This blog post is provided by Associate Editor, Peter Bridgewater, from the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University.

In late September 2021 the UK country nature conservation agencies (with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee) released a report entitled Nature Positive by 2030.  The report posited nine actions that, if implemented, the agencies suggest will result in the UK being nature positive by 2030, and in the process helping with the climate “emergency”. Use of the term emergency, however, has been recently identified as being potentially counterproductive, and is perhaps best avoided.

The nine actions are all well-rehearsed in the UK and elsewhere, and disappointingly there is little new to become excited about.  Except perhaps a comment at the end: “the nature ‘conservation’ that we are pursuing is not about going back to a nostalgic point in the past.” (italics mine). This should be not an endnote but the focus of the report. 

There are two main pachyderms in the room of this report: geography & governance.  On geography, while acknowledging it is a report for the UK, the biogeographical context should be that of the British Isles.  There is no mention of  the rest of the lands and seas to the south and northwest of Northern Ireland, or the Isle of Man, which are part of the functional biogeographic region of the UK.  Critically, there is no mention of what is happening in adjacent Europe.  While we have Brexited, we have not drifted off into ecological or biogeographic space!  As independent agencies one would have hoped for better acknowledgment of the UKs place in Europe. This is important also from a political viewpoint as we cannot hope to drive the requisite transformational change if we assume there is a vacuum to our east and west.  As one example, the discussion of fisheries ignores the boundaries we have in our seas with adjacent coastal states, and “ a new world class fisheries Act” will not be effective if it does not engage effectively with neighbouring countries.

Governance – how all the nine points will be implemented – is the second issue.  Governance of the “commons” is different in each of the home nations.  Natural Resources Wales deals with forestry, land management, conservation, environmental protection, and heritageholistically.  As these activities all reinforce each other it makes sense.  The  Northern Ireland Environment Agency deals with most of these matters, save for Forestry,  the province of the NI Forestry Service 

Things become more complicated in Scotland where Nature Scot, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Forestry and Land Scotland, and Heritage Environment Scotland are the statutory bodies covering the issues. And in England, the separate briefs for nature conservation, forestry, heritage, marine management and environmental protection (including aspects of biodiversity), with the attendant turf wars, make for poor delivery of all these matters.  The JNCC has the remit to coordinate nature conservation evidence to stimulate action in the UK mainland, the overseas territories and crown dependencies.  This report would be more significant if it had included the EA, Forestry Commission(s) and SEPA as contributing agencies. The memory of the Forestry Commission draining a peat bog in Cumbria to allow tree planting (inter alia to help carbon sequestration) is still warm. 

Unsurprisingly, the report makes much of protected areas – notably the 30*30 proposal being touted for in discussions for the Global Biodiversity Framework for the CBD.  The G7 elders have signed up to it, and the UK government is committed to it – but what does it mean? According to the report the UK already has 30% of seas protected but admits beyond designating areas we need to “protect and better manage what we have”.  Another area developed is connectivity –  green and blue infrastructure – but this was being discussed and formulated in the days of the Nature Conservancy Council in the late 1980s.  Several publications are from that era that show clearly how wildlife connections into and through urban areas can really help conservation in the wider landscape.  Revisiting good ideas already published by the agencies’ progenitor would seem better than creating new “paradigms”. 

Lest I be accused of being negative here are my eight (a luckier number) actions to get to nature positive, en route to climate resilience.

Nature conservation must:

  1. be a matter of societal choice and decentralised to the lowest appropriate level;
  2. fully embrace the age, gender, and ethnic diversity across the UK;
  3. be contextualised within a green economy;
  4. prioritise maintenance of ecosystem structure and function;
  5. focus on landscapes/ecosystems and not be distracted by concerns around species;
  6. be at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales;
  7. accept that change is inevitable and embrace ecological novelty;
  8. be underpinned by evidence and data, such as provided by e.g. the National Biodiversity Network.

These eight actions, recognising that people are part of nature, and set in the geographical context of islands off the mid-western coast of Europe, with reformed governance and better financing, will get us nature positive by 2030.  Using a mechanism already in existence – the relatively poorly known British Irish Council – as a focus for better development and implementation of conservation policy across our islands would really make a difference.  Nature positive by 2030 is certainly a desiderata, but I am afraid there is a long and winding road ahead, with COP26 as the first lay-by.