of wildlife sites are generally too small and too isolated, leading to declines in many of England’s characteristic species.”3

The first ever assessment of the UK’s natural ecosystems in 2011 found 30% of the UK’s ecosystem services in decline with many others in a reduced or degraded state4 . 

That means that the natural assets we all rely on for healthy food, for protection from flooding and for amazing natural heritage which supports UK tourism and recreation, are in diminished condition.

Then in 2013, the first ever State of Nature report showed that 3 in 5 UK species are declining with 60% of species declining since the 1960s of which 31 per cent are in strong decline5 .   

Nature depleted UK  

The second State of Nature report in 2016 found the abundance of wildlife in the UK falling with one in six animals, birds, fish and plants having been lost, more than one in 10 of wild UK species facing extinction and the number of the most endangered creatures falling by two-thirds since 19706

Shockingly, the report also showed the UK coming 189 out of 218 countries measured for how intact their nature and biodiversity is - making the UK among the world’s most nature-depleted countries. 

There’s no shortage of evidence of the parlous state of nature in the UK. The 2019 State of Nature report shows “no let-up in the loss of nature” in the UK and confirms the long term decline of UK nature with the average abundance of wild species declining by 10% since 1970. If that is not enough, the report shows the rate of wildlife decline steepening since 2010.

Will the UK meet its 2020 nature targets? 

So much time has been wasted in the face of so much evidence and the need for concerted action. Unsurprisingly, as has been clear for a while, the UK will also miss its 2020 targets to protect and restore nature.   

Along with other world governments the UK signed up to end and reverse nature’s decline by 2020. The UK was an enthusiastic lead player in negotiating the global nature agreement – the 2010 Nagoya Protocol – which was only needed because of the failure of world governments to hit the previous targets to stop and reverse harm to nature by 2010.  

The UK’s progress on meeting the 2020 targets it helped devise does not look good according to its own assessment of how it is meeting or, more accurately, missing the targets it signed up to a decade ago7 .

The UK government’s own assessment is that it will meet only 5 of the 20 targets which it helped negotiate in 2010 to reverse nature’s decline by 2020.

In the most crucial areas – the agreed targets on controlling pollution, restoring vulnerable ecosystems, the status of wild species and the condition of degraded ecosystems - the UK is nowhere near where it should be, especially given its aspiration to lead the world in action for nature.

A biodiversity Brexit?  

It is positive that the UK government has pledged that when the UK leaves the EU it will retain and abide by these standards and even seek to exceed them in its new global leadership role.  

As part of the EU, the UK has signed up to EU standards and laws which have been instrumental in protecting many species and habitats as well as raising standards for drinking water, clean beaches and bathing water and air quality.  

The government is due to enshrine existing EU standards and the UK’s future ambitions in a new Environment Act. Whether the new Act will be strong enough remains to be seen. 

The state of nature across the EU  

Nature and ecosystems are also in decline across Europe where a quarter (25%) of wild animals face extinction, most (65%) habitats of ecological importance are in unfavourable condition and ecosystem services are deteriorating8 .  

The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, which aims to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020, was adopted in 2011 after the previous 2010 target had been breached9 .  

The headline aim of the strategy is to “halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services by 2020, to restore ecosystems in so far as is feasible, and to step up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss.” 

A 2015 review of progress toward the EU’s 2020 deadline reported:  

“…biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU have continued… This is consistent with global trends and has serious implications for the capacity of biodiversity to meet human needs in the future.”10

The review concluded “…that the 2020 biodiversity targets can only be reached if implementation and enforcement efforts become considerably bolder and more ambitious. At the current rate of implementation, biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services will continue throughout the EU and globally, with significant implications for the capacity of biodiversity to meet human needs in the future.”  

Recognising on-going failures to take nature, biodiversity and ecosystems seriously, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) called on the EU Commission and Member States as a matter of urgency, "to give higher priority to achieving the 2020 targets.”11

Even so, a 2018 book still observed that, “The intensification of land use and increasing urbanisation seen in Europe are causing a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services on a dramatic scale.”12

Nature laws must be properly enforced 

Some EU Member States seem to go out of their way to harm nature. Poland, for instance, has tried to fell Europe’s most ancient forests, seemingly inspired by the arguments used by the Czech Republic which has attempted to clear fell ancient peat forests in its Šumava National Park. 

The EU has rightly stepped in to remind Member States of their nature duties but it will need to stay vigilant about such threats to Europe’s own nature. It also needs to examine its policies which potentially drive nature’s decline elsewhere in the worlds. For example, EU policies have supported harmful production such as oil palm and biofuels which are implicated in deforestation. 

The EU Birds and Habitats Directives are intended to protect the most important wild species and habitats across Europe. But a recent review found that although the laws were fit for purpose, as with attempts by Poland and the Czech Republic to destroy their protected forests, they need to be properly observed and implemented. 

A new EU Biodiversity Strategy is awaited which must improve implementation of the nature laws and renew the EU’s led role in reversing nature’s decline.  

The UK’s overseas nature hotspots 

Over 90% of the UK's biodiversity is located not in the UK mainland but in its Overseas Territories (UKOTs) located in some of the world’s biodiversity hotspots such as the Caribbean and Malta and parts of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. 

The UKOTs are home to many endemic species and undisturbed habitats of international significance including 33 Red List bird species - more than the whole of continental Europe. They have a combined 32,000 species of which at least 517 are globally threatened species. Even excluding the 60,000 or species which have yet to be properly recorded, that compares with 194 such species in mainland UK itself.   

The UKOTs also span large stretches of the south Atlantic, Indian and south Pacific oceans meaning the UK effectively manages the fifth largest area of ocean in the world and potentially the most biodiverse. An important step has been the UK’s creation of vast marine protection areas based around Pitcairn in the Pacific and Ascension in the Atlantic.  

Biodiversity in the UKOTs faces immediate and significant threats, particularly from invasive species, under-regulated development, over-exploitation of nature resources, and climate change. In inquiry by UK MPs found the UK government was failing adequately protect the globally significant nature in its overseas Territories.13

The UKOTs and its role in Europe mean both added responsibility and opportunities for the UK to lead action for nature and ecosystems at home, in Europe and globally. Will the UK rise to this challenge? 

Action or more delay and destruction? 

The UK and EU must step up and start delivering on the long-standing agreed aims under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

The coming year will also test how seriously both the UK and the EU are responding to the overwhelming evidence of nature’s poor condition, not least from the assessments by the IPBES and the United Nations, and how so many of the drivers of decline are rooted in government policy. 

In the UK that starts with having a strong new Environment Act. For the EU it means a bold new Biodiversity Strategy. For both it requires playing a leading role in the 2020 renegotiations of the global pact to bring nature back.  

The prospect of the UK and EU presiding over another lost decade of delay and destruction in the face of overwhelming evidence of nature’s decline is not an option.