The government is risking “major embarrassment on the world stage” at the UN’s forthcoming biodiversity summit when it kicks off in Montreal, Canada, next week, campaigners have warned.
The summit, the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (Cop15) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, comes as the world grapples with a “biological annihilation” of species around the world, amounting to a sixth mass extinction event, scientists have warned.
Despite being one of the world’s most ecologically bereft countries, the UK government is risking scrapping “over a thousand” laws that protect the environment, including those which protect wild places and wildlife, and ensure minimum standards for water quality and pollution.
It is doing this as part of the Retained EU Law Bill, a piece of legislation planned to be in place by the end of the year and which will allow the repeal and possible replacement of laws the UK was subject to while in the European Union.
Campaigners have warned the rapid stripping out of EU law could potentially undo decades of progress and render the government’s own environmental commitments useless.
According to environmental law charity Client Earth, the bill means the UK “could fall into legal chaos and its climate and biodiversity targets could be blunted”.
Laws under threat include those providing the legal footing for regulations that protect species and habitats, limits on air pollution, drinking water and water quality in rivers.
Along with other failures to reach legislative targets designed to protect the natural world, the UK is not on track to meet its own conservation goals, the Wildlife Trusts has warned.
The organisation has cited an Office for Environmental Protection analysis warning that the government has “a pattern of missing legislative deadlines”, making the problem worse.
Missed or delayed policies include the 30×30 target trumpeted by Boris Johnson, to protect 30 per cent of land and sea by 2030. Currently this stands at just 3.2 per cent with no clear plan of how to reach 30 per cent in the next seven years.
Meanwhile, new Highly Protected Marine Area designations are yet to be announced, there is confusion over environment protection payments to farmers designed to replace EU farming subsidies, a ban on horticultural peat use is yet to come into force, and the designation of beavers as recognised native wild animals means they are yet to be officially allowed to roam wild.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said the government’s record was strong on making headline-grabbing environmental announcements, but then weak at implementing them.
He said: “When it does follow-through the policies are so dramatically watered-down that they bear little resemblance to the ambition of the original promise.
“The UK government is setting a dismal example to the rest of the world,” he said.
“It’s putting nature into reverse gear at a time when it should be setting a world-leading example at Cop15. It must take urgent action at home to restore nature otherwise we cannot expect other countries to heed calls for ambitious global policies which help us address the climate crisis.
“If the UK wants to be a world leader on climate and nature it must scrap the appalling Retained EU Law Bill which threatens to remove or weaken the laws that protect wild places and species. It must also reward farmers for restoring the environment, not polluting it, and it must get stuck into its long-overdue to-do list as soon as possible. If not, we’re ill-equipped to deal with the crisis on our own doorsteps let alone advise the rest of the world.”
The UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries with, on average, just half its biodiversity left – far below the global average of 75 per cent.
According to previous research by scientists at institutions including the Natural History Museum in London, the UK has “led the world” in destroying the natural environment, with centuries of agricultural expansion, massive road- and rail-building programmes, overfishing, the enormous impacts of the industrial revolution, and destruction of forests and other wildernesses, all taking a heavy toll on the once abundant wildlife on our island.
Across Europe only Ireland and Malta have worse records.
Since the early 1970s, there has been a 70 per cent crash in global populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.
Around 1 million animal and plant species of a total of 8 million species, are now believed to be threatened with extinction.