Manifestos of nature – what the parties are saying about biodiversity

Joanna

In this post Dr Joanna Miller Smallwood (ESRC/SENSS Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Sussex Law School) discusses how the Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Green manifestos for the upcoming general election propose to tackle issues around biodiversity through law and policy.

We are living in a period of mass extinction more catastrophic than any other including the mass extinction period of the dinosaurs. Recent global reports show that 1 in 10 animals and plants will be extinct by 2050, and the loss of species is faster than ever. In the UK, the State of the Nature report 2019 finds that terrestrial and freshwater species have declined by 13% since 1970. This loss is not a natural phenomenon, it is human led. Society is waking up to this fundamental issue, with the help of key media personalities such as David Attenborough and rising social movements such as Extinction Rebellion. All party leaders apart from Boris Johnson took part in a recent televised debate on the approaches of their parties to tackle climate change. This televised debate also touched upon biodiversity related issues, which is promising as biodiversity often plays the underdog to debates on climate change, despite that fact that biodiversity loss is of at least equal importance in terms of planetary health. The loss of biodiversity (alongside climate change) should be at the top of any party political manifesto, these environmental issues really do trump Brexit and other societal concerns, for the simple fact that if our planetary ecosystems fail then none of the other issues will matter anyway as we may in fact cause our own extinction.

The good news is that more than ever, party manifestos for the 2019 general election are addressing key environmental issues. Not only are approaches outlined, but laws and policies are being put forward and funding promised for biodiversity in the manifestos themselves:

  • The Conservatives pledge £640 million for a new nature and climate fund;
  • Labour promise to launch a £250 billion green transformation fund;
  • the Liberal Democrats pledge to increase government expenditure to 5% of the total government expenditure within 5 years;
  • and the Greens undertake to reform the tax system to fund a green revolution.

Finally, environmental issues in the UK are receiving more focused political attention. This blogpost critically reviews the different approaches taken by the parties in relation to tree planting, nature conservation, biodiversity in agriculture, and  it highlights some transformational ideas as well as those which are fundamentally flawed.

Trees

Much has been made of party pledges to plant trees:

  • In their manifesto, the Greens promise planting 700 million trees by 2030 (an average of 70 million a year).
  • The Conservatives promise to raise the number of trees planted to 30 million trees a year by 2024 and the creation of a Great Northumberland forest of 75,000 acres by the end of next parliament.
  • Labour commits to an unquantified ‘ambitious programme’ of tree planting and an NHS forest of 1 million trees in their manifesto and Corbyn recently made an announcement committing Labour to plant two billion by 2040 (100 million a year).
  • The Liberal Democrats promise in their manifesto to raise the number of trees planted to 60 million trees a year by 2024.

If planting trees were the answer to biodiversity loss then it would be relatively clear who has the strongest party manifesto with the ranking from top to bottom being Labour, Greens, Liberal Democrats then Conservatives.

However, the focus on tree planting is problematic for two reasons:

  1. Firstly the amount of trees suggested is highly ambitious and currently much lower targets are left unmet, recent figures show tree planting is 71% short of government targets in the UK.
    This raises doubts whether the party commitments to ever increasing numbers of trees is realistic without systematic change to support these ambitious programmes.
  2. Secondly, despite the huge benefits of tree planting both as carbon sinks and for creating forest ecosystems, planting trees alone will not fully address the biodiversity crisis we are experiencing.
    This is largely because forests are only one of many important types of ecosystem and only focusing on planting trees does not address the main drivers of biodiversity loss. According to the State of the Nature 2019 report, in the UK, the main drivers of biodiversity loss are agricultural management, climate change, hydrological change, urbanisation, pollution, woodland management and invasive non-native species. The causes of biodiversity loss are therefore multiple and complex, and they demand more than tree planting alone and any tree planting that does take place has to be carefully thought out.

Nature

The most obvious solution that springs to mind when considering biodiversity loss is its antithesis, nature conservation. How can nature be conserved, restored and enhanced?

Each party have made broad promises in their manifestos in relation to nature conservation. The Greens’ ‘Green New Deal’ pledges to make space for nature, create policies to restore habitats in urban, suburban and countryside environments and uphold access to diverse nature as a human right. Recognising access to a healthy biodiverse environment as a fundamental human right is a ground-breaking but incredibly sensible rights-based approach to secure more protection to biodiversity. It opens numerous avenues to provide much greater legal protection for biodiversity and nature through the provision of potential legal actions for infringements of this right.

The Greens also aim to create a tryptic of environmental legislation: an Ecocide act (providing for crimes against the natural environment), a Clean Air Act (with ambitious binding emissions targets) and a Sustainable Economy Act (with binding targets for soil quality and biodiversity).

It is envisaged that these legal environmental obligations will be monitored and enforced through a new Environmental Protection Commission. Providing such a means of accountability is vital for the success of the laws introduced. Unsurprisingly the Greens have a strong and comprehensive well thought out environmental programme which addresses biodiversity loss. Key to the Green approach is not only the inclusion of a human right to nature and environmental laws but also a means to enforce compliance. In the UK, conservation legislation is often difficult to enforce due to vague provisions and insufficient funding of regulatory bodies to monitor compliance and to bring non-compliance cases to court. Equally important to the creation of clear environmental laws are well funded independent bodies, that can enforce legal provisions and, in this way, bring real meaning to them.

Labour heralds a ‘green industrial revolution’ not only by creating a million green jobs but by restoring nature. Labour promises a Plan for Nature that sets concrete legally binding targets to drive restoration of species and habitats, this is good news.

Furthermore, they promise to fully fund the Environment Agency which is the existing body that regulates environmental issues from flooding to air quality as well as bringing prosecutions. Labour pledge to increase funding to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) agencies by a combined annual total of £70m with a significant amount going to the Environment Agency (EA) and over half to Natural England (NE) to expand their role in monitoring and evaluation of the natural environment. These expanded roles for the EA and NE are key to incentivise businesses and other stakeholders to change behaviours so that the new species and habitat restoration targets can be met.

Labour also pledges to create an environmental tribunal to ensure that administrative decisions are consistent with environmental and nature-recovery obligations, this is a real positive step forward and would hold government departments accountable for their impact on nature. Labour provide a robust approach to nature conservation; their approach moves beyond solely laws and policies outlining binding obligations, but addresses means of monitoring and enforcement and therefore accountability to nature within decision making of the sectors that drive biodiversity loss as well as across government.

The Conservatives promote the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill 2018 (the Environment Bill) which is currently awaiting parliamentary approval depending on the outcome of the election. It has received a mixed response with positive feedback in that it increases ambition in relation to nature recovery, it also adopts a principle based approach where principles such as the precautionary principle will be applied by Ministers of the Crown in making, developing and revising their policies. It is yet not clear exactly how this principle based approach will be applied and work in practice.

The Environment Bill has also been criticised as it does not include definite binding targets or a statutory duty on ministers to create such targets. Without any backbone to the law that places a clear duty on ministers, it could be a token nod to the creation of targets and a principle-based approach and this is very concerning.

The Conservatives propose to set up an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), an independent body to provide scrutiny and advice on environmental law as well as having enforcement functions which is positive and the OEP would promote the new provisions within the Environment Bill. there are concerns the body is too closely linked to DEFRA in terms of funding and accountability which raises some concern about its independence.  Further, if the provisions laid out in the Environment Bill are too vague then enforcement of them will be difficult in practice.

The Liberal Democrats promise a Nature Act to set legally binding near term and long-term targets for improving water, air, soil and biodiversity and guaranteeing an Office of Environmental Protection (OEP). They promise the independence of the OEP and powers and funding to enforce compliance.

They also provide for structural changes within government including establishing a Department for Climate Change and Natural Resources. As well as the appointment of a cabinet-level Chief Secretary for Sustainability in the Treasury – this is a promising suggestion as it begins to promote the ‘mainstreaming’ of environmental issues across government departments which is key to addressing the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss.

The Liberal Democrats’ proposals for nature also provide a dedicated department for natural resources. Whilst a step forward, more important than dealing with ‘nature’ as an isolated issues is the mainstreaming of biodiversity across sectors, which is promoted at the global level by the 1992 Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the main global treaty on biodiversity. It is a fundamental approach that has been agreed by the CBDs 196 Member Stated and is a key approach that must be adopted by countries to avert the biodiversity crisis.

The Liberal Democrats’ proposal requires every government agency to account for its contribution towards meeting climate targets which is good – even better would be an extension of this to biodiversity targets although this is not in the current remit of the manifesto. Ensuring government departments such as agriculture, trade and industry address biodiversity begins to get to the heart of mainstreaming and accounting for their role in biodiversity loss.

The party manifestos all to a greater or lesser degree account for nature conservation within their manifestos. This is really positive and moves nature further up political agendas. However, nature conservation alone is not enough to tackle the biodiversity crisis. Political parties need to look further than solely nature conservation laws to effectively conserve, restore and enhance biodiversity. Biodiversity also needs to be mainstreamed across society and accounted for in policies and practices in relation to those sectors who drive biodiversity loss, the main one in the UK being agriculture. Legally binding targets will go some way to change behaviour, but it is key that nature conservation is also at the heart of decisions made by all sectors and incorporated into the relevant laws and policies. This is the greatest challenge and where efforts are most needed for change.

Agriculture

A recent report highlighted that the main driver of biodiversity loss in the UK is agricultural management. In the last 50 years the UK’s biodiversity has been destroyed through the intensification of agriculture. A recent DEFRA report on the abundance of birds on farms shows a 56% decline in the number of farmland birds nationally since 1970. Considering that 71% of UK land area is agricultural land this statistic is shocking. The way land is farmed in Britain is key for the restoration and enhancement of biodiversity and farming systems are needed that protect biodiversity rather than destroy it.

In their manifesto the Greens pledge to transform food and farming systems to improve human and environmental health by shifting away from intensive towards smaller-scale farming. The Green plan is for a ten-year transition to agro-ecological farming which includes the transfer of subsidies to farming methods and food systems that create jobs and restore ecosystem health. They promise to encourage the expansion and replanting of most hedgerows lost in the last 50 years through new subsidies. They will create laws to give farmers greater security of tenure to encourage investment in improvements to the land and to reduce pesticide and fungicide use by at least 50% by 2022, phase out all non-agricultural uses of pesticides, and immediately ban the most harmful substances.

They also talk of ‘encouraging’ the ‘rewilding’ of spaces through the planning system. They pledge to establish a Food and Agriculture Research Council to research sustainable and health-promoting farming, the reduction of methane emissions and soil quality. Their comprehensive approach tackles multiple practices which drive biodiversity loss and puts in place a system of farming that moves towards smaller scale farms, reduced pesticide use and planting hedgerows and other rewilding activities. This holistic approach to farming is likely to play a very positive role in not only stopping the ongoing decline in biodiversity driven by agricultural practices but transforming practices to restore and enhance biodiversity. The Greens’ revised subsidy system is planned to fund such changes.

Labour states in its Plan for Nature that it will support farmers to adapt and improve agricultural practices to reduce greenhouse gases and to change use of fertilisers and pesticides to benefit environment quality. They also pledge to consult to set appropriate targets for the reduced use of harmful pesticides and fungicides and adopt the precautionary principle in regulations. They will focus on supporting sustainable farming methods with less reliance on chemicals.

Labour pledge to maintain agricultural and rural structural funds but to repurpose them to support environmental land management and sustainable methods of food production. This talks to the elimination of subsidies and incentives which are harmful to biodiversity and promotion of positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The Labour manifesto has many strengths including setting targets on pesticide use, supporting sustainable farming as well as reforming the subsidy system. The manifesto and Plan for Nature, however, provide little detail as to how this will be achieved and do not extend to rewilding activities on farms.

The Conservatives promote a change to the role of farmers to act as stewards of the natural world and pledge to guarantee the annual budget of farmers in return for farming in a way that protects and enhances the natural environment and safeguarding high standards of animal welfare. Their vision is to lead the world in quality food, agriculture and land management – driven by science-led, evidence-based policy. However, no detail is given on how this vision will be achieved and no laws or policies are put forward to implement these changes. There are no commitments made in relation to reduction in pesticide use, rewilding of farms or providing greater security of tenure to farmers.

The Liberal Democrats in their manifesto propose to reduce basic agricultural subsidies to larger recipients and redeploy the savings to support the public goods that come from effective land management, including restoring nature and protecting the countryside. They also pledge to support farmers to protect and restore the natural environment alongside other critical roles such as in producing food. They do not make any commitments to reduction in the use of pesticides. Their commitment to the redirection of subsides and commitment of money to nature restoration are positive. However, lack of any detail of how this will be achieved is concerning.

The political parties all envisage major changes to the way land is farmed in the UK with a focus on the farmer’s role in safeguarding and enhancing biodiversity, which is hugely positive.

However, concrete plans in the form of laws and policies and governance structures which outline how this ambitious level of change will take place are completely absent in the Conservative manifesto and lacking detail in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The Greens provide the clearest plan of how biodiversity will be incorporated into a new agricultural system and promise laws to increase security of land tenure as well as pesticide reduction and bans, they aim to promote rewilding using the planning system and change subsidies to encourage the planting of hedgerows. Labour also have a comprehensive approach with the aim to set targets for pesticide use as well as the use subsides to promote environmental land management and sustainable farming.

Beyond nature conservation and agriculture

Nature conservation and the role of agriculture in protecting and enhancing biodiversity discussed in this blogpost are just two areas in which biodiversity needs to be addressed.

Other areas are also key to a comprehensive approach but cannot be covered here. Such areas include the importance of acknowledging the UK’s role in destruction of biodiversity overseas, either within British Overseas Territories or through trade deals. This is a crucial issue as most of the world’s biodiversity is held in the Global South and support and funding from the Global North are needed to protect vital biodiversity reserves.

Further, the role education can play in transforming societal ideologies are key to shaping a future society that respects biodiversity and the essential role it plays, and this will require great change in the way we all live and how society functions.

Things clearly must change, and political parties are beginning to recognise this. This gives some hope but is very much the tip of the iceberg, only when these commitments turn into concrete change through law and policy and strong systems of governance will the decimation we have caused to biodiversity begin to repair. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have produced comprehensive environmental assessments of the political parties manifestos and place the Greens and Labour as parties with the best score for environmental objectives with Liberal Democrats not far behind. They both agree that the Conservatives are very much at the bottom of the list.