Ministers ‘ignored’ own adviser over weak targets for restoring English nature

The UK government ignored scientific warnings from Natural England that its nature restoration target was inadequate and would not meet its commitments, new documents show, undermining efforts to protect threatened species.

Patrick Greenfield 

In December the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, unveiled targets at the biodiversity Cop15 in Canada to reverse the decline of nature in England. They included plans to improve the quality of marine protected areas, reduce pollution and nitrogen runoff in the river system, and restore more than half a million hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside protected areas by 2042.

But documents obtained by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism unit, show that the government’s own adviser Natural England said ministers needed to agree a target of restoring 1.5m hectares of habitat outside existing protected sites, three times greater than the final target, if they wanted to meet a commitment to protect 30% of land and sea. They went on to suggest a minimum target of 750,000 hectares.

UK negotiators played a leading role in pushing for a global target to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030, known as 30×30, but conservationists say that documents, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, show the government ignored scientific advice on how to achieve it domestically while advocating for it elsewhere.

At Cop15, the UK was accused of hypocrisy for not making the 30% target legally binding while pushing for it in the final text, which conservationists said was a missed opportunity to protect and restore Britain’s rainforests, cold water coral reefs, chalk streams and peat bogs.

“We all found absolutely extraordinary last year when the government didn’t put forward a target for protected areas. It was completely bizarre that the UK government went to Montreal enthusiastic about 30×30 but not having a target at home. Now it’s absolutely clear from this document that in doing so, they were also ignoring or dismissing their own scientific advisers,” said Craig Bennett, the CEO of the Wildlife Trusts.

“The government’s out of touch with the public. Britain is a country of nature lovers. We get inspired on a Sunday night by watching that latest David Attenborough series. And yet, we see the government not doing anything like enough [on nature],” he said.

The shadow environment secretary, Jim McMahon, said the Environment Act targets were insufficient and said if elected, his party would have an ambitious plan to restore nature in the UK.

“The fact that the government ignored its own statutory adviser when producing its insufficient and delayed Environment Act targets tells you all you need to know about the Tories’ attitude to our environment. The environment secretary’s targets inflict more toxic air and sewage dumping for longer on the country. It’s clear that the Tory party has given up on governing.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We have full confidence in our Environment Act targets, which were established through intensive consultation with businesses, land managers, environmental organisations, including Natural England.

“The final suite of targets – including our commitment to restore or create more than 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats by 2042 – are stretching and will require a shared endeavour to be delivered. Through the Environment Act we have ensured a robust legal framework to hold current and future governments to account on these targets, protecting nature for generations to come.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.