UK govt fails to hit biodiversity targets

In news that will come as no surprise to anyone paying attention, the UK has failed to meet nearly all of the biodiversity targets set at the 2010 Convention on Biological Biodiversity held in Nagoya, Japan (COP 9, which opened that year by saying that, “In April 2002, the Parties to the Convention committed themselves to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth” – a target which was also missed).

According to an analysis by the RSPB the UK has failed to reach 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets agreed in 2010, saying that the gap between rhetoric and reality has resulted in a “lost decade for nature” (a refrain repeated in the BBC’s ‘Extinction: The Facts’ programme which aired last night against a series of images of current world leaders).

The UK government’s own self-assessment said it failed on two-thirds of targets (14 out of 20) but the RSPB analysis suggests the reality is worse. On six of the 20 targets the UK has actually gone backwards. The government’s assessment published last year said it was not regressing on any target.

Significant failures include insufficient funding for nature conservation, too little land being managed for nature, and declining wildlife populations. “It [the government assessment] is a rose-tinted interpretation,” said Kate Jennings, author of the report and head of site conservation policy at RSPB. “What we have seen is an awful lot of positive rhetoric, what we’re not seeing is the action to back that up. The government creates an impression of taking this stuff seriously but as soon as you dig down into the action that’s just not reflected.” (Imagine, this government – which has been in power for ten years now of course – being accused of spin…is the conservation movement finally baring its teeth?).

An example cited in the report is that in the past decade, funding for UK wildlife and the environment has dropped by 30% – the equivalent of £250m. This means habitats are not being created, protected or monitored sufficiently – something that most of us will recognise immediately. On paper, the UK is protecting 28% of its land and 24% of the sea around our coasts but in practice a lot of protected land, such as national parks and sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), are not being properly managed. In reality as little as 5% of land in the UK is being effectively looked after for nature. We have written many times about this on this website, highlighting especially that many of our ‘national parks’ are largely in private ownership and widely used for grouse shooting). Our seas also have paper protection only: a Greenpeace investigation revealed in 2019 that supertrawlers (freezer trawlers more than 100m in length) spent 2,963 hours fishing in UK Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the equivalent of 123 days.

The government claims to be saving the country’s most threatened species but the 2019 State of Nature report found 41% of UK species are declining and one in 10 is threatened with extinction. “It could not be more clear that what we’re seeing is overall decline,” said Kate Jennings. “We’re fundamentally dependent on nature, so God help the lot of us if we don’t make serious headway in the next decade…Past performance doesn’t inspire confidence.

The RSPB is calling for legally binding targets to protect biodiversity. Beccy Speight, chief executive at the RSPB, said: “We have targets enshrined in law to tackle the climate emergency, but none, yet, to reverse the crisis facing nature. We cannot be in this same position in 2030 with our natural world vanishing due to inaction.”

Notably the RSPB says that all over the world caring for wildlife was still seen “as an optional extra”, despite scientists saying biodiversity loss was as much of a threat to humanity as the climate crisis. As we noted last week, WWF’s 2020 Living Planet report stated that the global Living Planet Index continues to decline, showing an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish between 1970 and 2016.

Call us overly cynical, but we agree entirely with Beccy Speight: it’s difficult for us to imagine that the UK government – the same government that has authorised a massive expansion of the badger cull, appears not to understand the deficiencies in its Hen Harrier Brood Meddling ‘plan’, presses on with habitat destruction for HS2 while businesses move towards staff working from home and online meetings, and is now threatening to break international legal agreements it signed during Brexit negotiations – will be too concerned. Maintaining biodiversity is all too often seen as an impediment to infinite economic growth on a finite planet (not just in the UK of course) and climate change is something we can apparently tech our way out of while the world burns and the glaciers melt.

Ironically the next meeting of the CBD has been delayed nearly a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is linked to the wildlife trade ravaging our planet. It will be interesting to listen to our government insisting at the meeting how well they’re doing ‘protecting’ nature while all the evidence proves otherwise…


  • Header image, Ancient Woodland Loss, copyright Ben Holmes