This post is by Tony Juniper CBE, chair of Natural England and Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency.
As we start the New Year, it’s clear that 2020 is our last chance to bring the world together to take decisive action on climate change, to protect our communities and reverse the alarming loss of wildlife we have witnessed in recent years.
When world leaders gather at global events this year, including the UN General Assembly in September, the global biodiversity summit in China in October and the climate summit in Glasgow next November, bold leadership from our own country and others will be needed, if we are to turn the tide over the next decade and beyond.
Not just future threats, the consequences are here now
As chairs of two of the largest environmental bodies in the country, the Environment Agency and Natural England, we are constantly reminded that the twin emergencies of climate change and degradation of the natural environment are not only future threats of unprecedented scale but that they are already causing dire consequences.
In October, the alarming new report on the State of Nature in the UK revealed that 41 per cent of the country’s wildlife species have declined over the past 50 years. Thirteen per cent of the species tracked are threatened with extinction in England. A month later, during the election campaign, the country experienced its worst flooding since 2015 as hundreds of people in Fishlake were evacuated. As the recovery effort continues, some of them have still not been able to return home.
Global efforts are faltering
At the same time as these devastating impacts are being felt, efforts to respond on the global stage are faltering. Earlier this month the United Nation’s climate talks in Madrid failed to reach the agreement needed to avoid dangerous warming of our planet, signalling once more the urgent need for effective leadership.
Global accords are complex beasts, but often are moved forward because of the initiative of just a few countries. When the Paris climate change agreement was signed in 2015 the UK’s domestic leadership was influential, with our 2008 Climate Change Act signalling how ambitious national climate policy could be compatible with economic development. It was an important practical reminder of the power of walking the talk.
Now is the time to set the best example we can. On the morning of the election result we were encouraged to hear the prime minister say that he wanted to make this country “the cleanest, greenest on earth with the most far-reaching environmental programme.”
The challenges are all connected
The first step is recognising that the environmental challenges we face are fundamentally connected to one another. Climate change is causing damage to ecosystems, such as the droughts which are wrecking chalk rivers and wetlands, while the degradation of the natural environment, such as deforestation and drainage of peatlands, is leading to the emissions that cause climate change.
Last September, the Global Commission on Adaptation estimated that investing $1.9 trillion in adaptation globally over the next decade could deliver $7 trillion in total net benefits.
If we are to adapt to what are now inevitable climatic shifts, including the effects of extreme weather, then restoring the natural environment must be at the heart of our response.
Time to raise the tempo
Fortunately, during 2020 we will have every opportunity to raise the tempo of action here in the UK. It is expected that a new Environment Bill will soon be presented to parliament containing, among other things, provisions for an ambitious national Nature Recovery Network.
We have plans for large scale woodland regeneration which will catch carbon, improve wildlife habitat, clean up rivers and reduce flood risk. The commitment to a new £640 million ‘Nature for Climate Fund’ in the government’s election manifesto is one mechanism that might help to place such an integrated national response within our grasp.
Many inspiring examples of nature recovery are already underway. The Back from the Brink partnership is helping to prevent the loss of dozens of species from our islands. The Great Fen project in Cambridgeshire or the Moors for the Future Partnership programme in the Pennines will help us to adapt to climate change, catch and store carbon and reverse wildlife decline. These projects also provide recreation opportunities, helping people to connect with nature and improve their health and well-being.
These positive steps will help us make progress toward our 2050 net zero climate change policy. But our new ambition is only as good as its delivery.
That is why, in addition to laws, policies and initiatives, it will be vital to make substantial financial investments into environmental recovery. This includes adequately resourced public bodies with the capability to undertake complex and sometimes controversial work on the ground.
Our government has the opportunity to lift plans for clean, green, healthy and resilient communities at home towards action for the whole world. In that programme it will have our full support, for if we walk the talk we might just persuade others to share our vision.