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Green groups urge next PM to stick to environmental targets

Swanscombe Peninsula in Kent, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its grassland, scrub, wetlands, grazing marsh and saltmarsh habitat which is home to an array of wildlife (Daniel Greenwood/PA)
Swanscombe Peninsula in Kent, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its grassland, scrub, wetlands, grazing marsh and saltmarsh habitat which is home to an array of wildlife (Daniel Greenwood/PA)

Environmental groups have urged the next prime minister to stick to existing climate targets in light of a new report setting out the dire decline in biodiversity in the UK in recent decades.

On Tuesday, the Environment Agency (EA) published a report detailing the huge amount of work that needs to be done to restore nature and ensure a liveable future for humanity.

Industrialisation has led to the loss of 99.7% of Britain’s fen wetlands, 97% of wild grasslands, 70% of ancient woodland, and the destruction or degradation of 85% of saltmarshes.

In its report, Working With Nature, the EA explains the link between the disappearance of these habitats and the clean water, flood protection and carbon sequestration humans need to survive.

The EA calls for “landscape scale” interventions to reach the UK’s net zero goals and create a society that is resilient to climate change, including 30,000 extra hectares a year for tree planting.

It states the amount of land used for grazing animals needs to drop by 26% to 36%, with up to one-fifth of existing agricultural land given over to projects to reduce emissions and sequester carbon.

Boris Johnson’s Government introduced an ambitious target to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, and strategies such as the Tree Action Plan, which aims to treble tree planting by 2024.

In September 2020, it pledged to protect 30% of the UK’s land by 2030, meaning an extra 400,000 hectares should be helping support the recovery of nature.

But environmentalists fear existing targets could be diluted or dropped by his successor, with the pool of candidates largely silent on the climate crisis, or threatening to roll back current plans.

Shaun Spiers, executive director of environmental policy thinktank Green Alliance, said: “As people are sweltering in extreme summer heat and worry about the coming winter of unaffordable energy bills, tackling the climate and nature crisis should be central to this leadership race.

“Instead, no candidate has put the environment at the forefront of their campaign, and several seem intent on turning the clock back. This is deeply depressing.”

He continued: “Recent Conservative governments have been proud to demonstrate that environmental progress strengthens the economy and improves our quality of life.

“Rather than lazily dissing green initiatives, let’s hear how the candidates propose to meet the climate targets we’re lagging behind, reverse the catastrophic decline in nature and tackle the fossil-fuelled hikes in the cost of living.

“We don’t have time for posturing. We need a plan.”

Mass tree planting
The Tree Action Plan aims to treble tree planting by 2024 (John Malley/National Trust)

Rosie Hails, nature and science director at the National Trust, said: “Today’s report is another urgent reminder of the crisis facing our natural world.”

Ms Hails urged the Government to recommit to schemes designed to support farmers into transitioning to nature-friendly farming methods.

She added: “It is vital the new Prime Minister, once elected, retains focus on delivering the 2019 manifesto commitment to restore our natural environment.

“We need to create bigger, better wildlife habitats and rapidly roll out nature-based solutions to tackle climate change and provide more access to nature for all our sakes.”

Sir James Bevan speech
Sir James Bevan quoted the seminal environmental text Silent Spring when he launched the Working with Nature report (PA)

The report was launched by Sir James Bevan, the EA’s chief executive, at an event hosted by Green Alliance in London on Tuesday.

Sir James quoted Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which catalogued the destruction of whole ecosystems in the US through indiscriminate spraying of synthetic pesticides.

The work is widely credited with sparking the modern-day environmental movement.

Jo Lewis, director of policy for the Soil Association, said: “This is a dire warning from the head of the UK Environment Agency setting out why it is critical that we act now to reverse the devastating decline of nature and restore biodiversity – or face the consequences for humanity.

“Sir Bevan’s reference to Rachel Carson’s hugely acclaimed book ‘Silent Spring’ is particularly poignant when today we are facing a ‘silent summer’ on environmental issues from the contenders for the Tory Party leadership.

“Surely, with the environment so high on the priority list for the wider electorate, we should be hearing what the candidates have to say about nature and climate change, and how we can support the many farmers who want to produce plentiful healthy food in a nature-friendly way.”