Patrick Hall is a Researcher at Bright Blue and author of ‘Global green giant? A policy story.’
It seems that as of late, climate change has been the topic of concern on everyone’s minds. And rightly so, too. Never before have we faced an environmental challenge of such magnitude.
However, what is linked to climate change and of equal importance is the decline in global biodiversity. Yet very few politicians and policymakers appear to be focusing on it.
Biodiversity refers to the number, variety, and variability of all living things. It has been gradually declining worldwide since at least 1970. A recent report reviewed fifteen thousand scientific and government sources of information, the largest ever of its kind. What it showed was that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.
There are many drivers of reduced biodiversity: changes in land and sea use, over fishing and hunting, pollution, invasive alien species, and yes, climate change.
The UK is a world leader in climate change mitigation, most recently shown through the UK being the first major economy to adopt a legal net zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050. But, there is a need and an opportunity to do the same for biodiversity – to become a ‘global green giant’ on conservation.
2020 is set to be a big year for biodiversity. First, in October, China is to play host to the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity – a multilateral, legally-binding treaty that focuses on the conservation of biodiversity. It is hoped and anticipated that a post-2020 global biodiversity framework will be established, which will set the international conservation agenda for the next decade.
Second, in November the UK, along with Italy, is playing host to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties 26 (COP26).
Through both, Britain has a chance to develop its partnership with China, approaching biodiversity and climate change from an aligned perspective. Furthermore, the UK is presented with a unique opportunity to become both an international climate and biodiversity leader in 2020 and beyond.
At COP26, for example, the Government could announce a new Special Envoy for Climate Change and Biodiversity, which would be filled by the President of COP26. The Special Envoy should then seek to develop partnership and alignment with China on climate change and biodiversity.
At the same time, the UK could unveil at COP26 a new ‘Global Nature Conservation Fund’ of at least £1 billion per year from the existing, and future growth in, the UK Official Development Assistance budget. Here, Britain should also pledge to be the biggest funder of global conservation efforts through our aid spending, in proportional terms, by a set date.
Protecting our oceans and seas, both around our shores but also around our Overseas Territories, is of fundamental importance. They are important carbon sinks, and it is estimated that roughly a quarter of species on earth live in the oceans. Human activities, particularly over fishing, has reduced the abundance of target species and genetic diversity.
The UK supports the impressive Blue Belt programme, expanding the number of Marine Protected Areas. But those areas need stronger safeguards. Banning bottom trawling in the Marine Protected Areas established, and increasing the minimum criteria for their management, are two pragmatic measures that would better conserve our marine environments.
The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) poses a serious threat to charismatic species worldwide. As the world’s fourth most profitable criminal enterprise, the IWT is focused on mammals, reptiles, corals, birds, bony fish and others, increasing the risk of extinction of these taxa. Whilst Britain has a strong record on curbing the IWT, more can – and needs to – be done.
For example, the Government should freeze UK-based assets of foreign citizens implicated in supporting the IWT, and ensure that large firms are obliged to monitor and prevent financial flows that could reasonably be related to the IWT. As Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth for a few remaining months, the UK could also seek to establish a Commonwealth IWT information-sharing system similar to the EU-TWIX scheme. This could be particularly effective, as countries such as South Africa, India, Mozambique, and Kenya are Commonwealth members frequently implicated in the IWT.
But we don’t just need to look to halt biodiversity decline overseas, we need to do better at home too.
This could include, where appropriate, an urban nature corridor in every UK city, boosting R&D funding for sustainable agriculture, and getting every secondary school involved in the Government’s ambitious new tree planting campaign.
Plastic waste is a high-profile scourge on our environment. Its toxicity has a negative impact on our soils when it is improperly discarded. The UK should ban non-recyclable black plastic, which is just largely used by wholesalers and retailers for cosmetic reasons when displaying their products. Littering is another unacceptable practice. Elsewhere, in places such as Calgary and Singapore, littering attracts far stronger penalties than England’s £50-80 fixed penalty notice. A minimum fixed penalty notice of £500 for littering should be introduced.
This year, the Government needs to show, through both domestic and foreign policies, that Britain really is a global green giant.