UK government not on course to meet international protected area pledge for biodiversity

Wildflower meadow.
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A new report has found that the UK is “clearly not on course” to protect nearly a third of England’s land and seas by 2030. The House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee published the damning findings on 26 July. They showed that the UK is set to fall short of its pledged international commitments.

Not meeting the 30 by 30 protected area target

In December 2022, the UK government committed to the new “30 by 30” target. Nations agreed this new aim at the COP15 biodiversity conference. It refers to the global goal of placing 30% of land and sea into protected areas. Protected areas are geographical spaces which are managed in order to achieve the long-term conservation of nature.

So far, the UK government has only designated 6.5% of England’s land area as protected sites. With just seven years left to meet the promise of 30%, the report concluded that:

The government faces an extraordinary challenge to halt species decline and recover nature for the public good.

Protected sites in poor condition

Conversely, the report highlighted that the UK government has placed 44% of England’s seas under protection. However, it found that much of the land and ocean territory the government claims to be protected remains in:

a poor condition and in many cases inadequately monitored

Notably, the UK government’s poor monitoring of protected areas made progress towards 30 by 30 “difficult to assess”.

Read on...

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The parliamentary watchdog publication concurs with findings from a separate report released by wildlife nonprofit Wild Justice on 24 July. The Canary’s Tracy Keeling reported on the analysis, which found that the government has failed to assess nearly two-thirds of the UK’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). These are one of the key protected area designations found in the UK. Crucially, the research identified that the majority of the UK’s over 7,000 SSSIs were in poor condition.

The UK government consequently risks failing the framework agreed by scores of countries at COP15. Critically, nations pledged to ensure that sites would be “effectively conserved and managed”. In other words, the parliamentary report noted that protected areas need to ensure quality, and not just quantity, of protection.

Destructive fishing in protected areas

In addition, the committee report highlighted that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were also falling woefully short of conservation goals. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) suggested that just 44% of England’s MPAs were in “favourable condition”. This refers to the healthy status of wildlife and plants that a particular site has been designated to protect. This would mean that the UK government and fisheries authorities are currently protecting just 17.7% of England’s waters effectively.

Conversely, in its written submission to the committee, conservation nonprofit the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) argued that just 8% of England’s waters are effectively protected. The WCL defines this as areas of ocean where there are bylaws – i.e. regulations – to prevent the most destructive forms of fishing. In particular, these protected areas prohibit the seabed-damaging practice of bottom trawling.

A December 2022 report by Greenpeace also criticised the UK government’s inadequate management of MPAs. The campaign group found that over 90% of the UK’s MPA network outlawed destructive fishing activities. Moreover, just two sites were fully protected from all fishing pressures.

As of 5 July, the UK government brought three new fully protected sites into force. These Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) prohibit all forms of fishing and harvesting of marine life. However, ocean protection groups have branded these efforts “feeble” and “piecemeal”.

In addition, Greenpeace has also previously highlighted how the government has failed to prevent enormous supertrawlers from decimating UK MPAs. The organisation revealed that these vessels of over 100m in length had spent nearly 3,000 hours fishing in supposedly protected sites during 2019.

“Diluting or revoking” habitat regulations

The committee report also found that sites covered by EU Habitats Regulations:

are the sites with the highest strength of protection in England.

It recommended that the EU regulations are “retained” and not weakened. The rules were previously threatened by the possible revocation of EU laws retained by Britain post-Brexit. However, the government has not included these in the list of legislation set to be removed later this year.

Despite this, the report warned that the law passed to allow ministers to scrap retained EU legislation should not be used for “diluting or revoking the habitats regulations”.

A spokesperson for DEFRA insisted the government was “on track to deliver on our commitment to protecting 30 percent of land and of sea in the UK for nature’s recovery by 2030”.

During Boris Johnson’s period as prime minister, the UK government had committed to meeting the 30 by 30 target. However, the pledge considered that 26% of England’s land extent was already protected by designations. It therefore estimated that just 400,000 hectares – 4% more land – would need earmarking for protection. As the new report demonstrates, most of these areas are failing to maintain and revive biodiversity.

The government has since recognised that the poor condition of a majority of these sites means that it cannot currently count these towards meeting the target. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the government has a very long way to go to restoring the UK’s badly broken and biodiversity-starved conservation areas.

Additional reporting via Agence France Presse.

Feature image via Rosser1954/Wikimedia, resized and cropped to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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