The UK’s environmental targets are a missed opportunity to protect Britain’s rainforests, cold water coral reefs, chalk streams and peat bogs, environmentalists have said, amid accusations of hypocrisy over the government’s position at Cop15.
On Friday, the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, announced the government’s legally binding targets at the UN summit in Montreal, where the world is negotiating this decade’s agreement to protect biodiversity on Earth, with talks expected to conclude on Monday.
The Environment Act targets include plans to restore more than half a million hectares of wildlife-rich habitat outside protected areas by 2042, improve the quality of the UK’s marine protected areas, reduce pollution and nitrogen runoff in the river system, and expand tree cover in England to 16.5%.
With France and Costa Rica, the UK is co-leading a coalition of more than 100 countries who are supporting a target to protect 30% of land and sea on the planet by the end of the decade, known as “30×30”.
But the protected area target was not included in the UK government’s plans, despite support for 30×30 internationally.
“The UK is home to globally rare habitats that are under no designation at all. You can find fragments of Celtic temperate rainforest under no protection at all. Another example would be lowland-raised peat bogs, which are globally rare. Chalk streams and cold water coral reefs, too,” said Craig Bennett, CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, from the conference in Montreal.
“It’s astonishing to see the UK government voice so much support for 30×30 at Cop15 when there’s not a 30% target in our own environmental goals for protected areas.”
On Friday, the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, voiced support for the 30% target in a pre-recorded message, saying “we can’t solve climate change without protecting our natural world”.
A government insider said there should be an urgent review of the environmental targets after Cop15 to make sure they are compliant with the outcome of the nature summit.
Guy Shrubsole, environmental campaigner and author of The Lost Rainforests of Britain, said the government had missed an opportunity to make the country wilder, and urged it to follow the example of the incoming Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on rainforests.
“It’s the height of hypocrisy for the UK government to be calling on the world to commit to 30×30 and be falling so woefully behind on this at home,” he said. “Currently, just 3% of England is properly protected for nature. The government’s new Environment Act targets will only add another 4% in new habitats by 2042 and ministers ducked a chance this week to make our national parks wilder. Meanwhile we have President-elect Lula pledging to end deforestation of the Amazon rainforest – the least Britain should do is start to bring back our own temperate rainforests.”
Cop15 negotiations enter their final weekend in Canada, with more than 100 ministers working on the final agreement, known as the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Talks are finely poised, with many developing countries demanding more money to expand protected areas as part of the final deal.
A source close to the government said that if the 30% target is agreed at Cop15, the UK should review its own policies in the new year to make sure they align with international promises.
“To ensure that we are doing the job domestically on 30×30, we should go home and have an immediate, clear-headed review in the new year about whether the ambition we are calling for in the rest of the world matches up at home,” they said.
A Defra spokesperson said: “No country will have a legally binding 30×30 target as a result of the global biodiversity framework. But all G7 nations, including the UK, are committed to 30×30 and expect to be held to account for delivering it.”
The government has previously said its 2030 species abundance target will help drive wider environmental improvements and incentivise actions to improve habitats within the UK’s protected sites and in the wider countryside.