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Failure to protect wildlife, cut pollution and increase funding have left nature in ‘deep crisis’

A grey seal pup in grass at Donna Nook nature reserve in Grimsby.




A grey seal pup in grass at Donna Nook nature reserve in Grimsby.
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The UK will miss almost all the 2020 nature targets it signed up to a decade ago, according to a report by the government’s official advisers.

The nation is failing to protect threatened species, end the degradation of land, reduce agricultural pollution and increase funding for green schemes, the assessment concludes. It also says the UK is not ending unsustainable fishing, stopping the arrival of invasive alien species nor raising public awareness of the importance of biodiversity.

The targets were set in 2010 by the global Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the new report from experts on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee found insufficient progress was being made on 14 of the 19 targets.

Critics of the government said the report showed wildlife and natural habitats were in “deep crisis”. The UK is “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, according to a separate 2016 report, with continuing declines in species such as skylarks, hedgehogs, many insects including butterflies and corn marigolds.

“The JNCC report says nature in the UK is pretty bad, declining and not recovering, and that is in the context of an awful lot of rhetoric [from ministers] about being a world leader on the environment,” said Kate Jennings, the head of site conservation policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

“We are going to fail to meet the vast majority of our international commitments,” she said. “Some of the things presented as positive are where places are getting worse more slowly – if that’s the best achievement we’ve got, it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs.”

The environment minister Thérèse Coffey said: “Nature matters. Our species and ecosystems are valued in their own right, but they also contribute to our wellbeing and economic prosperity. We acknowledge that in many areas there are ongoing declines in nature, but there are real points of progress on which we can build. Our 25 Year Environment Plan is a step-change in ambition.”

A key CBD target is to improve the conservation status of threatened species but the report says “there have been widespread and significant ongoing declines across many species”, such as farmland birds and pollinating insects.

Another of the 2020 targets is to cut the rate of loss and degradation of natural habitats to “close to zero”. While the report says some places have improved, there have been “ongoing losses of natural and semi-natural habitat, for example through neglect or development”.

The target to cut fertiliser and other pollution to levels that do not harm biodiversity is being missed, the report says, with little reduction in sensitive habitats since 2010 and with 65% of inland and coastal waters remaining below target levels.

Only about half of fish stocks are sustainably caught, the report says, meaning the target to end overfishing will be missed. The goal to prevent new invasive species entering the UK and harming wildlife, as the grey squirrel has, is also being missed. Despite strong action, the report says, the number of invasive species has increased in fresh and marine waters.

The CBD targets also require that funding to support biodiversity should “increase substantially” but the report found a fall in government spend on biodiversity. Another goal is to eliminate subsidies that harm nature and increase those that boost it. But the report says: “The UK recognises some ongoing declines of woodland, farmland and marine biodiversity and some recent reductions in areas under agri-environment schemes.”

The CBD targets also require the UK government to make the public aware of the value of biodiversity but the JNCC found “more than half of the UK public report no awareness of the threats to biodiversity … and there has been no significant increase since 2009”.

“This report proves that behind the smoke and mirrors of [the environment secretary] Michael Gove’s press releases, photo opportunities and endless consultations, our natural world is in deep crisis,” said Sue Hayman, the shadow environment secretary. “This government doesn’t put its money where its mouth is when it comes to biodiversity.”

The five targets the JNCC says are being met include implementing a national biodiversity action plan, improving scientific knowledge and integrating biodiversity values into planning processes. “The process box – not outcomes – is much easier to tick,” said Jennings.

The JNCC also says the UK has exceeded the target of effectively conserving 17% of land and 10% of marine areas, with 28% of land and 24% of the sea now protected. But Jennings said the land total includes national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, which are not managed for biodiversity.

In England, she said, only 8.5% of land was protected for wildlife, and only 40% of that was in good condition. “I’m not sure how anything not in favourable condition can be said to be effectively managed.”

The CBD targets are not legally binding. “Embarrassment is the only enforcement mechanism,” Jennings said.

Martin Harper, also of the RSPB, said: “After decades of fudged targets and false promises on the environment, it’s crucial that we secure binding targets in new national legislation, and a robust watchdog.”

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