Data released today by WWF and the Zoological Society of London sends a shocking message about the health of our planet: global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 58% since 1970. The Living Planet Report shows that without urgent action to reduce humanity’s impact on species and ecosystems, vertebrate populations are projected to decline by a staggering 67% from 1970 levels by the end of this decade.
Human activity including agriculture, pollution and hunting has eroded populations of African elephants in Tanzania, maned wolves in Brazil, leatherback turtles in the tropical Atlantic, and orcas in European waters. We lose an area of forest equivalent to a football pitch every two seconds, we have overfished our oceans, and through over abstraction and dam building some rivers no longer reach the sea. This is not just a faraway problem: the RSPB’s recent State of Nature report showed that almost 60% of our native species, from kingfishers to hedgehogs to turtle doves, have declined in recent decades.
We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that measures our impact on the world that sustains us. We are entering an era where climate change, floods and health costs from pollution threaten our economic prosperity, resilience, and wellbeing. This is arguably the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced - but great challenges can be the catalyst for great progress. By basing all future policy decisions on the understanding that a healthy natural environment is a crucial underpinning to our economy and society, Ministers could not just help save the global environment, but also markedly improve the lives of millions of people.
Laudably, the Government says it wants this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in an improved condition. So as we prepare to leave the EU, Ministers must jettison any temptation to erode the environmental rules and standards their predecessors worked to shape. Instead, they should build on these achievements.
Post-Brexit, there is no reason why the UK should not lead the world in running a successful, low-carbon economy that respects and nurtures precious wildlife and wild places, at home and abroad. The promised 25-year environment plan, due for publication in draft form later this year, could start this process. It should be explicitly backed by the Prime Minister, boast strong proposals for reform, and apply to every corner of government.
What should this plan contain?
It should set ambitious goals for restoration and improvement of our natural resources - including forest cover, urban green space, air, water and soil quality - and put in place a transparent monitoring system so our natural capital can be managed as prudently as our financial resources.
It should hold all government departments and public bodies accountable for how their policies and actions will affect nature for generations to come. For example, the impact of any new housing, transport or energy infrastructure should be assessed against rigorous environmental standards – including on carbon emissions.
Nature doesn’t recognise borders - and our actions at home can also impact wildlife on the other side of the planet. So the plan should set out provisions to measure and manage the UK’s impact on nature in other countries, so that unsustainable supply chains, for example in food and raw materials such as wood, palm oil and soy, become a thing of the past. Savvy businesses – many of which already take advice from WWF in order to decrease their environmental impact – would have every reason to back sensible regulation that levels the playing field and helps preserve essential resources over the long term.
There are precedents to build on here. The Paris agreement on climate change (which British Ministers played an active role in shaping, and which Theresa May is committed to adopting) has been ratified by over 50 nations. The Government is a signatory to the UN’s sustainable development goals and has a proud record in fighting the illegal wildlife trade, recently backing new restrictions on the international trade in threatened species including pangolins and African grey parrots. December’s conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is a vital forum for the Government to reiterate that it is serious about helping tackle the global loss of species. And a 25-year plan that tackles our international footprint and provides inter-generational accountability would allow the UK to show international leadership.
A lot can change within just one generation. So allow me to imagine what life could be like in only 25 years’ time. Flooding in towns and cities could be reduced with restored wetlands and rivers which, now brimming with wildlife, provide us with beautiful places to spend our free time. Farmers will be paid a decent income to create beautiful, wildlife-rich habitats, using natural methods to improve productivity and contribute to societal benefits such as clean water and reduced flooding. Our seas will be full of life, supporting a restored and sustainable fishing industry. Housing and infrastructure developments will be located where they will do minimal environmental damage, working with nature rather than against it. Children will be healthier both mentally and physically as they play in green space in all our cities, towns and villages, and their future will be more secure as our carbon emissions fall to almost nothing.
And new industries – boosted by a low-carbon Industrial Strategy - will create jobs in an increasingly resource-efficient, circular economy in which materials get reused and recycled, we consume in ways that do not leave a footprint internationally, and the value of nature is incorporated into business plans and government policy.
Sensible stewardship of the natural world is not an alternative to enterprise; on the contrary, it is now a prerequisite for the economic and social health of communities and nations. As a global green industrial revolution gets underway, the Government should not be afraid to use its power to ensure the UK leads rather than lags behind.
Mike Barrett is Director of Science and Policy at WWF-UK
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.