The Global Biodiversity Framework and the UK
Reported by Patrick McAlary, CSaP Policy Assistant
In June 2023, Craig Bennett, CEO at The Wildlife Trusts and a former CSaP Policy Fellow, met with the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum to discuss the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed at the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) and what this means for the UK.
Setting the target: COP15 and the 30x30 biodiversity target
It has become fashionable to knock internationalism and UN agreements for not moving fast enough. However, it was pointed out that the international COPs (Conference of the Parties) to UN conventions can only ever move as ambitiously as the global consensus allows; they are, by definition, “lowest common denominator” agreements.
That’s not to knock them; there is a value in ratcheting up the ‘bottom bar’ of what is expected by the international community. And the very fact that they are lowest common denominator, means it is always noteworthy when progress is made. Furthermore, the targets and timescales set out in such agreements surely represent the absolute minimum level of ambition that could and should be achieved by richer countries, like the UK? Ideally, wealthy nations should try hard to exceed the ambition set out in international environmental agreements.
The success of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) was the creation of an identifiable target to set alongside a 1.5°C limit to global warming: 30x30, a commitment that 30% of land, inland waters and sea be in recovery for nature by 2030. This is a useful metric and provides an important basis for action if we are to bend the curve on the loss of nature; but it should not restrict the potential for future action towards a more ambitious 50x50 benchmark.
The UK has a mountain to climb if it is to deliver on its commitments. When the then Prime Minister committed to 30x30 in 2020, it was noted that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty comprised 26% of land in England, which implied the UK was already close to protecting 30% of its land by 2030. Unfortunately, large parts of these areas are often not in a fit state to support nature recovery at scale. It is currently estimated by Wildlife and Countryside Link that, in England, only 3.2% of land and 8% of sea is well protected and managed for nature. The 30x30 benchmark is a useful tool for holding the government to account, but it will require a groundswell of movement amongst academics, policymakers, businesses, and politicians if it is to be successful.
Meeting the target
One way that the UK could move forward on 30x30 would be to implement the findings of the Landscapes Review led by Julian Glover in September 2019, which recommended that nature recovery be hardwired into the legal purpose of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. This does not demand a cessation of economic activity within these areas—they contain towns and cities—but acknowledges them as a critical vehicle for ecological recovery, as well as areas of aesthetic and cultural significance. There is also the need for a new legal designation, perhaps called “Wildbelt”, for land that is currently degraded but could and should be managed for nature’s recovery – especially around our towns and cities. It was suggested that, in the marine environment, we need to establish many more Highly Protected Marine Areas to reach a 30% target for recovery.
The seminar also covered ‘Other Effective Conservation Measures’ (OECMs), which relate to areas outside of those that are protected. OECMs, such as the establishment of a 30-meter buffer between agriculture and water-ways, can help reduce nutrient pollution caused by the run-off of artificial fertilisers into rivers and can build better connectivity between habitats. If farmers are to implement strategies aimed at supporting biodiversity, they need policy and public support. For instance, if a farmer leaves a field margin, there needs to be financial compensation to off-set losses, and members of the public need to acknowledge that these spaces must be respected and cannot simply use them as pathways for dog walking.
In the uplands, where farming is less intensive, a rewilding agenda has the potential to provide greater economic opportunities for the communities that live there, while management of urban environments for nature, such as at Trumpington Meadows, which saw the development of a nature reserve alongside a building development, provides an improved space for residents and wildlife alike.
A lack of join-up
Participants discussed the challenge of breaking down silos within stakeholder groups (including government and academia) to address the multidisciplinary challenge. For example, despite the fact that the climate and ecological crises are intrinsically linked, experts are prone to sequester themselves within their own academic fields and sub-fields: there is a lot of work to do to promote join-up between the climate and nature agendas.
Language and framing
Participants discussed how can we frame a compelling narrative about a just transition. Following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, there were calls to slow down the agricultural transition to ensure food security: the question was framed by some commentators as one of “nature” versus “food”, which is extraordinary given the reality that ultimately we are 100% reliant on nature for our food. It was suggested that it has been 5-6 decades of the intensive, industrialised agriculture model that has left farmers in a precarious state and is eroding the ability of our land to produce food. If ever there was a time for truly regenerative agriculture, to restore the ability of our land to produce food in the longer term, it is now.
Discussants queried the usefulness of terms that are common parlance such as ‘farmer’ and ‘agriculture’. Instead if we could think about more inclusive rhetoric such as ‘land use’ and ‘land holders’; this includes a much wider group of people beyond farmers who tend to take the brunt of the criticism. The term ‘conservation’, as used in a UK context, was decried: given that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and it is not enough to ‘conserve’ what we have, we must improve the UK’s nature offering. This is why terms such as the ‘wild belt’ are useful: they clearly convey the purpose to restore the landscape to nature. However, discussants also pointed out that narratives and framing will only bring us so far and that progress on 30x30 will be driven by elected politicians.